November 5th, 2009

Step Right Up! Five Amazing Senses On Every Page!

Writers get lots of advice, and I admit it, we spread it on pretty thick here at the Tollbooth.

Most writing tips are good. Some, especially some I learned in elementary school, are awful. Who could honestly believe it's a good idea to banish the word "said" from your writing? But here it is, in an amazingly wrong-headed and all too typical elementary school exercise called "Said Is Dead". The worksheet with 300 ways to replace said is really scary.

I'm sorry Mr. Said Is Dead-
Exclaimed is the Bearded Lady of Writing. Intriguing but unnatural. Weird, actually.
Why? Said is invisible. Attributive phrases aren't the place to make your writing "unique".

So how does any of this relate to pumping up the sensory detail in your writing? Elementary school teachers (I don't mean to pick on you, teachers! I love you! I'm one of you! And you're not all guilty of this, not by a long shot-- but this is where I hear it most often) have another tidbit of writing advice, this time about sensory detail.

UNLUCKY RULE NUMBER 13-  Include references to every sense- touch, smell, taste, sound, and sight on EVERY PAGE. It will make your writing come ALIVE!

Yesterday Newport2Newport asked me if I was going to talk about that rule. As a matter of fact the strive for five rule is one of the reasons I started rethinking sensory detail in the first place. So yes, I am going to talk about it.

Here's what I have to say to anyone who advises you to have every one of the five senses represented on every couple pages-

"Drop the chalk and step back from the board before you hurt someone."

Smells, and tastes, and sounds stuffed into every single page can make your manuscript freakish.

"But," you say, "You've been urging me to use sensory detail all week! Now you tell me that adding sensory detail, just like my fourth grade teacher instructed, will turn my writing into some kind of sideshow oddity?" No. I'm not saying sensory detail is dead. But just like you shouldn't load your prose with a bunch of Hello, she sniffled or I hate you, he hissed you shouldn't pile a ton of sensory detail willy nilly onto every page. 

Get real. Real people do not notice every sound and smell. That would drive a real person crazy. If you're subjecting your reader to all that sensory overload it will drive them crazy, too. They'll shut out the noise by putting down your book.
Does this mean you limit yourself to one or two sensory details a page? No. What I'm trying to say is there are no "rules" here. Just remember what Janet Burroway said- "No amount of concrete detail will move us unless it also implicitly suggests meaning and value." Don't add sensory detail to strike a tally. Be sure what you put on the page has meaning and value and you're nearly home free.

As Kelly and I discussed in the comments to yesterday's post "One Thing Leads To Another." (I won't post The Fixx you tube video here. Find it yourself.) This leads us back to what we talked about earlier in the week. Find your own voice. Find your own balance. Sensory detail is powerful. Whether your writing is lush and uses a lot of it, or spare and leaves much to the reader's imagination is your choice and your style. But don't strive for five, just because that's what someone told you to do. Some pages may turn up references to every one of the five senses. Others may allude to only one. Or none. And both are absolutely fine as long as your work is well balanced and consistent. As long as it sounds like you.
Lets Go Hardcore

Now. Sit down. Grab a madeleine and pour yourself a cup of tea.


Let's switch gears and kick it up a notch. Sensory detail for the impresario. A little hard to decipher at first but easy to apply once you understand.

Up front I confess I'm just barely learning about this myself and I'm not completely sure I can explain it well. But here goes. You can build sensory images, and use them on virtually every page, if you move away from conventional ways of describing the senses. No sniffing the air and picking up the smell of smoke on one page and scent of violets on the next, on and on until your reader aspirates on page 400.

In Dreaming By The Book, Elaine Scarry talks about the sense of touch. Conveying real substance and volume is, according to Scarry, one of the most difficult things in writing. We read a lot about the texture of an object when a character touches it but this is something else. It's giving your characters' surroundings genuine weight.

Scarry uses the example of Proust's writing in Swann's Way. (Bear with me here. I never expected to write about Proust or Swann's Way in a Tollbooth post, but here you have it... and I think it's worth it. So listen up. Nibble a madeleine. Relax.)

Proust uses something called "kinetic occlusion"- basically he describes the play of a (weightless) light from a lantern against a solid wall. This gives the wall real weight and texture. The flickering movement of one against the solid surface of the other creates a visceral sensation of actual substance. It makes the rocks in the wall read as a weighty objects. Heavy. Dense. Not just smooth or rough or cold or mossy. Kinetic occlusion makes the scene three dimensional- literally. If you don't believe me pull out your old copy of Remembrance of Things Past. Save a madeleine for me.

As soon as I read the Swann's Way example I was reminded of one of the most beautiful passages in all literature Something you may be familiar with, too---

        I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.
        I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flames rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight. We stood near the door of the ice-chamber.
        By the well, servants lit bubbles of gas on fire, clad in frockcoats of asbestos.
        Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.
        How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.

M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor To the Nation Vol. 1 The Pox Party (p.3)

Does kinetic occlusion give this scene its substance? I'm not sure. I feel the weight of those boughs, the windy space between the branches. One way or other it's magic.  Word choice and rhythm, meaning and metaphor give it beauty and profound resonance. I may not be entirely clear about how kinetic occlusion works, but I know for a fact that this is sensory detail at its most incredible.

In the end, it's writing like this, not the rules of a well meaning teacher demanding we drop "said" and add loads of smells, or even a blogger who shoves fancy new terms down our throats that has the most to teach us about writing. Read and read and read and you will learn to write.

Thanks Newport2Newport for suggesting I talk about the five senses per page rule. 

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What writing rules do you think were made to be broken?

Uncommon Sense- Author Debby Dahl Edwardson and her process

This week we’ve been talking about sensory detail in the Tollbooth. We’ve looked at language and craft; we’ve rolled lots of ideas around. Today we’re going to the source-  a writer who’s a master of sensory detail, Debby Dahl Edwardson- to learn how she approaches the subject.

Some of you may not be familiar with Debby or her work--- but you will be soon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux will release her stunning new novel Blessing’s Bead next week and writers and critics are already raving.

How about this-

“An outstanding novel.  Every young person and adult should read this page-turning look into the culture of the Iñupiaq Eskimos. It is both a compelling and an enriching tale.” —Jean Craighead George, author of the Newbery Medal Book Julie of the Wolves and the Newbery Honor Book My Side of the Mountain

or this

Blessing’s Bead is beautifully seen, glinting with Arctic light. It is also beautifully heard. Edwardson’s voice is as clear and fresh as a wind off the frozen sea. There are passages that simply take your breath away. —Tim Wynne-Jones, award-winning author of the Rex Zero books

Booklist gave Debby a star and one of the most stellar reviews I’ve ever read-

She “envelops readers in both the stark Arctic settings and the warm communities, past and present. Concrete and symbolic references to the transforming power of language, names, and stories link the two narratives...”

The release isn't until next week but my copy of Blessing's Bead came in to my local bookstore yesterday.  Debby's writing is meant to be savored but how could I resist? I've read it and it's gorgeous. But this weekend I'll take my time and read it again. It will be even better the second time around.

Naturally, I'm extra thrilled Debby could join me here in the Tollbooth to talk about how she works with sensory detail.


TLB- Hi Debby! Blessing’s Bead twines together two stories, both set in Alaska, one in 1989 the other in the early 1900’s.
Did you use sensory detail to give readers a concrete sense of what for many of us is an unfamiliar place?

DDE- Sensory detail is a powerful tool for us to use to add emotional meaning to a story—T. S. Elliot’s objective correlative and all. But it’s also a powerful tool for us as writers to use to get ourselves into a scene; to get into our characters.

Maybe I’m just weird, but I find that for some reason imaging the smell of something can bring me into a scene faster than anything else.

TLB- No, I don’t think that’s weird at all. It’s important. Helen Keller alluded to that in the quote I led off with on Monday. And Eudora Welty speaks vividly about smell’s power to summon memory in One Writer’s Beginnings. I think you’ve hit something important in how sensory detail can be useful to us at the creation stage. The power of smell will pull you as the writer into the dream of the story. Even more interesting, the memory of a smell can be incredibly evocative.

DDE- I usually have to edit a lot of this stuff out later, but it really helps me evoke a sense of being there if I can smell the pungent odor of a spruce tree or the fishy smell of the ocean, or the kid’s hair grease. Okay, that last one is from an historical 60’s era book and totally dates me…

When it comes to deciding which details to leave in an which to leave out, though, I really like that Janet Burroway quote you posted: "No amount of concrete detail will move us unless it also implicitly suggests meaning and value.”

TLB- That Burroway quote is our mantra this week!

DDE- This is a hard call sometimes. In terms of conveying a place that for many may be unfamiliar, I think all writers have to write as though they are seeing something that no one else has ever scene because in a sense that is always true. Even if it’s as familiar as a 7-Eleven the way you, through your character, are seeing it is brand new. If you happen to be writing from an unfamiliar cultural perspective, you are forced to consider this in depth, but my take is that every writer should consider it in depth.

TLB- Perhaps when you're writing from the point of view of a character experiencing a place or thing for the first time you have more leeway with sensory detail. They are, after all, taking it in along with the reader. A little league kid isn't going to go on and on about the smell of his baseball glove but a younger child just learning the game might.


DDE- Of course you are filtering this all through your perceiving character’s point of view, which for me meant that when I needed to convey the fact that it’s fall in the arctic and the ocean is starting to freeze, I had to think about how it might look to my character, who although Inupiaq is new to this very northern village:
"The waves are not pounding at the beach anymore. The waves have gotten too lazy to pound. The ocean is starting to freeze and the waves roll up and down real slow. The ocean is gray and icy, like a giant cup of Slushie somebody’s tilting back and forth. Pretty soon the ocean will freeze. That’s what Aaka says."
And in order to put yourself in a scene in a children's book you have to dig back into your own sensory memories and experiences as a child and then translate them to the context of the story you are writing:
"When we go bed the fall storm is blowing so loud it makes the windows of Aaka’s house rattle like a giant making popcorn somewhere close. Me and Isaac sleep in one bed, which Aaka says is ours. The wind pushes Aaka’s house back and forth on its pilings so hard I keep thinking we gonna fall off. Isaac puts his head under the blanket and lies real still. He’s scared.
It’s okay, I tell Isaac. It’s just like being on a boat. Right?

Isaac nods even though he’s never been on a boat before.
Feel how the waves are lifting us up and down?

Isaac nods again. Then he puts his head up on my pillow and shuts his eyes, satisfied. Could we go Disney Land on the boat? he whispers.
We could go anywhere on a boat, I tell him. We could go to a brand new world where the houses are made of cookies and the clouds are Cool Whip, I tell him.

Me and Mom used to pretend sometimes that we were on clouds made out of Cool Whip. Clouds that could move fast, way up high where only me and Mom could go.

What color is your cloud? Mom would whisper.
Butterscotch, I used to say. Butterscotch is my favorite color for a cloud.

But the clouds above Aaka’s village are not butterscotch-colored. Aaka’s clouds are gray as cigaaq smoke and the wind out there is ripping
them to pieces. I could hear it. This makes me think of Mom and Stephan again. When I close my eyes, I could even hear Mom’s voice in the wind: Run! Run away!

TLB- Butterscotch clouds. I LOVE that image. It conjures up taste as well as sight and it's so vivid. Also your contrast of the clouds at home and at her grandmother's house is masterful. 

Your novel is written in two voices- one a modern girl and the other her great grandmother who lived over a hundred years before. How did sensory detail help you distinguish their voices?

DDE- I think you separate the voices of any character not just by the way they speak, but by the details they notice, their own personal imagery. And of course when writing a historical voice you have to make sure that the details aren’t anachronistic. I wrote two race scenes in Blessing’s Bead, one historical and one contemporary. This is the historical voice:
When I finally glance southward, I see that he is running beside me, at a distance, like a dark shadow. Like the shadow of a bird, moving swiftly across the tundra, his running is even with my own. Our limbs move parallel to one another in a way that makes me feel as though we are connected, somehow. As though I am a bird and he is my shadow, gliding across the land.
We can assume that she is speaking in Inupiaq, and that she would notice direction because that is how it is/was and in the treeless tundra, you really do see the shadows of birds gliding across the land.

When I wrote a race scene for the contemporary girl, the details she notices and her own imagery is quite different from her great grandmother’s and is reflective of the “things” of her life:
The whistle blows and I take off, leaping into the race with one big jump. But Sylvia takes off even faster, shooting out ahead of me like a human bullet. For a second I want to sit right down and quit running because it feels like I already lost. Then I think about Sylvia and all her sister-cousins, snickering about my name, and suddenly it feels like my legs just got extra fuel. When we reach the turn around, Sylvia and I are neck-in-neck, way ahead of the all others. Right when we turn, she glances over at me and glares at me like she thinks she could make me trip just by looking. Then she starts running harder. Me too.
The historical voice, for example, would not talk use the figure of speech "got extra fuel…"

TLB- What a fascinating glimpse into your process Debby! I can't wait for next week, when you and Nancy Bo Flood will be here in the Tollbooth all week, guest posting about multi-cultural literature. Gear up, Debby. We'll be excited to read your posts all week next week.

DDE- Thanks for inviting me, Tami. What a fun conversation!

Debby's happy to answer your questions today, too. Just type them in the comment box.

But first, there's something I'd like to ask you. Debby uses evocative smells to pull herself into the dream of a story she's writing. What do you do to put yourself into that creative frame of mind?

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