Category Archives: craft

adding detail with the senses

Simply put, sense impressions describe a person, place, or thing. They can also clarify a psychological or physical state. They may make use of metaphor or simile.

We tend to write about the senses we cannot help but use, if our eyes and ears are intact: sight and sound. But taste, texture, and smell are just as important to include. Because I notice this common weakness in my writing, I don’t focus on including them in the first draft, but in succeeding drafts, I work to layer in taste, texture, and smell—although not necessarily all at the same time.

Including the senses adds verisimilitude to our work—they take our reader right there. Every person will interpret the words on the page differently, and that’s fine—readers are building their own fictional impressions and world based on the words we craft.

“He did not answer, of course, because he was dead, was now fine, silvery dust in the dark bronze urn I had chosen, nestled between piles of books and old Silas’s basket, which was lined with the rotting old sweater Silas guarded fiercely. It smelled of salt and pine and wood smoke and now, of course Silas.” [her cat]

This paragraph is from the prologue of Anne Rivers Siddons novel, Off Season. She is one of my favorite contemporary authors because her writing uses place as a character, word painting with the senses to carry us right there. This is the first taste of her Maine that we get, offered in the smells: “salt and pine and work smoke.” And we are introduced to her dead husband, Cam, “now fine, silvery dust in the dark bronze urn I had chosen.” (Smells and textures)

And later, in the same prologue: “…and look down from the top of the piled-stone seawall and watch the bay playing about the rocks, creaming and swelling and falling, glittering far to the west where the afternoon sun was lowering. I would smell the clean, fishy, kelpy sun-on-dried-rocks smell, and I would hear the sea breathe.” Siddons has me. I’m fully captured in her fictional world. (Sights and smells and sounds—and I can taste that fishy smell, too.)

Give the most sensory attention to the important characters and places—it helps guide the reader in understanding what’s important.

One can be lush and still spare. Allow the reader spaces to create for themselves within your work—don’t do it all for them. They will appreciate this.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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family trouble

I’ve been reading a book of essays by memoirists called Family Trouble, compiled by Joy Castro. The essays explore the challenges that come from writing about family and friends, and their possible reactions to what is revealed. I’ve learned from this book that when people get upset, it’s never what the writer expected would be upsetting. It might be a tiny detail of how a person was characterized. In some cases, revelations have brought families closer.

“First person point of view requires me to say who I am and where I’m standing when I look into the world, find something I think is worth reporting, and speak of it to the reader. In investigating this perspective and its sources of understanding and authority, I have to be able to write about what I see and where I stand–and therefore the places and people that have shaped me–with both honesty and clarity.” from the essay  “Things We Don’t Talk About” by Aaron Raz Link pg 157 of Family Trouble.

My take: tell my truth, remember that the other person is simply the same awareness clothed in a different form. I dive deep to mine my own weaknesses as well as the other peoples’ in the story. I do not write to blame anyone; I write to understand.
© Skye Blaine, 2015

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characters’ inner thoughts

At my weekly critique group, we’ve been discussing the issue of identifying characters’ inner thoughts: put them in italic, or not?

First: inner thoughts, or inner dialogue, are when a point-of-view character is talking to him/herself. We all talk to ourselves; it’s part of being human! Our characters do as well. However, thoughts are private to that character—the others who populate the story are not privy to what our point-of-view character is thinking. These thoughts allow the reader to understand the character more deeply. Perhaps she is showing a lot of angst on the outside—but if the writer doesn’t take us inside her head, we may not learn what’s driving that behavior. Perhaps she wishes she could murder her husband. Or wring her daughter’s neck. Or have sex with someone other than her partner. Inner thoughts are intimate, and private. We’re glad, in real life, that our family and friends don’t know what’s going on inside of our heads. But in fiction, the writer can take us there–and in doing so, gives the character a voice that is different from all the others in the story.

Traditionally, private character thoughts were put in italics, to clue the reader. However, if the thought were tagged with “he said” or “she said,” then the italics were not needed. But today, many writers are not italicizing inner thought, whether it has an attribution or not.

When I went to desktop publishing school in the mid-1990s, we discussed typography and readability. For example, we were taught that italics are not as easy to read as Roman (standard) type. I think it’s fine to italicize the text when there is no attribution if the thought is short. But a paragraph of italic type is tiring for your reader.

Whatever choice you make, to italicize thoughts or not—there is no right or wrong–be consistent throughout your manuscript. Not only does this look more professional, it is also a subtle guide for your reader. They will appreciate the consistency.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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critique groups

I remember the feelings and sensations running through my body when I walked into my very first critique group, some twenty years ago: terror, excitement, sweaty palms. Curiosity, fear of rejection. I only tangentially knew one person in the room. I was faced with exposing my writing to strangers. My hands shook. My heart raced.

What I found pleased me. The focus remained on the writing—noticing strengths first, then encouraging in areas that needed improvement. I was very lucky in my first group. They had the sense, with the beginning writer that I was, to choose two main areas for me to work on: maintaining point-of-view, and learning to control narrative distance. Point-of-view means that the reader knows what is going on in the thoughts and feelings of one character, but can only observe the other characters from the outside. Narrative distance describes whether the writing brings us in, an intimate experience, or holds us away, at a distance. A writer needs to learn to control this sense of distance, because writing demands a range of distances.

After feedback over a few weeks, I caught on to holding the point of view to one character, and not jumping from one character’s mind to another, which can make the reader feel jerked around. Books can have more than one point-of-view character, but it needs to be handled skillfully.

My understanding of narrative distance took longer—writing thousands upon thousands of words, and listening to other people’s writing, and the comments offered about their use of narrative distance.

The beauty and strength of critique groups is that it’s easier to first learn to identify weaknesses in other peoples’ work—then eventually we can see those weaknesses in our own. I don’t this this value can be underestimated. It’s huge. We are protective of our own writing. It takes time and skillful critiques until we can view our own writing with a less-filtered lens.

Tomorrow, some specific suggestions for running a critique group.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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FlashbackWe create flashbacks when we break out of current story time to give our reader insight into our characters through showing something that happened in the past. They are necessary for writing. We can demonstrate what has affected our character’s motives. For example, if a female character was attacked as a child, she could easily carry that memory and fear into her present relationships.

But flashbacks also tear the reader from the current story time, which holds more immediacy for the reader because it’s happening “now”—even if that “now” took place 500 years ago. It stops forward motion of the story for a while. So although flashbacks serve an important purpose, they need to be used skillfully, and kept short—so we return our reader to current story time as soon as we can.

Flashbacks should always follow a strong scene, so that the reader knows enough about our characters to really be concerned for them. Then the information in the flashback will support and help the reader understand the character more deeply. It is often wise to separate a flashback from the current story time with white space, both before and after. This are subtle visual clues that let the reader know a break in time is beginning, and when it has ended. Be sure and orient the reader at the start of the flashback to when and where we are. Fifteen years ago? Three weeks ago? In a different state or country?

Learning to use verb tenses to clue the reader is also important. If you are telling a story in present tense, then the flash back will be in past tense. But if your current story is told in past tense, the flashback must signal the reader we are going farther back by using the past perfect tense. Here’s an example. It is not a full flashback, so in the novel it is not separated out by white space, but does give some earlier information to clue the reader in to the character’s state of mind now.

“Moss crouched as best he could on the dry hillside dotted with birth, manzanita, serviceberry, and sage. His new prosthesis was superior to his old one, but certain leg motions were still awkward, if not impossible. [We are in current story time, being told in the past tense. ‘Crouched’ and ‘was’ are the clues.] He couldn’t move as quietly as the tracker he had trained to be as a kid—not any more. [This is the flashback sentence. ‘Had trained’ is the clue to an earlier time.] He had a permanent hitch no matter how much he practiced his gait. He missed feeling like an integral, living part of this high desert land—as precious to him as his own beating heart. He’d spent all his childhood summers here in central Oregon. In that time, he’d hiked most of the ranch’s 2,200 acres. [’He’d spent’ and ‘he’d hiked’ are past perfect—he had spent, he had hiked—and make it clear to the reader we’re in an earlier time.] Now, traipsing around for a couple of hours with a breather in the middle was the most he could handle. Today, that rankled. Some days it weighed him down, a heavy grief.” [We are brought back to present story time, but have learned more about our character.]

© Skye Blaine
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