Tag Archives: writing 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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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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prosthetic-leg_sapdI’ve done a fair amount of research on the internet for my novel–I’ve checked into leg prosthetics, PTSD, cortical blindness, and “cane travelers”–the proper use of a white cane. I explored possible names for Afghani children, and the kinds of typical family compounds in Afghanistan.

But there is still research needed that can only be done on the ground. I need to return to Oregon, both Eugene and Sisters, to check where I’ve set my story. Sure, I inquired into what plants grow in central Oregon, and used Google Earth to figure out where the large, rural ranch might be located. I spoke to a wildlife specialist about the behavior of cougars. I’m always delighted by how friendly and helpful people are when I contact them.

But nothing takes the place of sniffing the air, feeling the plants, and talking to the people who actually live there. In Sisters, there are five places I need to go: Sisters Inn, Martolli’s Pizza, Paulina Springs Books, the feed store. And I need to drive out the road I’ve picked for the ranch to see if it’s actually possible to set part of my story there. If not, I’ll talk to the residents and figure out a different location.

I’m sorry I can’t go to Afghanistan and taste the dust. My budget doesn’t allow for that.

Sometime in 2015, I need to schedule the Oregon trip.

© Skye Blaine, 2015
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final, final edits

editingIt is my understanding that there are three kinds of writers: native storytellers, wordsmiths, and the rarest-of-rare, those born who are proficient in both. Native storytellers can blast out a first draft–they have a natural sense of story arc. Wordsmiths–I am one of these–love editing and rewriting, and agonize getting the story down on paper. The language may be lovely; the story arc may have flaws that take multiple rewrites to solve. The rare writers born with both skills–perhaps one or two in a generation–are truly blessed.

I heard an apocryphal story of a writer racing down the sidewalk behind his or her editor–who is carrying off the book to be published–crying “I just need to make two more changes! That’s all!” That would be me.

The memoir, Bound to Love, is undergoing one more read by my husband, who is quite good at finding typos, and then will go to a precious editor friend for a final read-through before publishing. After twenty-three years (I had to learn to write), ten rewrites, and one professional editing a few years ago, I’ve got to call it DONE.

My novel, Call Her Home, is undergoing a second rewrite now. I started it fifteen months ago, and I hope to have it completed by the end of 2015.

I plan to spend 2016 framing my blog posts  as a manuscript from http://www.theheartofthematter-dailyreminders.org. A blog is very different from a book; the material requires serious rewriting, finding the frame, and giving it shape. A big, big job.

© Skye Blaine, 2015
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writing memoir, take two

Writing the truth about one’s younger self is daunting. It has required rigorous self-examination, and the willingness to admit my weaknesses and flaws.

I kept a running list of scenes that I needed to tackle, so each day, when I sat down to write, I had a place to start. I’d pick a scene from that list that felt alive, or “hot,” and began typing.

The very process of considering an event, and parsing for just the right words to express my experience, often brought long-forgotten detail to the surface. I also spoke to people from that time and asked questions about what they remembered. I did not, however, contact my ex-husbands during the writing process. I felt the need to stay with my own experience–even though I knew it was one-sided. I didn’t have the gumption to exhume those painful failures with them again. It wasn’t the time.

When I first began writing about my life, mentors encouraged me to write without filtering–to “tell my whole truth.” I wrote for self-discovery about myself as a parent, partner, and human being. Now that the memoir is finished and approaching publication, I felt I must reach out to people included in the story to let them know I wrote about them. This included not only friends and two ex-husbands, but physicians as well.

I have no interest in blaming. What happened, happened–we all participated, and I know each of us handled ourselves as best as we could in that moment–even when that best looked like rage, betrayal, or weakness.

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