With the Nose

One of my weaknesses, writing-wise, is food. I know it seems like such an odd thing, because it isn’t like I forget to eat regularly. Actually, maybe that would help…

No, seriously, I won’t starve myself. I know one of my handicaps as a person is that I cannot smell many of the things that other people take for granted. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I called my friend to remark about how I could finally smell the laundry aisle at the store, because it was the first time I could remember having that sensation. At first she remarked, duh, but then we talked about how I was in the sixth or seventh month of pregnancy, and that it took that much to get me to smell those scents. My nose is more sensitive to certain kinds of aromas, and others I miss completely.

Unfortunately, I can smell diapers. I could smell the mulch outside my daughter’s preschool this week. But I can only vaguely remember what the flowers smelled like during my pregnancy. I’ve never smelled most of them on my own, but not for lack of trying. My husband (before we were married) would bring me flowers. I would bury my nose in them and inhale deeply. It isn’t because I can smell the roses – I literally can’t – but it is one of those automatic gestures I do when I receive flowers.

When I started editing Don’t Tell Your Mother, I have several places where the characters have food or it is cooking. My critique partners underlined them, asking what they were eating, what they smelled at that point, or something else along those lines. Sometimes, I just can’t even imagine what I’m supposed to put in there. Even when I can describe the actual food, whether there are cherries in the dessert or rosemary in the pot roast, I don’t always know if those things give off enough of a smell for most people to identify them.

[Yes, I’m still editing Don’t Tell Your Mother. I’m still struggling over some of these food descriptions.]

I started asking other writers about food in stories. A few of them find it brings out their experience to have these things described. To bring them into focus even though the food itself is not dragging the plot forward, in most cases.

The other problem with that novel is that it takes place on a farm, where the smells are different than they are in the city. Livestock is kept on the farm, and there are certain smells that I’m sure I haven’t delved into the descriptions nearly enough for people who have never visited one. Thinking of that makes me want to print off another copy and highlight all the places where I might have missed some smells or other sensory perception that would aid in creating my setting.

What is it you look for in a scene where food is present? Scent is supposed to be linked strongly with memory, so do you find it more interesting when there are smells, tastes, and textures along with the sights and sounds? It’s definitely part of the “show, don’t tell” advice to bring in all the senses to bear when using description. Or does all of that just get in the way of the narrative when you’re reading?

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About the Eyes

I’ve been reading several books about children’s development, which makes sense since I have a 3 year old and a 3 month old. One of those books called attention to how adults and children may have different ideas about objects, with one reason being adults are much more likely to take in a visual aspect while children might be more inclined to taste or smell or touch or listen to it.

Actually, when you think about kids this just makes sense. Who knows what taste there might be on a pine cone? I bet a child would tell me. Probably also explains why so many parents are always screaming “Get that out of your MOUTH!”

But how does that translate into what we write? The majority of authors (especially in brick and mortar stores) are adults. We would then use a lot of visual description when we want it to be real to the readers.

I have a group of characters living on some far-off planet who don’t use their eyes. These nearly blind people can sense movement but not much else. It was such a difficult thing for me to describe things using their noses and ears as the primary senses and the visual as a distant fourth (behind touch). While I haven’t yet decided to have them put everything in their mouths to taste, I can’t promise anything about their futures.

What do you do to distinguish between characters? Do they all use their eyes as a primary sense?

I think if I were to catalog all the descriptive words in my current novel, most of them would be geared toward the visual. Makes me think I should look at that while rewriting. Yay! Just one more thing to edit and polish. I will finish it eventually, I swear. Though it might help to find less things I want to fix.

What Color Was That?

I started thinking about this as a friend of mine used a color to describe some different kind of person in his story. Jim Butcher had white, red, and black vampires in his Dresden Files. Jacqueline Carey used a deep blood red called sanguine for her character Phedre and to represent her distinguishing feature of being an anguisette. Vulcans from Star Trek have green blood. (Though doesn’t that make you wonder about a half-Vulcan half-Human – shouldn’t he not have either red or green blood? or both? I’m sure that’s another topic for another day…)

As long as we’re doing colors, why isn’t it cerise instead of just red or cerulean instead of just blue? I rarely hear anyone talking about aubergine. Is it the one syllable quality of red and blue and green that make them so common? Yellow simply doesn’t have the same impact. Yet it can’t simply be about the name, because pink will never have the impact of a neon orange – and that never rolled easily off anyone’s tongue.

When I ask someone’s favorite color, often I get a generic blue or purple or brown. The aforementioned aubergine ranks for one friend of mine, and another told me burgundy. It made me think about my own response, which is much more vague since I am fond of too many colors to pick just one. It’s very dependent on what it is for (a car or a purse or the walls of my bedroom)  and my particular mood.

How does color affect how you write? Do you search for a specific shade like chartreuse or will bright green work? Do you work to figure out the perfect color for everything or do you leave a few to the reader’s imagination?

Does having all that information conflict with your own ideas when reading? I’d love to know!

Description

How do you know when it’s too much or too little?

I usually err on the side of ‘not enough’. I work while I revise to make certain the world, the character, and the actions are shown enough for the reader to make sense of it. Sometimes I keep too much of it in my head in the first draft.

There are exercises to work on description, but they don’t change what I do as I write. I’m getting better at finding the line where the descriptions are needed, but I never want to put in too many.

I’ve never been a fan of purple prose.

When I find those overflowing, descriptive passages, they’re in other people’s work. It can be very pretty, except when it gets in the way of the story. It’s so hard to tell someone, “You know, I don’t think this is working for your story. What’s actually happening here?”

I get the “show, don’t tell” references, but precious few references tell you how to go about that. And they don’t say a lot for when you think you’re showing it all, only to find out you’re on a tangent that doesn’t advance the plot.

Wait, they do have a saying for it: Kill your darlings.

It doesn’t tell you how. Or where. Or why. Is it measurable between dialogue beats, narration, emotional response of character to events? I doubt it will surprise anyone to say I’m reading a book about it to understand more and critique better, partly because I can’t just say, “This is the point where my mind wanders away. Fix it.”

Writing is such a harsh business. We have to be critical to each other, critical of our own work, and submit to the critique of editors and agents we may never meet.

Description of the Senses

Often, as writers, we’re told to write what we know. It makes me wonder, though, about things we think we know or don’t know. Missing a sense does not preclude one from undertaking the written word – even braille can be translated for sighted people.

But do the blind writers show the same sights to the reader? Can a deaf writer make the reader hear things in the story? Are smell and/or taste also subjected to the same rules?

I’ve been thinking about my book, and I am pretty sure I never mention a single smell in it. Why? I smell almost nothing. My recent pregnancy showed me there was a world out there full of scents that are beyond my daily reach (which promptly disappeared after the baby arrived). Most people I know take this for granted – some even find it as an annoyance when faced with particularly strong aromas like perfume.

Recently I rode in a car with a couple sensitive-nosed women and another who wore perfume. I remained unaware through the entire ride there was perfume present. Only during (late) pregnancy did I smell things like dishsoap while washing dishes, the dirty dishrag that needed to be changed, and the laundry aisle in the grocery store.

I’ll remember all those new scents for a time, but what happens when the memory fades? Will I remember enough to write scents into the story? It’s such a struggle for me to remember things smell anyway. I know flowers do, not so much from personal experience but by social acclimation. People speak about the smells of certain things: flowers, perfume/cologne, manure, babies.

When I read, sometimes I think about lacking senses and the authors behind the work – but I admit it doesn’t come up much. Do you ever wonder about the author and the descriptions used? I struggle so much to include smell lately. I know it’s a weakness.

Remember the blog tour starts tomorrow! Don’t miss it.

Power of Description

When reading, sometimes I take in the amount of description and say, “wow, i’m there.” Other times I feel like “where’s the story?”

Description is a difficult part to get right. Some people want to know every single detail, but a lot of us want the story to move forward. The question is, how much is enough and how much is too much? I find myself struggling with that time and again.

Science fiction and fantasy need a different amount of description than some other genres (say, chick lit). When I build a world from scratch, you’re probably going to want to know whether my critter has blue fur or brown scales or even different facial features. That doesn’t mean I need to spend time talking about my fantasy (human) protagonist’s long, dark, wavy hair every few paragraphs.

A lot of times if a detail isn’t used to further my story, I leave it out. I know I need more description in some of the my work, but it isn’t hurt me to get the story out first, then figure out the details that need to be woven inside.

The trick is balance, I think. Then always checking the story after the changes to be sure it still has the plot somewhere and not hidden by all the descriptions. Writers simply can’t describe their world for ten pages and expect the audience to hang out waiting for action. Then again, if we throw them the details in chapter 22 about the critter they’ve been traveling with for the entire book, it’s too late.