Improve Your Writing: Senses

Writing conferences offer a lot of great tips on how to improve your writing. One tip that’s always stayed with me is to use at least three different sensory descriptions in a scene. Using at least three senses helps readers visualize the scene better and it makes the scene more real.

Here’s a snapshot of a wetlands in Florida. Using sensory descriptions, how would you describe it?

improve your writing senses

You might mention the colors, but what about sounds? The swishing grass and maybe clicking insects. Now what about touch? Maybe the humid air settling on your skin, or the clinging net of a spider web on your face. And smell? I’ll never forget the slight odor of rot that stuck to the back of my throat.

I also remember reading that when people read about a smell, their brain activity is the same as when people actually smell that scent. So, mentioning sensory experiences like smells basically tricks the brain – or convinces the brain – that the person is in the scene, smelling the same aromas and fragrances if they are nice ones, or the same putrid stinks.

Also, in broadening the diversity of our writing and reading, how do we use descriptions that will appeal to readers of different backgrounds? What kinds of descriptions of food smells, hair care product scents, fabric textures, footwear discomfort, background sounds, and more will reveal our cultural, gender, and class biases?

Practice to Improve Your Writing

It takes practice to improve your writing. If you don’t, you’ll just write “he saw” or “she heard” all the time. We need practice describing what people feel in ways that aren’t cliche. And how do you describe the smell of the earth after rain, or the smell of freshly baked bread, without just saying “you know that smell?”

I’m trying to practice my sensory descriptions by writing sensory sentences each day. Not just sentences about my feelings, or thoughts, but sentences that focus in on a sensory experience I’ve had that day. Something I’ve seen, smelled, heard, tasted, or touched. Even if I don’t use the actual sentences I write in a story, I’m getting some writing done. And I’m practicing my observational skills of the world around me, which is good for any writer to do.

Here are two examples from July:

1.The clock on the wall in my office ticks and rocks out of rhythm with the swing of the pendulum.

2. I ate a fresh tomato from the garden and it was sun-hot and huskier in flavor.

3. The carpet under my desk feels flatter under my feet than the carpet over by the printer.

Try writing sensory sentences and see how they improve your writing.

 

Children’s Book Publishers and Reading Lists

If you’re interested in writing for children, it’s essential to learn what kinds of books different children’s book publishers produce. You need to know if they are the right house to give your story life. But how do you figure out if the publisher is right for you and if you are right for that publisher? You read their books.

There are tons of children’s book publishers out there, but one of my favorite is Lee and Low. Not only do they focus on multicultural content, they also focus on emotional learning and awareness. And they produce incredible reading lists!

Here’s the Lee and Low 2018 diverse summer reading list. 

 

And here is the Lee and Low Social and Emotional Diverse reading list. 

 

Both lists contain books from PreK to 8, so there is something for every reader to read, and something for every writer to read. There really isn’t a substitute for reading as a way to find out what different children’s book publishers want. You can learn about topics, characters, language, and themes. You can be inspired and improve your own writing.

Non-Fiction

Pay I want to write non-fiction books. If you want to write non-fiction, it is helpful to study how the back matter is presented in each book. One thing I find valuable is reading the bibliographies at the back of the book. I like to see what resources an author has used and I challenge myself to check out their reference material and see if my interpretation matches theirs.

If you don’t want to spend a fortune on all these books, I recommend requesting the books from your library all at once, picking them up at the library, and scheduling a read-and-critique session with your fellow writers. Pay attention to what the other readers in your group notice. What did they see that you overlooked? Consider the book from title to end pages and learn all you can.

 

Tools for Writing a Novel

I’ve been to many conferences were successful writers share their tools for writing a novel, and I now have my own set to share. I am working hard to get my current manuscript done – and basic proofreading corrections made – before February 26.

The novel is called DNF (Did Not Finish) and it’s middle grade contemporary fiction. Maybe I will post a teaser when it’s out on submission.

Because I love checklists and measuring my productivity, I’m using a checklist log to record my daily activity.

tools for writing a novel

 

This isn’t a word count tracker, although I do have a handy little Numbers file that can function as a word count tracker just like the one NaNoWriMo provides on its website. I decided not to focus on words for this draft of my manuscript. Instead I focus on WHEN I am in the timeline of the story.

Paper Tools

I needed some other tools for writing a novel, and because I’m focusing on WHEN, I needed a calendar. My main character is a runner, so I use a training plan. And because this story has a large cast of characters (many more than in Dare Club) I needed a character list.

Each one of these tools helps me stay on track, minimize confusion, and prevents the kind of writer’s block that isn’t about ‘not having ideas’ but forgetting where you are in the story. I’ve found the calendar to be especially helpful.

Online Tools

My story takes place in a specific year, I use Weather Underground‘s website to find the weather for each of my key scenes. I also look online for popular baby names of the year 2000, and for popular songs, apps, and television shows. I’m sort of a stickler for minimizing anachronisms.

What tools for writing a novel do you use?

 

What a Writing Coach Offers

The writer’s playing field

In 2017, I embarked on a new part of the writer’s journey and became a writing coach. My first client is actually a young man interested in a challenging creative writing program in the area. We are working together to help him set goals and achieve them.

One aspect of his writing that doesn’t work: creative ideas.

As his writing coach, I feel my job is really focused on accountability and productivity.

Almost all writers and creatives could use a little boost in setting reasonable, measurable goals and working to meet those goals. There are lots of little steps between stating a goal and achieving a goal. Sometimes, the ability to achieve a goal is not within our power, it rests in some one else’s hands.

So what’s it like to meet with a writing coach?

First, we discussed some of his hopes and dreams. Then we talked about what he likes to write, doesn’t like to write, and his habits. We also discussed what and how much he reads. After I learned about those aspects of his writing life – and I learn new things in each session – I developed some systems to help him show off his strengths as well as confront his weaknesses.

Coaching Sessions

A typical session for us looks like this:

  • Free write for 5 minutes on a prompt that I choose, usually focused around describing a scene or memory focused around an emotion. We’ve written about moments when we’ve been happy, angry, embarrassed, guilty, and sad. The goal here is to capture the events that caused the feelings and to access the emotion in our brains and bring it to life on the page. Five minutes is short – we’ve got to write quickly and efficiently, as well as honestly.
  • Next, we dive in to the current project. My client shares any new sections, I read them over and offer positive comments as well as constructive criticism on areas that could be improved. We discuss plot, dialogue, the classic show-don’t-tell problem, and setting. We also spend a lot of time hashing out what endings might work and WHY.
  • After his projects, I like to share a short piece of my own writing and ask him to offer feedback and critique. I think this is really important for a young writer. My goals here are to model HOW to accept critique and how to think about revising existing works.
  • As our session wraps up, we discuss next steps. My client, like many writers of all ages, doesn’t relish revising, but that is always one of his assignments. Other goals include selecting a publication to submit to or working on a synopsis of his current story.

As his writing coach, I never tell him what to write. I do encourage him to develop good habits related to writing. Habits like reading and writing every day. Some other best practices I encourage him to adopt are completing his stories (even ones that aren’t his favorite) and being open to writing different versions so he can really find the one that resonates.

Goals

For the new year, I offered four options for big goals. I’m offering you these four goals, too, and I encourage you to attempt them and share your progress!

  1. Write a 500 word story with a plot.
  2. Revise a story.
  3. Re-write a familiar story in your style.
  4. Submit a story to a publication.

For more writing encouragement, check out my Twelve Days of Writing post and get busy.

Girls Write Pittsburgh

Remember when we were in school and we had to write essays or copy lines as punishment?

Why do some people make writing a punishment when it’s so redemptive?

It’s like running laps when you messed up in phys ed or on another sports team. Running doesn’t punish me. It saves me.

Girls Write Pittsburgh knows this and right here in Pittsburgh offers writing as a source of inspiration and empowerment.

girls write pittsburgh

Girls Write

When I was a young girl, I didn’t know it was possible to have a job as a writer. I knew that some people had jobs as newspaper reporters, but that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted to write and tell stories, fiction and non-fiction. Perhaps I wasn’t particularly bright, because while I knew that people authored and wrote the stories I loved, I didn’t put it together that it could be a job.

Nobody said I couldn’t be a writer, but nobody said I could, either. But it’s ok. That didn’t stop me from writing. I’ve written my whole life. It just took me a long time to realize it could be my real-life job.

I always imagined I’d be a teacher. And in many ways in my life, I’ve done that and loved it.

But now, thankfully, I’ve gone and made a life for myself as a writer.

Being a writer is incredibly fulfilling and not just because I get to do what I love, but because I get to meet amazing people like the creator of Girls Write Pittsburgh.

I’m incredibly inspired by Girls Write Pittsburgh and I’m looking for ways to support this project. First, they need donations. Second, they need mentors. They need places to host events and they need authors and writers to mentor and host workshops.

I’m so committed to expanding the voices that are telling stories in our world, and I see Girls Write Pittsburgh as an important way to do that. If you’re an author, illustrator, storytelling, creative, writer, or just love good stories please consider supporting Girls Write Pittsburgh.

Highlights Foundation Workshop: Novel Beginnings

In March 2017, I returned to the Highlights Foundation for my second workshop, Novel Beginnings. Our amazing instructors were Clara Gillow Clark and Kelly Going (who writes as K.L. Going). This year I was in the Lodge, which I enjoyed just as much as the cabin. Another difference from my October 2015 visit: snow.

highlights foundation

Calkins Creek

highlights foundation

The scary bridge I made myself cross

highlights foundation

Snow!

 

There were about a dozen of us there for four days. Workshops like this are great because they are small enough to get to know the people but large enough to meet a diverse group of writers. And one of my favorite parts of Highlights Foundation workshops are that I don’t have to cook anything.

Each participant was able to submit the first 50 pages of their manuscript and received an in-depth one on one critique on their work. I found Clara and Kelly to be really open and honest about our stories and our writing. I know they offered sound guidance, because one of our attendees re-wrote her first few pages while at the workshop and when she shared them with us…WOW.

Group Critique

In addition to our one on one critiques, we also did a group critique session of our first three pages, hosted by Susan Bartoletti. Susan suggested we structure our critique feedback using the five points below, and I really loved the results.

highlights foundation critique

One thing that pleased me a lot was after only hearing my first three pages, a person in the critique group was able to lay out the overall plot of my story. If a writer can put that in front of readers and still make it funny and interesting, there is something good happening there.

Kelly shared a lot about the business of publishing. The time away from daily life helped me hone in on what I really wanted to do with my story. I received solid, positive feedback on my story from Clara and felt very motivated to keep working.

I haven’t yet told Clara that the week after I returned from the workshop I wrote every single day and made big progress through my manuscript…but was still really unhappy with the arc. I called up a friend, he’s 10, and talked it through with him. He brainstormed so honestly with me and I can’t ever thank him enough. After my conversation with him, I revamped the stakes in my story completely and now have a much better source of conflict that will interest kid readers. I hope.

Highlights Memories

But the Highlights Foundation Workshop isn’t all writing. Aside from working on my own story, I did a lot of running in the snow. And I spent some time traveling down memory lane and looking through Highlights from 1985 and 1986. I recognized covers and stories that I had read, re-read, and re-re-read as a kid, much the same way my son reads Match.

Word play and word history! I would love to write something like this for Highlights today.

highlights foundation

When I saw this story about the marathon, I wondered if it had influenced me, in a subtle way, to try running.

This is probably the first place I read about silkies. They are a favorite mythological creature of mine.

This story stuck with me forever. It could be one of the first science-fiction stories I ever read. It blended ordinary life elements with a strange idea and was also effortlessly entertaining.

This one made me laugh out loud. Reading this made me want to make my own butter so much and now that I’m the grown-up, we do!

Here’s a story about a young woman who played a role in shaping historical events. Could this be any more up my alley?

Six Word Stories Part 2

Who doesn’t love good six word stories? They are short and sweet.

I am so lucky to be able to visit classrooms and hang out with kids. As a writer, there’s nothing more valuable than learning from and listening to your target audience. So when I had a chance to go into my son’s sixth grade class, I decided the topic would be “brevity.” Now, I didn’t tell them that, but it gave me a framework.

Picture Books

First,  I read a short but very skillfully done picture book. You’re never too old to read a picture book and really learn about the essence of story. A picture book needs to tell a story in very few words.

ABCs

Then, we worked on a 26 word alphabet story about sixth graders. There were some funny parts, like when we included eating and farting. We had tech, including iPhone, video games and memes. One girl suggested we delete “sleeping” and write “Zzzz” – which was GENIUS. We had a lot of sports like gymnastics and karate and soccer.

 

Six Word Stories

Finally, we got to dessert: the six word story.

As I took them through the first two parts of the visit, I explained how stories build to a climax of emotion and action and then offer a resolution. I challenged them to include all of those elements in their six word stories.

Here’s what we came up with:

Kids

Last man on earth heard knock.

I am cool, you are not.

Roasted, toasted marshmallow on the fire.

Learn something!

I really loved hearing their stories. And since the main character in my current project is in middle school, I decided to write some six word stories for her.

Mine

She quit everything, until she didn’t.

She botched everything except dreaming big.

For Fun

Do you agree that a lot of six word stories sound so ominous? I love to laugh and have fun and wanted to write a humorous six word story.

Apology accepted. Now explain the bird.

How a Book Smells

I love how a book smells. I love that slightly dusty, dry papery smell mingled with the chemical odor of ink. Unfortunately that smell can often fade, but it’s in my memory.

Writers are encouraged to use smells in their books because when our brains read the description of the smells, our sensory areas light up just like we’re actually smelling the smells. Our brains can’t tell the difference between smelling with our noses, or reading about a smell that we know.

I do try to weave scents and smells into my stories, but only when they are appropriate. Recently I read a YA (young adult) book that I think was a tad heavy handed about incorporating smell data into the story.

 

Book Smells in A Cure for Dreaming

A Cure for Dreaming is a mix of humor and horror set in early 1900s Portland. A young girl is hypnotized in an attempt to remove her egalitarian views. There is some romance, parental tension, references to Dracula and a slight education on women’s equality and suffrage. I wanted to love the story, but I basically just enjoyed it.

What stuck out to me was that in every chapter, the author inserted an odor, scent or smell somewhat early. It was part of setting the scene but it also felt a little like checking a box. Maybe that’s not really a problem. I’m probably more picky than the average reader for this book. It really stood out to me as a task, not a story element.

Several smells appeared in the first sentences of the chapter.

Cigarette smoke and warring perfumes. How long until most readers are unfamiliar with cigarette smoke odor? Neither of these smells are very appealing.

book smells cigarette

“cigarette smoke…warring perfumes..smelled overcooked”

Food smells trigger not only our scent memories, but our appetites, too. Does your mouth water when you read this?

“smelling of chicken”

The smell of black coffee is unmistakeable and quite enjoyable in my smell collection.

book smells food

“poached eggs, black coffee and a touch of rosemary”

 

In later chapters, the smells appear after a few pages. Here we have that tingling dental office smell that often triggers fear in people. Did you get tense reading this?

book smells fear

“A sweet, antiseptic, and metallic potpourri”

And the smell of peppermint makes me think of Christmas. This book is set at Halloween. Maybe she should have referenced cinnamon.

book smells holiday

“peppermint-scented candies”

These three scents aren’t really familiar to modern day readers. The purpose here is to reference a society from a different time.

book smells historic

“Cologne and pomade and the scent of wool suits”

 

Reading How a Book Smells

So not only does the physical book smell, but the book has smells. As you read your next book, take note of the book smells that are mentioned and think about how they help set the scene, the time period, the mood. Or, just read the book.

Writing Prompt: The Lost Potato

Do you see that? There on the ground? It’s a potato. It’s just sitting there, all by itself, on the sidewalk. How did it get there?

This lost potato is the perfect writing prompt. I can think of lots of stories about how that potato ended up there.

Send me your stories about the Lost Potato. Feel free to change the title. I’ll share them here and someone (or ones) may receive some kind of recognition for their creativity.

Room for Improvement

room for improvement

Stop here.

Running has a finish line, but with stories, there’s always room for improvement.

Virginia Wolf wrote that it’s essential for women to have a room of one’s own, and I don’t disagree. But there’s another room that’s also essential. Room for Improvement.

I don’t usually write stories for specific contests, but I will revise them. There’s this website, Mslexia, that I like. I like what they say about women and writing. I want to send them a story and get good feedback. They have a contest with a deadline of March 1, 2017. I have a story I think they will like. Their contest has a word count limit of 3000 words. My story is 4719. I’ll have to cut 36% of my story to have it qualify. I worked on it for two weeks and I finally have the story down to 2995.

Is it the same story? Is it better or worse? Who knows.

There’s always room for improvement.

I have another story that meets the word count for the next round of Pen Parentis, in fact, it’s well under. It got great reviews on another website but when I pulled it out to re-read it today, I realized I can rewrite it even better, stronger. I overused the word “too” for example. I can spruce this up, get it proofread, and send it off to the contest, which opens March 1.

There’s always room for improvement.

Back in October 2015, I wrote a 50,000 word draft of a novel for NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t really write the full story. I wrote the fun scenes of a story. Now as I’ve pushed this manuscript through one round of revision, I realized I didn’t have a strong story line and I need a synopsis. So I’ve paused my revision and I’m now telling the story in synopsis form. This is a good exercise because I have to turn in my first 50 pages to the hosts of a Highlights Foundation workshop, and the pages are due March 1. (It’s a busy time.)

Once the synopsis is done, I’ll go back and revise those first fifty pages and make sure they really set up the story I plan to tell, so the workshop hosts know what I’m bringing them. I know my revision won’t be perfect, but that’s why I’m going to the workshop. I’m eager for their advice and feedback.

Because there’s always room for improvement.