Tag Archives: Sensory Description

Prompt Group: Vessel of Place, Using Other Senses, and a few Tips

10 Oct

Time for my prompt group yet again!  We did some exercises this time that were not exactly prompts, but were designed to teach us to write better.  The first was one my friend MB did at a writer’s conference.  It was: Imagine a situation with a strong emotion attached to it and pick an object to describe it.  This is called Vessel of Place, a way of saying that an object can have more emotional memory attached to it than the memory of an event.  (I hope that makes sense.)

The second one was a two part exercise.  We first were instructed to describe a place we had recently visited.    The second part was to use other senses.  Specifically, we had to take out all references to sight.  Mine didn’t have that much, so I worked instead to add more senses into the prose.  I’m including only the second here.  Please criticize me if I used too many visual references.

The final prompt was to take an object from the second prompt and do another vessel of place exercise with it.

Please post your exercises as well!  I’d love to see them.  I’m posting my responses below and then will end this post with some brief writing tips we went over.

Prompt 1

The wine glass was half filled so by default it was half emptied.  I stared at it and saw the reflections of the lights from around the dining room glaring back at me and hurting my eyes.  Looking through it, I could see him sitting on the other side of the table, his own glass of wine in his hand.  He swirled it around and around, mixing the sweet wine with a bitter bite to it.  I took a drink myself and what had previously seemed sweet and aromatic now seemed bitter and ashen.  It was funny how a few words could change the taste of a vintage wine.

I’m not certain but I’m pretty sure I lost more than my taste for wine that night.  The glass slowly drained in the same way the life slowly drained out of him.  What was before savory had turned ashen.  Link the life blood draining out of him as he left this world, the red wine into my mouth and disappeared forever.  The reflections in the glass faded as the night ended and the light in his eyes slowly went out over months of illness.

The pattern on the tablecloth that night reflected strangely in the base of my wine glass and looked like a cross.  I now believe it was a plus sign.  It was telling me, “It’s a plus that you’re with him now.  It’s a plus that you get to see this happen to him before it happens to you.”  But it was a plus for HIV positive, which is always a negative.

Prompt 2, Part 2

The ground was soft and muddy.  Most of the sites had ground the consistency of a baby’s diaper and the ones that weren’t were none too common.  When we finally found a place, the rain let up just enough to make us brave enough to venture out of the car.  Only one site had both a grille and a fireplace, both critical things in our opinion that the site director didn’t seem to find important.  A square of flat land had a few sticks that we threw into the woods so that they wouldn’t poke us in the back all night.  We should have considered that we’d want them later for firewood.  My husband opened the trunk and we got out the small tent, only then realizing that I’d forgotten the big tent at home.  This isn’t exactly what you want to realize 3.5 hours from home when you’re on a budget camping trip.

$106 later we were back with the roomiest tent in the site and were happily setting up for our other friends to arrive.  The sun was finally coming through the clouds and the humidity started to dip below 100%.

Prompt 3

The car smelled like a wet dog.  The carpets had mud rubbed into them from the college friends who didn’t bother to wipe their boots after hiking.  I found an entire McDonalds meal under the passenger’s seat.  It seems someone didn’t listen when I asked them to take their trash out when we left the car.

The squished bug on the inside of the back windshield will still be there six months later and the smell of spilt beer will never really leave the trunk.  The back seat still smells like river and the driver’s seat will always feel like shiver exasperation at the follies of men and boys.  I saw the ‘emergency tent’ we bought when I went to put my summer beach bag away for the winter.  It reminded me that even if you forget the shelter, you can remember to bring over 5 gallons of beer, as long as you have your priorities straight.  That’s enough return money to buy another 12 pack, in case you’re interested.


A Few Tips

I won’t be too long winded here, but we discussed a few tips and techniques for writers to utilize.  The first tip was to start with a list of names so that it’s easy to grab a name for a throw-away character while writing and you don’t have to stop and look around for one.  One member of our group suggested BehindtheName.com to look for names based on origin and meaning.  I’ve used this site for a piece I’m working on and it’s very helpful, I highly recommend it as well.

The second is something most writers know already; that every detail about your character and the words they say should give meaning to the character.  For example, I can say that Joe ate breakfast.  All that says is that Joe’s hungry.  If I say Joe ate a cold Poptart, you might think “Joe’s in a hurry and a bachelor.”  If I say that Joe had bacon and eggs you will probably think “Joe’s a family man with a wife who wakes up really early.”  Either way, the detail of what he ate tells you who Joe is.  All details should tell us about the character.

The third trick might sound like my earlier post about strong language, but it’s not to use ‘lazy’ words.  For example, everyone wears shoes.  ‘Shoe’ is a lazy word.  A woman wears stilettos or boots.  A child wears tennis shoes, a grandpa wears Oxfords.  ‘Shoe’ is a lazy word that doesn’t give us much description.  Someone can be ‘nice,’ but it’s better if they’re friendly or pleasant.  Try to stay away from very general words when a stronger noun would do better.

The last is one that I think is critical for good characterization and it’s to use a ‘language bank’ for each character.  We each have a vocabulary that’s uniquely our own and when we speak we say something differently than someone else would say it.  Also, individuals have phrases that they use a lot that another person might never use.  My example of this is Jay Gatsby who always says ‘old sport.’  Once it’s established that Gatsby is the one saying this, Fitzgerald could even leave off dialogue tags because the reader knew that was part of Gatsby’s vernacular.  I plan to do this with my WIP characters.  I want to take any scene in which a character talks and put the dialogue into one document.  It should read almost like a stream of consciousness from that character and individual quirks about how the person talks should be evident in each one.

I hope these tips are useful to you.  Please leave a comment and let me know or leave a comment with your own tip.  Thanks for reading. 🙂


Novel Girls: Reaction and Editing

24 Sep

This edition of Novel Girls is well overdue!  I left town for the weekend right after Nicole and I last met and only now am finding the time to type it up.  We had our regular get-together and went over chapters from each of our stories.  I love how much we are able to encourage each other to keep writing and to keep editing!  I owe everything to these girls for keeping me going.  Our biggest piece of advice was on reaction of characters, which helps to lend itself to believable dialogue and pacing.

Let’s say my character receives a big piece of news, that her grandma is very sick.  The raw dialogue (no tags) might to something like this.

“Your grandma is very ill”
“Is it serious?”
“It will probably kill her.”
“How long, doctor?”
“It’s hard to say.  At most a year.”
“Thank you, doctor.  We’ll fight this to the end.”

Does this read as believable dialogue?  Not to me, it doesn’t!  The character’s transition from “It will probably kill her” to “How long” covers a range of emotions that a normal human would experience.  It’s what goes between the lines, the tags, description, and injected emotion that make this believable dialogue.  So, I try to use the five sense to brighten up the scene (some are more applicable than others).

  • Sight: Sight is a big one for this scene!  How does the character look when she receives the news from the doctor?  Is there a tear?  A trembling lip perhaps?  And the doctor: is he sympathetic or straight-faced?  And the setting of course; is the grandma there, her heart-rate monitor clicking away?  Is the character at home and is receiving a phone call?  All of these sights make the scene richer and more believable.
  • Touch: This helps us set the scene and the spatial relations.  Does the doctor touch her shoulder reassuringly?  Does the character run her fingers over her sick grandma’s knuckles?  All of these things are part of human reaction.
  • Sound: The beep of the heart rate monitor, the tone the doctor uses, the sobs of the character.  (I’m getting really excited here, I’m trying not to end every sentence with an exclamation point.)
  • Smell: Ever hospital I’ve ever been to has smelled like urine.  I have to imagine that this one would.
  • Taste: Ok, not really applicable here.

So let’s get down to it, shall we?  Combining sensory description, we take a Hemingway-eque conversation and add on some Hawtorn-ian description to come up with something perfectly in the middle.

The doctor sat down at the chair across from me.  We were both listening to the steady beep of her heart rate monitor and her raspy breath.  He didn’t surprise me when he said “Your grandma is very ill.”
I reach out and touch her hand, running my thumb over her white knuckles.  Her skin feels like tissue paper, so thin I could break it.  “Is it serious?”  I’m afraid to hear the answer and breath slowly to keep myself from sobbing.
He responds gently.  “It will probably kill her.”
I let the emotion run through me, shaking me from my very core to my fingertips.  He reaches out and grabs my forearm.  It’s good to have something solid when everything is changing so quickly.
“How long, doctor?”  I can only think about the number of times we’ll have to come back to this moment; the slow beep of machinery and the smell of stale urine on over-washed sheets.
“It’s hard to say.”  He pauses, face contorted as he tries to figure out how close I am to breaking down.  “At most a year.”
He lets me cry for a minute and hands me a tissue that is truthfully no better than thin cardboard.  I use it to wipe my eyes, black streaks of eye liner coming away and undoubtedly staining my face.  “Thank you, doctor.  We’ll fight this to the end.”  He squeezes my arm reassuringly and walks out of the room to let me figure out how to tell grandma she’s dying.

I don’t know about you, reader, but I’m a much bigger fan of the later.  The words between the dialogue show that the character is reacting with more than just her words and gives a better flow from one sentence to the next.

The other thing I wanted to talk about in this post is self-editing.  This is a little different from most other posts about how to self edit and is rather about how to stop self editing.  I can’t stop doing it!  This weekend, my husband decided to finally bite the bullet and read my manuscript.  We decided this would be best accomplished in the car on the way to Iowa out loud.  We only got through two chapters.

The frustration was that I kept stopping him, asking him to make a note about a sentence that didn’t sound right or somewhere that needed more description or a passage that needed to be completely re-written in general.  He got so frustrated from the break in the flow that he stopped.

Readers, I need to know if I’m alone in this!  Do you self-edit every time you hear/read your own writing?  Is there a way to get past this or is it a good thing?  Is being able to recognize my flaws a gift?  Please let me a comment and let me know how you deal with self editing!

Novel Girls: Space and Senses

13 Sep

I love talking about writing with my friends, it helps me think of what will make me a better writer!  This week, only Nicole and I were able to make it to our Thursday night get-together.  I shared the next ten pages of my rough draft and Nicole shared a revision she wrote of the third chapter of her WIP.  This week, we came across two topics worth blogging about, and the second one is a doozy!

  1. Spatial Relations: When you’re writing a scene, your writer’s head is so deep into the scene that you can see your characters and you watch them move within that scene.  It can be hard to translate that image to words sometimes.  Nicole and I both had some little problems with spatial relations this week.  Nicole’s scene had two characters entering a room together.  A few sentences later, one of them was calling from across the room.  I was confused as to when he had moved across (a quick one-sentence-fix).  Later in that scene, the character I still saw as near the door was picking at crumbs on a tablecloth and I was lost as to where the table was located in the apartment.
    We’ve been working on each other’s stories for so long that I’d developed a mental picture of Nicole’s apartment setting and I moved the characters to the correct locations in my mental picture without needing movement words to take them there.  However, the first-time reader might not have as strong of a visual of the apartment and the scene would flow more smoothly with a few sentences like “Male character crossed the room to grab a water bottle from the kitchen,” or “Female character sat down at the folding table the girls used as a sad excuse for a kitchen table.”
    Nicole found a big flaw in my use of spatial relations as well.  I have a scene when my female protagonist is sneaking out of the house to meet a friend on the street in front of the house.  Nicole was confused reading the passage as to how she would sneak out with no one seeing.  I drew a quick picture of the house as I imagined it and she was right, the protagonist would be walking right in front of the window to the dining room where her entire family was eating dinner.  Not very stealthy.
    So, to combat this, I have two options.  One is for me to have her take a different path out of the house or meet the friend somewhere else, a simple fix.  The other (much more complicated but the better solution) is to re-design the house and the way I view it.  She would still be in the line of sight when leaving the house and that’s a risk she wouldn’t take.  It’s a bigger fix than I imagined.
  2. Senses: This discussion was really twofold, the first in Nicole’s WIP and the second in mine.
    1. Senses defined by narrator: Nicole’s re-write of her third chapter involved changing a scene to a different character’s POV.  It was done well, but there was one line that threw me off.  So, in this scene, Character A is in a room when Character B wakes up.  The line that threw me off was that Character B saw XXX when she woke up, but Character A is narrating.  Character A would have had no way to know what Character B was seeing.  (Again, easy fix, “Character A eyed the XXX in front of her warily…”)  This brings out a good point that to stay strong in one POV, all sensory perception of other characters have to be removed.  They can report on any physical action taken as a result of sensory perception (his nose wrinkled at the bad smell…. she cringed at the loud whistle…) but can’t report on that sense.  Good point to check if you’re jumping or changing POVs in a story.
    2. Engage all senses:  One of my weaknesses as a writer is to not engage the senses and this came up again last night.  One of my scenes seemed really flat.  All of Nicole’s suggestions had to do with bringing in a sensory description such as the smell of one character’s perfume or the sound of another’s voice.  This reminds me of a blog post I read by Jools, one the blogs I follow.  She said that in every scene, she forced herself to ask, What else?  What else could be in the scene to make it richer and more vibrant?  I try to ask myself this as I work on my new WIP and as I revise my first.

So there you have it!  Some good advise/ reflection from this week’s Novel Girls.  Was this helpful?  Do you struggle with spatial relations or sensory description?  What do you do to overcome this?  Leave me a comment and let me know!