Wednesday, August 3, 2011

RTW: Take Me There

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This Week's Topic:

The Five Senses. How you use them in your writing, how you are inspired by them, pictorial essays, that character with smelly socks, books that have used them well, the ones that are currently missing from your work, etc.

When I read a book, I want to be there. I love being immersed in a story, with characters I fall in love with, feeling like I’m right there by their side. But I also don’t want too much information so that my imagination can fly. So I try to do the same in my writing.

How am I inspired by the five senses?

I’d like to believe voice and dialogue are a no-brainer for me. Description is something I have to work very hard at. I’m good at the visual and auditory. I’ve worked really hard at describing how my surroundings smell and feel. Taste—not so much. Unless my characters are eating or kissing, that’s one that’s lacking for me. But I’m working on it.

How do I get better?

I put myself there. If I’m writing about the beach, well, by all means, I must go to the beach. I write about football games; therefore, I listen to the crowds, I take in wafting stale buttered popcorn, the freshly rain-doused air, feel the ground’s texture or slip (unintentionally, of course!) down the silver risers after intermittent thunderstorms.

I write about weight rooms too, and can last about ten seconds when my students have been working out for over an hour. But I hear metal clanking, see weights piled up, rusty from overuse and time. We won’t go into the smell, but I think that one you can picture.

I’ve written about Chapel Hill and Washington DC. New York City. So I take fieldtrips. Or I google—a LOT. The actress in me clicks on, and I OBSERVE.

And what if I can’t go there? What if it’s a world of my own creation? Like my made-up high schools and evil-scientist facilities? Or the futuristic world I'm working on for a, er...future story?

Then I paint a picture in my mind. I strive to hear. I reach out and touch.
I tend to use (and try not to overuse) metaphors and similes to paint a more potent picture. Here’s a small excerpt from one of my stories to illustrate (see I’m painting you a picture!)

Hospitals are pretty freaky places—especially at four-thirty in the morning. At first, nurses poured on me like an itinerant summer storm, taking my vitals, recording information. Outside my private room, busyness swarmed like bees. Babies screamed from neighboring rooms, gurneys flew by at a cheetah pace. But the hustle and bustle was a comfort to any silence that ensued. When my nurses left for the rape kit, it seemed somebody hit a pause button, even the hallways quieted. Anticipation of what came next compared to being in the eye of a North Carolina hurricane. I’d brunted a major storm, but I knew I still had to weather one just as strong.

Books that have used them well?

Since I have a Dory memory, I’m going to go with my most recent read: Abandon by Meg Cabot. This is only my second Cabot book I’ve read and one of the things I love about her stories - every page crackles with her descriptions. Here’s an excerpt I read last night:

Instead of home, or standing by the lake, I was in a long elegantly appointed room.

The horse was gone. The guards were gone. The beach along the lake was gone. All of the people—the people who’d been waiting in the lines—were gone, too.

The wind was still there, though. It caused the long, gauzy white curtains, hanging from the elegant arches along one side of the room, to billow softly.

But the wind was the only thing I recognized. Everything around me—the white-sheeted bed topped with a dark, heavy canopy on one side of the room; the pair of throne-like chairs at the long banquet table sitting before an enormous hearth at the other; the ornate antique tapestries, all depicting medieval-looking scenes, which hung here and there on the smooth, white marble walls; even the white divan on which I was sitting—I had never seen before in my life.

I was dreaming. I had to be.

Except that everything—the sound of water bubbling in the fountain in the courtyard outside the arches; the softness of the fur rug beneath my suddenly bare feet; the smell of the burning firewood in the hearth—felt so real. As real as everything had felt a split second before.

Most real of all was him, sitting beside me on the divan.

Hoo boy.

And while describing setting is picturific, I also believe it’s voice that sets the tone. The mood. And that can tickle many of the senses.

And since we're on the subject of senses - in my writing, I believe this guy is mucho important.

Yeah - my sixth sense. My gut. My intution. The feeling that something's really off with my work. Or amazingly ON. It's a curse and a blessing, especially during revisions. It's a relentless nag on my inner editor, either trying to get me to keep a line I've deleted ten times. Or get me to lose a scene I thought I couldn't live without.

But it really is a blessing.

So...using all five six senses in writing. Here's a quote by Gertrude Stein that completely sums up what I try to do.

A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears.

My best work comes when I see my story unfold in front of me like a movie, so fast my fingers can’t keep up with my mind. I’m there. And I want to make sure my reader is too, so I grasp every sound, every sight, every smell.

One of the biggest compliments someone can give me: “I feel like I’m there.”

I’ll conclude with an excerpt from one of my first stories - so don't judge me too harshly - but let’s see if I take you there.

Third down and Coach looked to pull one last miracle out of his hat. The crowds hushed as the Bears took to the line of scrimmage. Jonathan Whitley, our quarterback, lined up several yards behind the center and receiver Jordan Williams hovered as close to the sideline as possible. Even my limited football experience told me a Hail Mary was coming. However, within seconds of Whitley finishing his cadence, he got pummeled by an overzealous nose tackle, the ball popping out of his hands and landing two feet away from – yep – you guessed it – Marcus Huff.

Between the conflicting screams of “Fall on it!”, “Fumble!”, and “Pick it Up!”, Mark somehow managed to scoop up the ball and initiate a long and highly improbable run to the goal line seventy-two yards away. I grimaced as a horde of Cavaliers swarmed toward him like a den of lionesses on a helpless gazelle.

Why, oh why didn’t he just fall on the ball? Or run it out of bounds to stop the clock? We still had eight seconds. Jonathan could have another crack at it.
But, oh no. Mark had to be the hero. The stupid, I’m going to wring his neck hero. Sure wish his IQ would kick in gear and blow some sense into that illogical little brain of his. I covered my eyes as six enormous defenders headed straight for him.

And then – shocker – Mark blew right through them – more like danced through every pinhole in their defense. My mouth fell open as he spun out of one last tackle and sprinted down the field. Did I say sprinted? More like flew faster than a speeding bullet. I swear he was running a hundred miles an hour. From behind the line of scrimmage to his sudden halt two yards beyond the goal line, the entire run took less than three seconds.

A deafening silence momentarily paralyzed the stadium as both sides of the stands and sidelines tried to take in the events of the past few (and I mean few) seconds.

The Bear’s side erupted in a roar. Fans were screaming, cheering, slapping high fives. Enthusiastic hugs crested through the crowd like a wave. My eyes picked out Mark’s father in the stands, a smile lighting up his face like a full moon on a cloudless night. Hmm. I would have deemed him proud papa of the year, but that seemed like a terribly gross understatement.

I tried to notate Mark’s record breaking run onto my clipboard but my nervous system had focused solely on keeping my jaw from colliding with the ground. I just stared with widened eyes at him as he casually tossed the ball to an awaiting referee and galloped to the sideline.

I saw Brent out of the corner of my eye, a smile on his face shadowed by bewilderment. My body turned in the direction of the cheerleading squad and Alexa’s icy blue eyes caught mine. An unspoken puzzle unfolded between us and I saw her eyes trying to fit the pieces together. Eventually, I let my eyes wander to the stands. Searching the sea of piccolos and trumpets, I finally found what I was looking for – the weird link to this crazy conundrum.

Atop the highest bleacher stood Bender – his black leather jacket a blemish on his red band uniform. He stared out into the madness and I saw his acerbic gaze fixate on my best friend.

And just as I expected - plastered on his pallid face was an unmistakable, unforgettable, mordant grin.

Um...long post much? Sorry, peeps. I got carried away.

How about YOU? How do you use the five senses in YOUR writing?


  1. Good post. I like your writing about the football game. I think you definitely include the five senses in this piece of writing. Good job.

  2. Wow! You went all out on this one, lady! I love writing descriptions that employ the five sense, and from the looks of your excerpt, you do too. I haven't read ABANDON but it looks good--beautiful writing!

  3. Your football scene is fun! I liked this description, though it's not necessarily the most sensory oriented, lol: "more like danced through every pinhole in their defense."

    The scene from Abandon is pretty awesome, too. Haven't read that yet, but it looks good :)

  4. Great post! You did go all out.

    Fields trips are great inspiration...hmm, I wonder where my WIP can take me next.

  5. Chapel Hill as in UNC:Chapel Hill? <3

    And you're right - go to the place you want to write about so your senses can dose up and then pour onto the page.

  6. I love this quote: "A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears."

    And referring to your memory as a Dory memory: LOL! I love it!

    Great post :)

  7. Wow. Another great take on this. Good call on your 6th sense!

  8. I like your mentioning taking field trips - being there - before you write a scene. This is the best way to be inspired, especially if you're focusing on your senses. I'd bet there's so much that surprises you about how you think a place feels, smells, tastes, etc. when you pay close attention.

  9. I went long with a tease on my post, too! It's obvious from your writing that you not only feel the need to observe everything around you, but also need to re-interpret it for the rest of us. I love it when people do that--it's the closest thing to seeing things through someone else's eyes. At least until they figure out how to digitally save memories and such for others to experience.

  10. I also "watch" my story unfold like a movie, desperately trying to get it all down before it moves on to the next scene. It's the only way I can write. I need to be there, smelling and hearing and feeling everything my character is. Although, I kind of suck at the taste thing.

    Loved the excerpt!

  11. Interesting take... and an interesting read. Field trips are a great idea!

  12. Great snippets - thanks so much for sharing!

  13. Great scenes. I wanna write like Meg Cabot when I grow up.

  14. For some reason it's hard for me to remember my senses! I hope I'm using all SIX :) I like your sixth sense. And that book by Meg Cabot looks great! Thanks for the recommendation.

  15. Ahh, beautiful! So vivid, Alison. You've got great skill. I'm a really tactile sort of writer. I use those senses constantly. I like for readers to really feel a scene, you know? You clearly know your stuff, too.


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