Radio Inspire Me: A Fun, New (to me) Writing Exercise

My excitement with Future Learn’s Fiction Course continues. One of the exercises from week two is to turn on the radio and come up with a story or beginning of a story (500 words) based on what you hear. I was skeptical but determined to try, so I set my radio to AM and slowly moved the dial until I heard a voice. The first thing I heard was not only give the rooms of your house warmth, style, and comfort. I quickly changed the tuner to noise, so I didn’t hear anything else. The voice made me think of a door-to-door salesman and I imagined some odd things for him to be selling. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to try a couple more. By the time I developed my idea, all of my radio segments fit right in (they are in italics) and I wrote an idea for a Sci-Fi Flash Fiction story. Enjoy!

dsc02686.jpg

 

Horace Bentley-Jaguar IV felt a bit woozy as he adjusted to the three-dimensionally rendered environment. Wiggling his toes felt real, but they wiggled inside shoes made from animal hide buffed to a glaring shine, the kind “wealthy” people had worn on earth during the times of excessive greed and poverty before the original Moon Colonies. He held a colorful beverage with small white and green spheres skewered by a tiny stick floating in the liquid. Wanting the full experience, he brought the glass to his lips. He felt a sharp tingle on his tongue, then a slight burn in his throat, but he didn’t taste or smell anything. Good try, he thought.

With his first immersed step, a warm, confident voice said, “Welcome to your new BAM-AG Home and the best decision you will ever make.” The voice reminded Horace of a strange history lesson he had once seen as a boy. A man in stiff, off-white polyester (a frightening chemical concoction that was banned on the Moon) with large green and blue horizontal and vertical stripes from shoulder to pant hem had arrived at a woman’s door and used a similar voice in an attempt to convince her that she wanted to exchange his pieces of thick, hairy floor covering for pieces of paper.

The voice of the retro-plaid coercer continued, “BAM-AG appreciates that you love your current BAM-AG Home, but with the overcrowding of the Moon Colonies, violent asphyxiation fatalities have surpassed reports of gun violence and oxygen combustion combined. That is a 600% increase over the last six years. If this trend continues, the Moon will be as unlivable as the Earth in only ten short years. But you already know that, don’t you?”

Horace nodded his head enthusiastically, pushing the gyroscopic centering mechanism of the rendering to its limits.

“Lucky for you, the same visionary company that developed The Moon Colonies understood the market and had the ability to teach me their understanding, so I can share it with you. When you purchase a BAM-AG Home you are getting the best that The Conglomerate of Corporate Super-Powers can offer. In other words, your investment is backed by the leaders you trust.”

Horace admired The Logos of The Great Leaders tastefully rendered along the mantel.

“The mind-blowing Future Tech Sensors covering every surface of your home, respond to your physical and emotional needs before you even know them yourself. The intuitive controls not only give the rooms of your house warmth, style and comfort, but also provide you with complete security: regulating oxygen levels to reduce combustion; controlling perimeter armaments in case of threat; and delivering holographic companionship and entertainment.”

The inspiring tones of The BAM-AG March began to play behind the voice bringing a tingle from Horace’s temples to the top of his scalp.

Today is the day that you need to remember those lost–not only those on Earth, but the increasing losses here on the Moon—and plan for your family’s future. Don’t wait! Act today and your BAM-AG Home will be ready when your grandchildren arrive on Mars.”

 

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Writing a Page Turner: Chapter Endings

Our exploration of conflict and suspense sprinted out of the gate in the first month of 2016. We have great books to read, a study plan, tools for evoking emotion and Moxie Sharpe is having weekly misadventures to put it all into practice. Exciting!

So what’s in store for February? Application.

Writing Moxie’s misadventures is a fun exercise, but, for me, this study is about turning my novel into a page turner. This month, we’ll be diving into aspects of revision where we can apply our new tools for creating conflict and suspense.

I began this focused study based on advice from a friend who said I needed to work on my chapter endings. So let’s start there. Chapter endings are convenient places for readers to put a book down and come back to later, right? Wrong! We don’t want the reader to ever put the book down, so chapter endings are tricky. We want to create a satisfying conclusion to the chapter, but also keep the reader in suspense so they will have to read the next page.

How do we create suspenseful, cliff-hanger chapter endings without being too obvious?

First, take a look at how your favorite authors do it.

I made a simple chart for exploring chapter endings. The left column is the number of the chapter; the next column is for checking if the chapter ends in a cliff-hanger and a quick note of how the cliff-hanger is accomplished followed by a column for the conflict at the end of the chapter and the fourth column is for the chapter’s final emotion and whether it is positive or negative. I have filled it in for Fear the Worst by Linwood Barclay

Chapter Cliff-hanger Conflict Emotion +/-
1. No. Occupational death Sarcastic/Bored
2. Yes. “Something’s happened” Ex-wife and new boyfriend Concern/Guilt
3. Yes. “Is our girl still alive?” Daughter left things in room Hope +
4. Yes. “Your daughter’s car” Found car Surprise +
5. Yes. “It’s blood, isn’t it?” Possible physical death Fear
6. No. Daughter’s bad-girl friend Humor +
7. Yes. “I’m pretty sure your daughter is alive” Is email telling truth? And Kate’s mental health Hope +
8. Yes. Yolanda legit. Daughter on other side of country? Psychological death- it trust Yolanda, more mystery Trust +
9. Yes. Picture of Syd Will picture arrive and be Syd Joy +
10. No. Airplane ride Hope +
11. Yes. Yolanda not answer phone Yolanda not work   at shelter Confusion/Disapp-

ointment

12. Yes. Left stuff in diner (not resolved) Psychological death – thinks sees Syd in every blond girl Frantic
13. Yes. The house had been trashed No luck in Seattle went home Defeat
14. Yes. “I think we found what you were looking for.” Psychological death. Scarf from Seattle pic found in room Betrayal
15. No. Can’t stay at home-crime scene
16. Yes. Ian carrying blonde girl over shoulder like a sack Question of physical death Curiosity/Fear
17. No. Not Syd Relief/Humor +
18. Yes. Found cell phone Conflict w/x’s boyfriend Curious +
19. Yes. A new clue X’s boyfriend’s son Surprise +
20. Yes. Syd might be pregnant Fist fight at car lot Surprise
21. No Evan’s sorry not good enough
22. Yes. Car-napped Threat of physical death Fear
23. Yes. Jumped from car Threat of physical death only temporarily avoided Humor +
24. Yes. A girl’s voice said, “help me” Phone woke him up in middle of night Concern/Fear/Hope
25. No. Daughter’s friend Tired
26. No.
27. No. Drive-by but okay Attempted physical death Relief +
28. Yes. Patty’s missing Police suspicion Dread
29. Yes. Andy from work connect Recent dealings with Andy Surprise
30. No Police suspicion Anger
31. Yes. Sets up going to bar to find Gary Conflict with Andy from work Anger
32. No, but intrigue Human trafficking revelation +
33. Yes. Place where Syd’s pic taken was hotel Saw something shouldn’t have Weird

discovery

+

34. Yes. Dead Kate in house Physical and psychological death -He will be a suspect Discovery
35. Yes. “For being Patty’s father” Psychological death surprise
36. No Two daughters missing revelation
37. No Patty’s dad humor +
38. Yes. The bad guys reveal Imminent death Betrayal
39. Yes. Has a plan Imminent death Hope +
40. No.
41. Yes. Leaving for Stowe Ex’s boyfriend Bob coming along Humor +
42. No Hands over wheel to Bob
43. Yes. Is Patty alive? Syd still missing Surprise
44. Yes. Bob has Syd Patty knew where Syd was whole time Relief +
45. Yes. Woman with gun Imminent death Surprise
46. Conclusion

 

That was a great exercise! I am going to add it to the reading study plan. A quick glance at the table shows that the majority of chapters end in some kind of cliff-hanger. Mr. Barclay uses an array of techniques to keep the reader turning pages past the end of a chapter.

End of chapter techniques:The cover of Fear The Worst by Linwood Barclay

  • Split dialogue
  • Middle of action
  • Surprise
  • Revelation
  • Character has a plan

While filling out the table, I also discovered that when I read a chapter that did not end with a cliff-hanger, I had trouble identifying the emotion and/or the conflict. These are the chapter endings I will look for in my own work and try to increase the conflict and suspense.

Now it’s time to apply this chart to my own work and see where I can improve my chapter endings.

I hope you’re excited for Moxie’s next thrilling, chilling, spine-tingling, action-packed misadventure coming this Sunday. Oh, the suspense!

Creative Similes: The Essence of Your Unique Voice

An iceberg and a waterfall

This freezing sensation also rose from within like the realization that she had been formed from an iceberg all along.

Simile – a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared. Comparisons and associations are how we help others to see the world from our unique perspectives.

Ralph Cornish, a fellow writer and friend, recently challenged our critique group to write a short piece consisting only of similes. To tackle the challenge, I noted the similes that popped into my head for a day. The next day, I organized my list of similes into a description of morning ritual:

She woke abruptly like the finality of the explosive light bulbs in her house that always need replacing at the same time and don’t sputter out but break suddenly with a loud retort when she hits the light switch. Her fragile grip on sleep had been broken by the sound of the entire house cracking like it had finally stretched “the spot” that released its stiffened spine. She didn’t feel refreshed but wilted like the flowers she left in the vase on the breakfast table because she didn’t want them to be dead. Restful sleep continued to be torturously out of reach like whispers of urgent news too quiet to comprehend. The room smelled sweet as syrup and the air felt as thick. As she dressed, the pulled muscle in her back worried her like an alligator’s jaw ready to snap. This morning, she made her coffee strong as a ranch hand and bitter as a dreamless atheist. She liked it black as Ape Cave and hot as the sulfur smelling mud pots of Yellowstone, so it felt like molten lava pouring down her throat and pooling in her middle. Sitting at the breakfast table, she smelled the rotting flowers and felt a sudden change in the room as if someone shoved ice down the back of her shirt. Her skin pricked like she had fallen into a nest of fire ants, like she had leapt into the still winter lake fed by dripping glaciers in the first heat of spring. This freezing sensation also rose from within like the realization that she had been formed from an iceberg all along. Then her lava coffee warmed her and she sighed like a steam train after it settled into the station releasing the concocted vapors and set pen to paper.

Completely over the top? You know it, but I had so much fun writing it, I wanted to continue exploring and writing similes.

So how do we create similes that are unique and stay away from cliches? One way is to write what you know. Draw from personal experiences and the things that make you different. For instance, if you love chess or have horses you might come up with:

He zigzagged the path like a rook.

His options were limited like a knight.

She kept her hand on him as she walked behind him like she would with a horse. She had a feeling he kicked.

As she brushed her fingers through his sweat-matted hair, dust flew into the light like she was brushing a horse after a ride.

I lived in New Orleans so I relate things to alligators and fire ants but now live near a sleeping volcano which makes me think of molten lava and glaciers. I studied psychology which would explain a simile in my work in progress –

She felt all of these recent slights tapping at her rage button like a pigeon in an experiment desperate for a seed.

When writing similes for your novel, think about your characters’ interests and environs as well. What similes would your characters create?

Speaking of my work in progress, I went to the find function in Word, typed “like a” and found two problems. One, there were very few similes and two, many were cliche:

like a veil had been removed from his eyes

be treated like a queen

his torso and arms were chiseled like an action hero

Now that I’m excited about creative similes and plan to come up with new ones every day as part of my writing warm up, finding places in my manuscript that beg for similes should be organic. However, not finding similes could be a sign that I need to provide more sensory information. Tastes, smells and textures are difficult to describe without using simile: She tasted like chewing tobacco and pixie-sticks; she discovered a spot behind his ear that smelled like lavender and cucumbers drizzled with a salty musk; His trimmed beard defined his jaw, but painfully pierced her face like needles and pins fused to porcupine quills. Thus, I think a good place for me to start is with finding places to add sensory detail to my manuscript.

And how will I deal with my cliches? Well, I will need to get more creative. Let’s see what we can do with the examples above:

“like a veil had been removed from his eyes”- What else clears cloudy vision?

like the ophthalmologist gave him a stronger prescription

like he had all the Visine in the world

like he finally found his other contact

“be treated like a queen”- How are queens treated? Everything I think about how a queen is described is a cliche, so this one’s tough.

you’ll never chip a nail again

your heels will never blister

you’ll be worshiped like Bonnie Lu Nettles (maybe a bit gauche)

“his torso and arms were chiseled like an action hero” – What is another way to describe well defined muscles?

like the peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains

his muscles were large enough to house hobbits

his muscles were as sharply defined as cliff walls meeting the ocean

Please write your suggestions in the comments. I can’t wait to read how you would deal with these pesky cliches.

I was inspired by this simile challenge, so to continue it and share it with others, I’ve started posting daily Tweets with #similes. Please join me in creating and sharing creative similes.

Exploring: Collective Nouns

A Cover of Coots

A Cover of Coots

Yesterday’s writing group was incredibly fun, thanks to Ralph Cornish presenting an exploration of collective nouns. We’re all familiar with at least a few collective nouns that we use in regular speech: a hill of beans, a mountain of debt, a litter of pups. But there are so many more fun and interesting collective nouns. The earliest list dates from around 1450.

For our group writing exercise, Ralph wrote out a selection of collective nouns and let us pick one from a bowl. We then wrote about our selection for 15 minutes. I grabbed A Transparency of Toupees. That made me so happy.

Ralph picked his selections from a fun, beautifully illustrated book, An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition by James Lipton. an Exaltation of Larks cover

Mr. Lipton sorts the terms of venery (term for hunting game) into six families:

1. Onomatopoeia – a gaggle of geese, a murmuration of starlings

2. Characteristic – a leap of leopards, a skulk of foxes

3. Appearance – a knot of toads, a parliament of owls

4. Habitat – a shoal of bass, a nest of rabbits

5. Comment – richness of martens, a cowardice of curs

6. Error (resulting from an incorrect transcription by a scribe or printer, faithfully preserved in the corrupted form by consequent compilers) – a school of fish, originally shoal

The book contains more than a thousand terms. Here are some of my favorite:

An ingratitude of children

An untruth of summoners

A rhapsody of blues

A wince of dentists

A business of flies

A smack of jellyfish

A labor of moles

An illusion of painters

A worship of writers

A conjunction of grammarians

A browse of readers

Here’s hoping we all find instance to use colorful terms of venery in our writing.

What’s your favorite collective noun?

To finish what I begin – Tips for finishing a draft

In you go

With all of the kids spending as much time in the lake as they could before heading back to school, I must have become nostalgic for a moment because I suddenly remembered something from my blue bird (tiny campfire girls) days — “to finish what I begin.” It really stuck in my head so I looked up where I thought it was from, the Blue Bird wish:

“To have fun.

To learn to make beautiful things.

To remember to finish what I begin.  

To learn to keep my temper in.

And to learn about nature and living outdoors.

To have adventures with all sorts of things.

To make friends.”

from alicemariebeard.com/campfire/memories.htm

“To finish what I begin” is my focus in my writing life right now, but a good dose of “to learn to keep my temper in” and fun and friends could definitely help me make beautiful things.

Tips for finishing a draft

1. Jump around – Ideas for scenes don’t usual come in a logical linear order. Don’t let ideas pass you by because they doesn’t happen in the scene you’re working on. Get into it. Write the ending. Write some dialogue that you have no idea where to put yet. I like to use red text to write in a general idea of what I think will happen in the places I skip, so when the idea for something I skipped in chapter one, because I was writing the ending, finally comes to me, I have a quick visual cue telling me exactly where I want to start.

2. Push through – Getting the words and ideas down on the page is the most important part of finishing your draft. Even if the words aren’t feeling quite write, or flowing the way you would like, keep going until you finish the scene, or get to the end of the idea. Don’t give up. Don’t get frustrated. The rewrite is when you get to drive yourself nuts striving for perfection.

3. Be Patient – Though it is good to push through when you have an idea, but it doesn’t seem to  flow the way you’d like, you don’t want to force things. When I want to finish a project, but it’s coming along more slowly than I would like, I often here the mean voice in my head speak up with things like, “I don’t even like this anyway,” or, “Nobody’s going to read this. What’s the point.” That is when I am very grateful I have a supportive friend who says, “Be patient with yourself” and “Tomorrow’s another day.” Some ideas just want more time than others, so be patient.

4. Ask for Help – Any story can be improved by some good research. Reading and looking things up on the internet can add a lot of fuel for ideas, but can also be a time suck leading you down a rabbit hole that somehow ends in useless celebrity gossip. When you really get stuck for story inspiration, ask for help. Think of someone you know who might know more than you do about a certain topic and give them a call. It’s a great break from writing and people really like being appreciated for their expertise. I’m always happily surprised by the solutions people come up with that I didn’t think of.

5. Focus on One Piece at a Time – When you have most of your story on the page, but it’s time to put all the pieces together and get rid of all the red skipped sections, yes, read through, thinking about everything that you have left to finish, but then just focus on one of those sections at a time. Listing everything you have left to do can be overwhelming and make you want to put it aside and do something else. Don’t. Just pick one scene you have left to finish and start with any writing technique that gets you writing. I like to start with dialogue: You may like to describe a setting or a character to get you into the scene. Often times, the little skipped parts in your draft only need a paragraph or two to tie things together, but once you get started, something that once seemed sticky as tar may flow like a river.

Getting Words on the Page – Three Tools to Increase Productivity

How fun is this

The Plot-o-Matic and Dialog warm-up in Morning Pages

It’s almost time for me to print out the rough draft of my novel, to read through the whole thing with fresh eyes, as if I just brought it home from the bookstore. But first, I have a few more goals to accomplish: I WILL finish reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (I was born at exactly midnight and I enjoyed many of his other books, so I thought it would be a fun read when I bought it at the airport about five years ago. It seems no matter how much I read, I’m only half-way through.) and I WILL finish the draft of my mid-grade fiction story and make a mock-up of my picture book. I’m pretty close on all of these goals so I’ve given myself (and now you can hold me to it) until the end of the July 4th weekend to finish (these goals) before the big first-draft read.

In the meantime, I thought I would share some writing tools that helped me get all my words to the page:

  1. Morning Pages – as recommended by Julia Cameron author of many inspirational books including the Complete Artists Way where I first discovered morning pages.
  2. The Plot-o-Matic – a rendition of PLOTTOMATIC! introduced by John Dufresne in his intelligent and useful book on writing, Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months.
  3. Dialogue Warm-up – a way that I get my writing going when my plan for the day escapes me. When I run out of things to say, I let my characters start up a conversation and watch where it goes.

Writing every day has not been easy for me, but I’m pretty close now. Throughout my journey to (almost) writing every day, I read everything in my local library on writing and everything recommended to me, plus a lot more. Only a few things really stuck with me and, through some development, still work for me.

Everyone has different amounts of time they can commit to their writing and most have to SQUEEZE it into their hectic lives (and family tithes). Making time for your passion makes you better for all the other people in your life, so that is why I want to emphasize . . .

  1. Morning Pages – Get up twenty minutes early if you have to. It will be totally worth it. Find three lined 8.5 X 11 sheets of paper. I use a thick college ruled notebook (I’m addicted to kukumusu designs, but they’re expensive and my super-favorite is already out of print, so I buy a bunch at a time). Start writing. Do not get dressed. Maybe make a pot of tea or coffee, but then – Start writing. Do not get up and do the things you remind yourself to do while you’re writing. Do not lift pen from paper. Write everything that comes to mind even if it is “I can’t think of anything” then “I’m spacing off”, etc. Keep writing until you fill all three pages. No excuses. No I have to’s.

Staying at the page for all three pages is much more difficult than I ever expected. I’ve worked with morning pages for years and looking back at my filled journals, there was very little written, but paragraphs of things done and things to do, with either woeful disappointments in not accomplishing these lists, or motivational speeches to myself of how I would accomplish these lists. After a while, however, I noticed if I did my morning pages those thoughts wouldn’t nag at me when I took a walk, or when I tried to meditate. I had more room for creative thought. More recently, I’ve started spending only the first page on those should do’s and the other two pages on character development and story ideas. These days most of my writing for the day is retyping my Morning Pages. I took a long time to get here, but if you have a story burning inside you, but can’t find time to write, set that alarm twenty minutes earlier than normal and give Morning Pages a try.

What about those days when even your morning pages won’t get you where you want to go? You feel dry of ideas, you want someone to just hand you a character, a conflict, or your character’s next step. Try the . . .

    1. Plot-o-Matic – I loved reading Dufresne’s book, Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months and I will bring it up more when I work through my rewrite. A plot-o-matic is easy to make. I made a Word document with large print, bold type, centered in 3” X 2” rectangles. I printed the subjects – Dufresne used occupations and I added character descriptions like “Conspiracy Junky” and “Disco Dancer”- on green cardstock, the needs or wants of those subjects on yellow cardstock, and an action the character took on blue cardstock. I cut out the different colored “cards” and turned them upside down so I couldn’t see what my options were and chose one of each. If you take a look at the picture at the top of this post you’ll see I drew “A conspiracy junky wants to rescue kittens, so he listens at the wall as the neighbors argue” Fun right? Why rescue kittens? What conspiracy could the neighbors be part of? Are they the neighbors’ kittens? This tool can be great for story ideas, but you can also customize it to help you decide what your characters will do next. Limit the subject pile to only include your characters and choose wants and actions until you feel inspired. Remember to write at least five minutes for every combination you choose. Exploring what you don’t think will happen can be even more exciting than what you thought you were looking for.

If you don’t want to make a plot-o-matic, there are similar products you can buy:
The Storymatic Classic – 540 Unique Cards
Rememory – Share Memories and Make New Ones
Story Slam – Hundreds of cards with more than 600 unique story concepts, for endless storytelling fun.
The Amazing Story Generator: Creates Thousands of Writing Prompts

And finally, my personal trick that gets my mental juices flowing when I’m not quite sure what to write about . . .

  1. Dialogue warm-up – Discovering dialogue as a way to get my juices flowing was a major step to finishing the draft of my novel. The way it works for me is: I’ll imagine I’m speaking from one of my character’s point of view. Who does she want to talk to today? Who might she run into in the scene I’m thinking about? Who do I picture when I write, “Oh, wow, didn’t expect to see you here.” I let their conversation flow. While I write, I picture their motivations, what they are saying and not saying, who they might talk about. Where are they as they converse? Are they in public? Does another person join them? By the time I have finished writing a short conversation, I often have my next scene in my head, even if I never use the conversation in a finished piece, somehow my characters tell me what I need to know. Try it. Let the conversation flow. It’s fun. Big Tip: Don’t worry about dialog punctuation, or he said she said while you’re getting it out in these dialogue warm-ups. Only pay attention to starting a new paragraph for each new person speaking and adding physical descriptions of vocal or body language nuances that seem important. Be in the moment. You can put in all the other stuff when the conversation is over.

I hope at least one of these tools that work for me helps you find what works for you. The only way to know what works, and doesn’t work, is to physically put pen to paper in ways you haven’t tried yet. The job is only a little bit thinkin’ about it and a whole lot of writing it down.

I would love to hear some of the things you’ve discovered to keep pen to page. Please share your tips in the comments.

Exploring the Senses – Finale: Using sensory information in your writing

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

image from asiadesignwithpurpose.com

Through this series on exploring the senses we (you and I) have explored all the major senses and more. We’ve experimented with how sensual stimuli trigger memories that can inspire writing and played with different ways to add sensory detail to our writing. Now, I want to talk about when and how to use this lush sensory information we’ve discovered.

While writing your first draft, feel free to write all of the sensory details for everyone and everything. During the rewrite however, it’s important to ask yourself: Did I add this detail because it tells the reader something important about the character, because it is an important element of the story, or just because I thought it was cool? If the honest answer is the last one, take it out. Even if you came up with the greatest way to describe the color of the sky or the smell of water, if the sensory detail is not important to telling the story, take it out. Don’t let this statement turn you away from sensory detail in any way. Most sensory details add depth to your characters and dimensionality to your settings. I solely wish to remind you to be aware of your readers. When you bring sights, sounds and smells to a reader’s attention, s/he will expect them to have importance and be let down if they don’t.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Unexpected sights: The little bunny and its surroundings looked normal at first, but upon closer examination the bunny was really a swirl of white dots, as if I could see its cells magnified in space.

Creative mismatching of sensory detail is a quick cue to readers that they aren’t in Kansas anymore. A pink sky over yellow water that smells of asparagus is an instant cue that the reader is not on the earth s/he is familiar with.

Exercise: Create as many sensory mismatches as you can in 5 minutes. Use your favorite ones to imagine a place where this sensory information exists (i.e. another dimension, another planet, the center of the earth, an undiscovered land at the bottom of the ocean, under the melting ice caps, inside a future space station, etc.). Write a scene about a person experiencing this place for the first time using the sensory details you’ve created.

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I was separating into colorful cells, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still have my consciousness?

Inspiration from exercise: After staring at the bunny circles until it made me dizzy, I looked down, but down was no longer an option. I no longer had form. My cells now danced, worlds within worlds orbiting each other. How did I still recognize my consciousness?

I’ve enjoyed exploring the senses with you. Don’t forget to stop and smell the bad smells as well as the roses, and describe them in all their malodorous glory.

Over the next few months I’ll be working on the first rewrite of my current novel. As I work, I look forward to sharing my discoveries: what works, what doesn’t work, trials, tribulations and epiphanies. Please share your tips, tricks, suggestions, or questions along the way.

Exploring the Senses – The Sixth Sense

Playing ghost hunter on Halloween night. Ghost floutist or submarine?

Playing ghost hunter on Halloween night. Ghost flutist or submarine?

next shot no flute

The next picture zoomed in on same spot. The ghostly image is gone.

Though everyone agrees on the five major senses, neurologists and perception researchers believe there are more. Some think the main senses should be broken into  sub-genres. Others believe we have many sensory cell types leading to other senses including: balance, pain, temperature, time, body part location, and sensing internal organs. However, when we talk about the sixth sense, none of these other senses come to mind. The sixth sense is commonly understood as a blanket term for how we perceive everything that is considered paranormal (not scientifically explainable).

Writing about the sixth sense can put your story into the horror or fantasy genre, or it can add depth to a character. A character who believes she has psychic abilities can be odd, crazy, or in tune with things others cannot see depending on how the writer presents the sixth sense.

Exercise: What kind of psychic power do you wish you had? Choose one (mind reading, seeing the future, telekinesis, etc.) and write about a character who has it, or having it yourself. Is it a positive or negative experience? Are you able to use it to help others, or is it a torturous burden? How would this insight or ability change how you relate to others? Write for five or ten minutes.

Example: When we did this exercise in writing group I chose a clairvoyant who sees the future in her dreams. This is an expanded version of what I wrote in group.

Unless she passed out drunk, she always left her computer on playing reruns of television shows on repeat. The song at the end of each episode would wake her up just long enough to kick her out of REM sleep. It was the only way she knew to avoid the dreams. She had been doing it for over eight years and was sick of it. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, she thought, as she turned off the computer.

After a few vivid demonic visages that almost convinced her she wanted to watch a comedy-mystery for the 10,000th time, she slept. The nightmarish images came in full color. It was a hot sunny day made nice by a breeze. She and Miss Opal sat at a café having a pleasant catch up chat when the bomb was thrown from a moped speeding by. The scene happened in slow motion: her head turning, the white helmet with the black reflective visor moving toward them, the brown paper package coming into view just as it was thrown. She hated the ominous seconds that felt like a lifetime in which the viewer wants to do something, but cannot move. She watched as her friends and neighbors blew apart, heard their screams and smelled their burning flesh.

The room was dark and quiet. The clock read 4:10 am. She wasn’t sitting up, crying or sweating. She was more angry than sad. Just because she had been talking to her dead friend Miss Opal didn’t mean the bombing would happen in New Orleans. It didn’t mean it would happen at all. She wouldn’t tell anyone or watch the news. Knowing never helped her help anyone, not even herself.

Let your imagination run wild. Explore more than one idea of the sixth sense. Is psychic ability a spiritual issue for you? Does the idea of a sixth sense bring up death and afterlife philosophies, or is it pure fantasy wish fulfillment?

Exploring the Senses – Touch

Touching Ostrich Feathers in a Brown Paper Bag

Touching Ostrich Feathers in a Brown Paper Bag (make sure you can’t see what you’re touching to do the exercise we did)

Touch is a sense most of us take for granted – until we’re lying on satin sheets, or picking glass and gravel out of a knee – but  touch is sensed through the skin which is the largest organ of our human bodies. The sense of touch is based on detection of mechanical energy, or pressure against the skin. Touch, like taste, can include sensing temperature and pain; these receptors also exist in the skin and can be perceived simultaneously. In our writing, texture can bring dimension to an object and a scene. I hope through this exercise you will find that touch, like the other senses, can also bring up memories and vivid images. Let your characters touch the textures that fascinate you. How do they feel? How do they react?

Exercise – Each member of writing group brought a mystery object in a paper bag. We each reached into each bag, exploring with only our fingers and wrote down everything that came to mind.

My responses:

  1. Wet. A large alien eyeball. Birds dropping pits on the deck. A warm summer day enjoying the ability to pick my lunch from the garden. Sticky hands and face from popsicles. Running after the ice cream man. Red white and blue rocket pops. Item: peeled plum.
  2. I was never good at ice skating. My weak ankles would wobble from side to side. I enjoyed floor hockey. The side texture (of the object) made me think of tines. I remember playing air hockey at the skating rink. I really liked the feel of the cool air coming up from the table. Item: a hockey puck.
  3. Soft edges on a crusty spine. I remember going to the peacock farm with my mom when I was little, so she could pick up some long colorful plumes for her huge ceramic vase in the living room. It reminds me of the hundreds of metal loops I clamped feathers into after carefully bending each feather with pliers for the huge shoulder harnesses to be worn at the Mardi Gras balls. Item: ostrich feather.

Unlike taste, touch was again quick to conjure vivid images and memories. I found it easy to identify what was in the bags without looking and had stories to tell triggered by the objects. My response to the peeled plum could read as a little poem to summer present and past (Maybe minus the alien eyeball. Guess it depends if I meet any aliens and get to touch their eyeballs this summer).

I look forward to reading your experiences with this exercise. Remember, your skin is your largest sensory organ with areas of different levels of sensitivity. Our hands and fingers may be the most sensitive and dexterous, but rolling around in the grass, or going for a swim could be a great place to start exploring your sense of touch.

Exploring the Senses – Taste

Tasting sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory

Tasting sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory

Smell and taste are frequently stimulated together. The smell of food, for instance, greatly enhances its flavor. However, taste is a distinct sense from smell and should not be overlooked when describing your characters’ sensory perceptions. There are five well recognized types of taste receptors. These sensations are categorized as sweet, bitter, salty, sour and savory (often referred to with the Japanese word Umami). While exploring taste, I recommend finding ways to experience all five even though some of the taste sensations are not completely pleasant.

Exercise One: Gather things to taste that will activate all of the areas of your tongue. Also try some different textures. I tried soy sauce (Savory/Umami), lemon juice (sour), Agave nectar (sweet), Tonic water (bitter), pita chips (salty and crunchy) and plain Greek yoghurt for a smooth texture. Spend time moving each taste around your mouth and write down everything that comes to mind.

My example (Remember these are just notes. Forgive the incomplete sentences.):

Lemon Juice – More of a restrictive feeling on the tongue than a flavor, first on the right side then strongly at the back of the tongue. It stays in my throat and then I can feel it at the back of my sinuses.

Liquid Aminos (like soy sauce) – I feel it in the center top of my tongue. It is salty, but not from salt. It tastes brown like bear fur or the soft bark of a rotting tree.

Pita chips – do not taste as salty as the Liquid Aminos. The crunch is satisfying, makes me feel contented. My teeth feel sturdy and powerful. The bread flavor lingers as the crumbs liquefy and my tongue removes the leftovers from the bowls of my molars.

Tonic Water – Leaves a sour aftertaste at the top back of my mouth. All it is is sour aftertaste. It grabs the front of my tongue, but the bubbles carry it quickly to the top of my mouth where it lingers.

Agave Nectar – has a bit of a thick brown Molasses flavor though it is supposed to be the light neutral flavor. I don’t like it. I stick out my tongue and say “Eh.”

Greek yoghurt – It is cool on the tip and top of my tongue. Sour in aftertaste. A little vanilla or sweet at first. I feel the tang right at the top center of my mouth. I enjoy moving the thick silky texture around my mouth which I find odd because I hate the texture of pudding and it is very similar.

I was surprised that my notes were mostly physical descriptions of the feelings in my mouth. I did come up with a little bit of imagery that may be useful in my writing. I think I’ll try this exercise again sometime in the future with fruits and vegetables and also with a meal.

physical sensations on the tongue

physical sensations on the tongue

Exercise Two: With your new insights and sensory awareness from exercise one, take your main character out to dinner. What is his or her favorite food or restaurant? Why? What foods, smells and textures does he or she hate? Why? Once you get to your table start taking notes. How does your character make menu choices? Did s/he know what to get before arrival, or are menu decisions difficult? When the food arrives try to perceive everything about the meal as your character. Remember that the smell, texture and taste are all part of the taste sensation. Take notes of everything that comes to mind. If you invite people to join you and your protagonist on your taste adventure, make sure to clue them in to what you’re doing. You wouldn’t want them to think you were being rude to them, taking notes about them, or just plain crazy.