Help your readers to use their senses

Tonight I begin teaching a two-week writing workshop at UCSD Extension on “Writing with the Senses.” It may seem obvious that a writer should write with the senses, but many new writers neglect that aspect of storytelling. Others overdo it, writing about every wrinkle and twitch to the point where we lose focus of what is happening in the story.

Meg Gardiner writes with great control, a necessity when writing thrillers. But she doesn’t forget to incorporate the senses. Here is an excerpt from her book The Memory Collector: Tang was a sea urchin, small and prickly. She wore a black peacoat, black slacks, black boots. Spiky black hair. Jo knew that beneath the barbs, she had a heart—a cautious, well-guarded heart. But reaching it could result in cuts and bruises. She liked Tang enormously.

The sea urchin image sells the rest of the description, and tells us a great deal about Tang.

Another writer who weaves the senses in his writing is John Morgan Wilson, as in this excerpt from Simple Justice: The city was golden, blinding, blasted by heavenly light. It was one of those days that made nipples rise and minds wander and bodies shiver with sensuality and inexplicable dread. The kind of day when the heat wrapped snugly around you but sent an ominous chill up your back at the same time, like the first sexual touch in a dark room from a beautiful stranger whose name you’d never know.

Days that make nipples rise? Wonderful line!

Or consider Michael Chabon, who sometimes gets carried away, but writes delightful lines like these in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union: Peril Strait is a jumble of boats, a fuel pump, a row of weathered houses in the colors of rusted-out engines. The houses huddle on their pilings like skinny-legged ladies. A mangy stretch of boardwalk noses among the houses before wandering over to the boat slips to lie down. It all seems to be held together by a craze of hawser, tangles of fishing line, scraps of purse seine strung with crusted floats. The whole village might be nothing but driftwood and wire, flotsam from the drowning of a far-off town.

I was inexplicably delighted when I read “a mangy stretch of boardwalk noses among the houses before wandering over to the boat slips to lie down.” Who SEES a boardwalk that way? But it’s a perfect description.

As you read, ignore those prohibitions that echo in your mind about not marking in your books. When you see a strong description, highlight it, or write it in your writing journal. Learn to embrace writing that brings the senses alive. Not only will your own reading become more enjoyable, but you’ll find yourself looking at the world differently, as a writer should.

Vision Prose

I was recently talking with an author friend (Meg Gardiner) about a book I recently read, a self-published book that screamed for a proper edit. When asked about the primary problem, I said it was “visual prose.”

Too often, writers envision what they are writing, sort of like running a movie in their minds, and then write what they see. This is what I term “vision prose.” Vision prose will kill a good story.

Here’s an example (created just for this blog, not quoting anyone else’s writing): Todd pushed his chair back, got up from the chair, and grabbed his glass from the table. He looked at Nyla with hatred and then turned and walked to the door. Realizing he still had the glass in his hand, he put it on the shelf, took hold of the doorknob, and walked through the door without a backward glance.

I’m not kidding. This is the kind of writing I sometimes have to edit, and, more often, find in published works.

How would I fix it? First, I’d ask the question: what’s the main point of the scene? Answer: Todd leaves in anger or disgust. We don’t care about the glass. If you put the glass in the scene, and show us Todd placing it on the shelf, it had better figure later in the story. Otherwise, leave it out.

We also don’t need to see him push his chair back before rising from the table, unless he does it slowly, with great deliberation, his anger building with each backward inch. If there isn’t some specific meaning to his pushing back the chair, don’t write it.

…. and there’s so much more, but I’ll leave it alone after I ask: How did he manage to walk through the door? Is he only protoplasm?

My suggested edit: Todd scraped his chair backwards, glaring at Nyla, and left without a backward glance.

Okay, so I could probably improve even that, but you get the gist. We don’t need a blow-by-blow description of each of his actions. Give us the meat and leave the fixin’s out.

Next: Describing a Character: Why and How?