How can you keep readers involved in your story? One way is to incorporate rich sensory detail—the five senses we normally think of, plus a few others less often mentioned in the how-to books on writing.
Including these senses bring your writing alive, helping readers distinctly imagine your scenes and stay with your story.
It’s easy, though, to get into a rut where we rely on our dominant sense. I’m strongly oriented to the visual. If asked to write a scene where someone’s cooking prawns (shrimp), I would probably focus on sight, their bright orange shells hiding the white and pink striped meat. But if pushed to include the other four senses, I would describe the prawns’ briny smell, plus their cool and slippery feel, chewy texture, delicate salty taste, and the crackling sound when their thin shells are broken.
Exercise: Focus on hearing
Try this exercise, using the sense of hearing. Find a spot where something is happening. Examples:
- A cafe where people are eating and being served.
- A commuter train, with passengers talking and the train starting and stopping.
- A busy shopping mall, wing of museum, children’s playground, or kitchen during food preparation.
Now ignore four of your main senses and concentrate on sound. It may help to close your eyes.
Pay attention to the number of sounds you hear, their intensity or level, and categorise each sound in terms of being pleasant or annoying. How many can you identify? Which are most familiar? Which are unusual? Do some sounds change in volume, duration, or movement—moving away or toward you? After listening for five minutes, open your eyes. How does adding the visual sense now affect your listening? If you wish, jot down the sounds that seem most important, and play at including them into a scene or poem.
Try doing the same exercise–perhaps using the same location–but concentrate on another sense: sight, taste, smell, touch.
Incorporate other senses
Although we normally think of five senses, there are others. Try incorporating some of these senses in your writing.
- Temperature. Heat or cold. Temperature may be external—the shock on the skin after leaping into a cold pool. Or internal, such as the sensation in the mouth and throat after downing a scalding drink.
- Pain. Sensed pain may also be experienced as external (e.g. sunburn) or internal (aching joints, sore muscles). Individuals differ in terms of their sensitivity to pain, generally or to particular stimuli. When the dentist cleans my teeth, I’m happy to pay extra for the nitrous oxide that keeps me in a state of bliss. Some people don’t feel tooth pain and even spurn injections as unnecessary.
- Body sense. Culture pays a big part in the way people interpret other’s messages re physicality. A posture that seems like a come-on in one culture may be off-putting or insulting in another. Direct eye contact is fine in some cultures, but viewed as taboo or aggressive in others. The cultural interpretation may change due to gender conventions.Cultural norms may determine how comfortable you feel in terms of your physical closeness to others and your ease in being alone. I was made aware of my culture’s boundaries for proximity when I boarded a very crowded bus in Indonesia. What seemed oppressive to me, an invasion of personal space, was simply normal life for the locals.
- Body image and age. Your adolescent character may be facing puberty, with body changes such as voice, body hair, hormonal spikes, etc. Your elderly characters may be going through the same changes, in reverse.
- Time. The sensory dimension of time includes what we consider to be our usual temporal rhythm, plus our sense of how slowly or quickly time seems to pass. Again, culture plays a major role. It establishes our sense of what’s appropriate—how long we can keep someone waiting before it becomes rude, how long we should stay at a boring party before leaving, and how long we can delay in responding to message or invite before we feel the need to apologise. In one culture, it may be OK to ring someone late at night or knock on their door in the early morning. In other cultures, such actions could seem bizarre or aggressive.Movies and TV series often make good use of such differences, creating drama or humor based on different characters’ sensory conventions.
(The sound exercise is developed from Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction.)
It was hard to believe some of the entries were legit in the book, Something Nasty in the Slushpile: How not to get published. The Web provides so much information about writing and submitting a book proposal. So I thought employees working in the publisher’s slushpile would no longer find anything odd.
I was wrong, as shown by this book’s many examples of writers’ failed attempts to interest a publisher. E.g.:
- Asking which of three book ideas the publisher would like to publish first ‘so I can allocate my time most efficiently.’
- Asserting that having no previous writing experience is not a drawback because the manuscript is ‘written basically from my own experiences [so] it will be uniquely a one-off.’
- Explaining that with 15 books written and 22 more planned, ‘over time I will be as celebrated as J.K. Rowling, so it’s going to be in your best interests to sign me up right now.’
- Assuring that this first book will be a success because ‘the collective unconscious is currently ready to receive it warmly.’
- Admitting to having never tried writing a book before, but now ‘I really am going to give this a go . . . . ‘
- Enclosing 30 pages of a novel, plus this comment: ’Before you start, I should warn you that it is no great literary masterpiece or creative magnus opus.’
- Suggesting another person’s book idea, e.g., a grandparent describing a grandson’s ‘riveting’ emails, written during his gap year (a year of travel, between high school and university or job).
Make a positive first impression
- Would you like to join me on my journey to hell and back?
- I proudly hereby submit a PowerPoint presentation of my first book.
- You’ll be pleased to hear that . . . in . . . paperback format, this book [will have] 57,691 words, 34 tables, 95 figures, front and back jacket, total 354 pages.
- . . . I will need use a text editor [because] my English is not very ideal. There is work to do. But brilliant stories will always shine.
- The submission arrives in a parcel wrapped in plastic, sealed with duct tape and covered with information about security checks. It contains a book proposal, spiral-bound and wrapped in both cardboard and sheets of tracing paper. Title: On the Brink: Five steps to madness.
- Inside a large envelope are five supermarket plastic bags, each tied in a triple knot, plus the bags are bound together by an elastic band. After untying all the bags, staff find a cover letter, put together as a collage.
Be credible and professional
- If it would expedite matters, I’ll supply a CV—although it’s not going to be utterly truthful for reasons that will be obvious from my submission synopsis, which I admit isn’t very informative.
- . . . I have a great deal of experience as a reader and . . . have paid good money for books that turned out to be considerably worse than the one I would like you to consider . . . .
- I have a rickety past. I lived life; indeed, I still do.
- . . . I already have other ideas for other future books. All I will tell you at this stage is that the name of the next book begins with the Letter S.
Explain the unique selling point
- This is . . . the greatest story ever told, and if you don’t . . . want to publish it you’ll eternally rue the day you turned it down.
- If . . . forced to compare it to some other book . . . I would say it could be similar to Eat, Pray, Love . . . but it’s much, much better.
Identify the readership
- My cookery book is designed for anyone interested in food or eating.
- This topic . . . is now crucial reading for the general public . . . indeed to virtually, almost, everyone on two legs.
- This would appeal to the crossover between . . . that group of readers . . . interested in cryptography and the lovers of baroque architecture.
- [N]early every single living, breathing person in the world will want to read this book!
Source: Sammy Looker [pseudonym]. Something Nasty in the Slushpile. 2014. Constable, UK.
Writer and former editor, Ruth Harris, recently provided an entertaining post about the many reasons why a publisher may reject a manuscript. One example was intriguing—writers who submit an unpolished draft. They’re convinced that someone in the publishing house will fall in love with their story idea and commandeer the in-house editors to work their magic.
Yes, it can happen, once in a blue moon. We’ve all heard tales of under-developed manuscripts that became bestsellers because someone in a publishing house took a chance. But most of those stories are old.
As Harris remarks, ‘The days of Maxwell Perkins are long gone.’ Perkins, a legendary U.S. editor at Scribners during the first half of the 20th century, created a stable of now famous writers, e.g. Erskine Caldwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Ring Lardner. He was notable for his detailed work to improve his writers’ material. He convinced Thomas Wolfe to remove 90,000 words from Look Homeward, Angel, which became Wolfe’s best-selling novel. Wolfe described Perkins as ‘the greatest editor [of] this generation.’
We’d all love to have a Mr Perkins, assiduous in improving and promoting our material. But Harris points out that few publishing companies still provide such support.
So as a writer, it’s up to you to present your best work. One way to do so is to get your manuscript professionally edited before sending it out. If you can find a great independent editor to provide the help you need, you will be taking an important step towards achieving your writing goals.
My ideal editor would—
- have a good professional record
- understand my chosen genre/area, its conventions and trends
- be business-like and supportive
- provide useful feedback that encourages rather than annihilates
- be on my wavelength in terms of values, personality, and sense of humor.
A. Scott Berg. Max Perkins: Editor of genius.
If you’re a writer, a blog can be your writer’s commonplace book, your soapbox, your classroom, your publisher, and your learning circle.
Having readers helps me focus on what to write about in my blog, and how to present my views. But sometimes—especially when I’m strapped for time—blogging feels like just another extra I could do without.
Is blogging still a useful activity for writers? Or is it losing ground to the easier forms of communication, such as the snapshot and the 140-character comment?
I put this question to Robin Mizell, a friend and respected literary agent. She responded with this useful post: Why blog, when you can shoot yourself in the foot? It is an excellent reminder about what writers can gain when they blog.
On a recent visit to an art gallery, I picked up a program listing the titles of works on display. Some make good writing prompts.
Later, I discovered an online random generator of art titles.
See what you can write about when you use one of these titles as your
- The Half Remembered Day
- Loose Grip
- By Chance
- Time for the Real Thing
- Scarf and Conflict
- Rejected Zone
- Manifesto of Modest Prediction
- Nude Descending the Canvas
- The Darkened Eye
- Hate in Three Stages
- Perky Old Man
- Reincarnated Biscuit of Lust
- Crippled Work
- Babble of Peace
- Broken Shade
- Fugue with Screaming Blob
- Surface of Death
A published novelist recently remarked on how little she writes daily. At first, I was surprised. But when I thought more about it, writing less makes sense.
We’ve all read accounts of famous writers who work on their material nearly all day, everyday. Two questions pop up in my mind. What have they let go of in their lives in order to gain so much time to write? And who helps them take care of the non-writing but essential aspects of life—paying bills, cleaning house, making trip arrangements, buying groceries? Some of the most prolific writers have assistants to help them with the non-writing tasks. Others eschew social engagements and any other non-writing activities, making writing their sole activity.
This novelist explained that her practice is to write 40 minutes only. But she tries to fulfil this goal each and every day. She has her plot sorted out, so she has a good idea about how to progress in her short daily writing period.
Aiming for short but frequent writing may help other writers, especially ones who find it hard to free up slabs of time to write. We may strive to get this long periods—a day or even a half-day—but rarely achieve this aim. Most of us can find 40 minutes in each day to write.
The main benefit of working on frequency rather than word count is that regular writing sessions help us settle into the writing groove. Leave too much of a gap between the sessions, and we may end up spending our writing time re-reading, picking up the threads of our material before we can write something new.
Daily writing also keeps the brain focussed on our material. Knowing we’ll be writing again tomorrow tends to make our subconscious mull over writing issues, characters, and developments, new items we may take up when writing the next day.
Although I find the daily goal of 40 minutes useful, I think that for some writers, and for some periods in a writing project, a daily goal of writing at least 40 minutes seems more realistic. Being free to write more on a day when we’re in the groove is one of the deep pleasures of writing and shouldn’t be quashed. But that doesn’t mean we can reward ourselves by not writing at least 40 minutes the next day!
Are you looking for writing feedback? Like the idea of sharing ideas and techniques with other writers? If so, joining a writing group may appeal.
The easiest option is to find an established group. It already has its structure sorted out, plus its members are used to the routine. If you join, you’ll quickly find out if the way the group operates and its members interact suit you or not. But such groups may not publicise themselves, so they are difficult to find. They may not be actively seeking new members, or if they are, it may be invitation only.
The other option is to join a newly formed writing group. There’s no history or established rules to work within, which may be good. The challenge with a new group is transforming a collection of disparate writers into a cohesive, supportive unit.
Fortunately, the development pattern of new groups has been a subject of research for many years. One important early finding is that any new group—whether it deals with writing, lawn bowls, or world domination—tends to develop via four consecutive stages: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.
Knowing these stages can help you understand what is going on in your brand-new writing group. And this knowledge may help you in terms of your expectations, plus hanging in there during the inevitable rough patches the group encounters as it matures.
Here’s how the four stages may play out.
A new group is fragile during its forming stage. Its members are not yet loyal, and their main concern may be what the group can do for them. The group faces instability, churn, with some people quickly exiting—sorry, not my thing—and new strangers taking their place. Group members may differ in terms of how they think the group should operate.
These different needs and expectations do not surface immediately. Why?
Members of a new group tend to be on their best behaviour, wanting to make a good first impression. Because they want to be seen as a valued part of the group, they may agree with issues that go against their true needs and feelings.
The name says it all. The brief honeymoon is over.
As members become more comfortable in their group, they now want to have their needs met. Members’ different interests and agendas often lead to clashes.
Some common storming issues in a new writing group:
- Time. People taking more than their fair share of the discussion time. Too much meeting time spent on inconsequential matters, or late starts and long tea breaks becoming the norm. Members who chronically arrive late.
- Feedback. People giving feedback that is too general, negative or trivial. Or not giving enough feedback, such as ‘Yeah, liked it.’
- Behaviour. Not preparing for the meeting. Rewriting others’ material without permission. Dominating the discussion. Going to pieces when others critique one’s work. Undermining the group’s leader. Not accepting group decisions. Getting into a writing rut, I.e., revising work again and again, rather than providing others with new material for comment.
Although this stage is difficult, these differences can get members to start thinking about what’s important for the group and what may need to be changed or discarded.
Storming can lead to one of these outcomes:
- The group continues, after resolving major issues and accommodating differences where possible.
- The group continues, based on majority rule, and dissenters opt out or are expelled.
- The original group splinters, and members either opt out or join one of the splinter groups.
- The group dissolves.
If the group continues, members begin to resolve differences and come to trust or tolerate others. Members realise they need to change in some ways in order to help the group, and they understand that it takes conscious effort to maintain group harmony.
To achieve such harmony, members may start talking honestly about their needs and expectations. It is useful to understand what each member 1) wants from the group, 2) is willing to do to help the group, and 3) will put up with. One person may want feedback, will help the group by attending nearly every meeting, and will put up with some less-produvtive members. Another person may value talking shop with others who are writing in a similar vein, will help out by taking on the role of the group’s contact person, and will accept that some members write stuff he’s not interested in.
If things go well, the group moves to this final, productive stage. Members now share a sense of unity and belonging. They become more involved and loyal, and actively help the group succeed. They may even get to the point of appreciating rather than tolerating others strengths and contributions. They trust the other members, may seek their help more than before, and they may socialise and perhaps become friends.
They now view their group as providing more benefits than drawbacks. When an issue or problem arises, they assess how it affects them individually and how it affects the group–and they may put their own wishes to one side if the group benefits are more important. If the group has no leader, one may be chosen or emerge at this point.
Evaluating the experience
If you join a new writing group, it may help to set a future review date, say, six months. Be an active member, and then, when the date rolls around, assess how your group is working in terms of helping you meet your writing goals. Even if you find that it isn’t helping that much, you may decide to stay because you enjoy other elements that the group provides, such as friendships, deadlines, and good discussions.