Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Using the Five Senses in Writing

Five Scribe readers, a comment I heard often in my early years as a writer is "your characters don't live in a vacuum."  I took that comment to mean, "your work is one-dimensional drek, now fix it."  Sure, we know that our characters have five senses.  But how do we incorporate those senses seamlessly on the page without yanking your reader out of the story?  Author Victoria Houseman visits today to introduce her workshop to help us do just that.   
Making Your Writing Come Alive with the Five Senses ©

Victoria Bromley w/a Victoria Houseman


            The story writer Flannery O’Connor said, “Fiction begins where human knowledge begins – with the senses.”  We have only five ways of perceiving reality.  We can SEE it, TASTE it, SMELL it, TOUCH it, HEAR it.  Without the information we get through our five senses, we can’t function as human beings.  Each sense is important individually, but each has its own limitations.  Yet, one sense can be used to compensate for the lack of another sense.  A blind man has a heightened sense of hearing and touch and taste and smell.  This is how he learns to cope with the world around him living in a sightless world.  The most effective way to perceive reality is to use all of our senses in harmony.  In fiction, smell, touch and taste bring you closer to the story.  Sight and sound can be close or from a distance.

            Think of which sense(s) you use most.  Are you overtly sensitive to smells that don’t seem to bother others?  Can you eat really spicy, hot foods that would burn another person’s mouth?  Do bright lights bother you?  Do you like to make love with the lights on and see the expression on your lover’s face or do you prefer the dark – knowing what is happening only by touch and sound and scent?    

            Stories need to build on one basic tenet: to convince the reader the story is real – doesn’t matter if it’s science fiction or fantasy – the reader needs to believe the story is real, that it may have happened or could happen in the real world of their imagination.  The trick for us as writers is to get the reader to smell the story’s reality, to taste it, to feel it, to see it, to hear it.

            As authors, we enter the world of imagination when writing a story; our senses must be alert to details that exemplify the story thematically as well as physically.  We need to be open to the sounds and sights and aromas that our characters have around them and we need to convey what is going on in any one given sense – internally and externally.  Only then can we develop fully actualized three-dimensional characters.  It’s vital to use the right sensory detail at the right moment.  This is where your writer’s imagination kicks in and uses what sense(s) it needs for your story’s reality.

 Use of the five senses not only tells our reader the experience of our characters at any given time, but can also infuse an ordinary story with deep layers.  In art, it’s called “underpainting” – building layer upon layer upon layer.  Subconsciously, we know the layers are there, but what we experience is the full-bodied result of those layers.  Gestalt theory called it “the sum being greater than the total of the parts”. 

            By using the five senses, you can invoke what is going on in their outside world.  Remember, it is your characters world – their point of view.  How one character is affected by the world around them through their senses may not be the same as how another character is affected.  This is part of the glory of using the five senses – they can be utilized to make your characters whole and multi-faceted and unique.  Even secondary characters come to life.  No matter how little time they are given in a story, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be fully developed.

            The ripple effect of using the five senses is your story is fleshed out and developed.  It bursts forth from your pages and your reader achieves that “fly on the wall” quality – they feel they are really there in the pages of your book.  All effects come through the five senses or sensory memories of the reader as well as of the writer.  By imbuing a reality in your story with the five senses, you bring about a magical quality.  You join the abstract world with the physical world. 

            Sometimes a story develops directly from the sensory details that suggested it.  The creative starting point often is simply some details of the senses, and recording that detail or those details starts an imaginative process from which a story is evoked.  Many are locked in our subconscious and only need the key to set them free.

            In his story, “A View of the World” (The Charlton Press, 1989), Thomas Kennedy uses memories of senses he had locked away from a time in high school when he worked in a shoemaker’s shop.  He draws on his memory of the sensual smells of the shop – the aroma of raw leather straps, the glue, dye, tins of polish – the grumbling stitch of the heavy sewing machine, the whack of the nailer, the scrape of the sander, and the moan of the waxing wheels.  From these stored memories, Kennedy has written a story of how a young apprentice and the shoemaker schooling him view the world.  The shoe shop and all its sights and sounds and smells serve as the backdrop to their totally opposite views of life.


Think of the five senses as plotting devices. 
While writers are always aware of the sensual aspects of a character, they can use this awareness to solve the problem of what happens next. A character’s senses can guide you, as writer, through difficult transitions into action. Use them to establish an alliance between character and reader by making the reader aware of what our hero/heroine notices. How? Whether or not the reader understands the cultural background, customs, religion, or politics of a character, she roots for the heroine, for example, because the reader can identify with what she sees, hears, tastes.

            As our senses prompt us to action in life, so can they move our characters and story forward in sequence. Our senses create, and sometimes rule, our moods and actions. Let them do the same for you characters.

            Through his/her imagination, your reader experiences the same sensory stimuli as the character, and thus, feels present in the scene. Providing a three-dimensional environment in which your character functions will enable your reader to step into the scene and experience the same sensory perceptions and anticipation as that character.

            Ask yourself: What first catches the attention of your character? What sense? What does your hero/heroine sense first? Smell? Taste? Note that the mouth and tongue are the most sensitive. This first impression, via your character, will be your reader’s first impression of your hero/heroine and begin to set the stage of your story.

            It won’t take pages or even paragraphs to convey these perceptions. A sentence or even a word or two will usually suffice. Revealing the senses is easy; remembering to show the reader how the character reacts to what he senses can be the “elusive elements” in a scene.

            Sensory writing should create scenes that are alive with emotion and will reel through the mind of your reader as though on a movie screen. If you do your job properly by identifying with what your character experiences in every scene, your reader will savor every moment will live each transgression and every triumph.

            Appeal to the five senses as a technique for developing your plot into connected scenes is the best way to place your characters in the story rather than simply pushing them through a plot.

            Discovering what happens next in our story is the fascinating part of fiction, writing, and reading. Put yourself in the scene and examine what the character might sense as he encounters conflict. You will immediately know what comes next, because you will see, hear, smell, touch, even taste the elements present through your reader’s actions. More important, your reader will be able to do the same and will keep turning those pages.

             In my workshop, I use the five senses to make characters three dimensional, to help with plotting, and setting.  To add depth to a writer’s story.

            Learn more about Victoria Bromley w/a Victoria Houseman’s two week on-line workshop using the five senses on her website: 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sandy Success Story -- Merrie Wycoff

Welcome to my new blog series highlighting the success of The Sandy Finalists. 
I developed The Sandy writing contest seven years ago for the Crested Butte Writers and have been delighted to see many of our finalists go onto publication.  I thought it'd be fun to follow up with them and see where they are now in their careers. 

Merrie Wycoff is a Sandy success story.  I am not much of a history buff, yet Merrie’s story captivated me.  Three things drew me in, Merrie lights up when she talks about her story and has such incredible passion for Egypt that it’s contagious.  She has the absolutely perfect voice to tell this story—I can’t imagine anyone else telling it as well.  I certainly couldn’t.  And thirdly, she’s a wonderful storyteller!

What year did you final, with what book and what place did you end up with?
I finaled in 2010 and came in third.

Are you published with a traditional publisher or are you an indie author?  
I am self-published through Rosa Mystica Publishing.

What’s your story about?
Jealousy, Lies, Betrayal, Murder…and Magic

A reign of terror has kept Egypt in shadow, even at the apex of her power and glory.  The greedy and corrupt priests of the dark god Amun maintain a tight grip on the people through the use of fear, superstition, brutality, and, when necessary, diabolical sorcery.

Now, there is the promise of a new hope, a new light, but that promise is not welcomed by all. When the ambitious Queen Nefertiti and her consort, the gentle King Akhenaten, introduce a peaceful--and revolutionary--form of Sun worship in the hope of bringing about harmony and unification, Egypt is instead torn into warring factions on all levels of society.

Into this deadly conflict is born the first Royal Daughter, Merit-Aten, whose ability to see vivid auras and converse with animals comes with a price. Before her birth, she entered into a sacred contract to save her family and restore peace to her country. But, with danger threatening from every side--even from within her own family--will she be able to honor her contract without destroying everyone she loves?  

You have a passion for Egypt and it shows in your writing.  What do you love best about it?
I love the mystery, and the untold story of Egypt.  I am an Egyptologist, which is a very left brain study of Egypt and the facts that we have discovered and uncovered so far. On my second trip to Egypt I studied with an Egyptian wisdom keeper who helped me understand the living African oral tradition passed from mother to child. This is experiencing Egypt through the right brain and has paranormal elements to it. My paranormal historical novel, Shadow of the Sun reveals the true Egypt.

As much as you love Egypt, would you have enjoyed living during that time?  Be honest!
There was a great deal of political and religious corruption. The royal family had to be constantly on-guard for their lives. I would have loved to journey through the mystery schools.  I adore what we imagine to be ancient Egyptian fashion and the jewelry was exquisite.

I believe that through the writing of a book, each story comes with its own lessons for the author.  Does that hold true for you?
That was very true for me. I thought I was telling the story. It turned out that my main character, the princess Merit-Aten had ideas of her own. My antagonist took me on a journey I’ll never forget and one I didn’t foresee.

What are you most proud of in your writing journey?
I learned that the historical elements of a story, while important to the author because we do so much research must be used to color the picture and not clutter the story.  Editing is essential to cut the fat.  As much as I loved certain chapters and tangents, I had to cut them because they weren’t essential to Merit-Aten’s journey. I am also proud that I had the courage to self-publish. I can’t tell you how many pitches I gave to agents who loved my story but didn’t want to buy ancient Egyptian paranormal historical fiction.

Can you give us a sneak peak at the next book in the series? 
My next book Stealing the Shadow of Death is about the tragedy of mummification and how it wasn’t as revered as we believe it was.  Akhenaten outlawed the practice and I will reveal why.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Congratulations to The Sandy Finalists!

I helped start this contest seven years ago for the Crested Butte Writers group and I'm proud to announce this year's The Sandy finalists.  These writers work very hard at their craft and it shows. I see The Sandy is my chance to play matchmaker--to introduce these skilled authors to agents and editors who can help take them to the next level in their career.  Here's to the finalists.  

And to all who did not final, we'll be returning your scoresheets shortly and hopefully you got some valuable feedback to aid you on your journey. Keep writing!

Congratulations to the
2013 Sandy Writing Contest Winners!

Mainstream Adult Fiction
Final Judge, Millicent Bennett, Sr Editor Free Press (Simon & Schuster)

Sandy Fails (CO) —Midnight Owl
Charis Himeda (MA) –- The Shape of a Kiss
Cindy Christian Rogers (MN) – Rogue Wave: A Redemption Story

Final judge, Katherine Pelz, Assistant Editor Berkley

Sandra Kerns (CO) – Rehabilitating the Lion
Steven Moores (CO) -- Cherub’s Play (tie)
Rebecca Waring (Australia) -- The Promise (tie)
Elysia Whisler (VA) -- A Rock That Burns

Fantasy/ Science Fiction
Final judge, Amanda Ng, Assistant Editor Berkley

Robyn Brammer (WA) – A Cloudy Return (tie)
Nicole Greene (CO)—Blood of the Taurus Ring (tie)
Stephen Merlino (WA) –The Jack of Souls
Joel Quevillon (CO) --- The Color of Gothic

Thriller/ Suspense / Mystery
Final Judge, Carlie Webber, Agent at CK Webber Associates

Denise Enos (FL) --- New Smyrna Swing
Annie Hogsett (OH)—Somebody’s Bound to Wind up Dead
Vanessa Lillie (RI)—The Lyneage

Children / Young Adult
Final judge, Christian Trimmer, Sr Editor at Simon & Schuster for Young Readers

Katrina Grigg-Saito (MA)—Otemba (tie)
Jedeane Macdonald (CO) –Nobody’s Home
Steven Moores (CO) – Matthew Cross & The Dragon’s Tear
Carrie Spencer (IA)—Captain Fanny Pack (tie)
Stephanie Tatalias (AK) – Unigoat (tie)