Sunday, July 5, 2009

I Want to Smell, Taste, and Feel You (on Paper, Anyway)

Because I'm traveling from western New York today--after a mighty fine weekend of sun, cool weather, and family talk--and have neither the time nor the energy to write a new post, I'm going to repost this oldie but goodie from December 15th of last year. Look for an interview with Washington Post Book World's contributing editor Dennis Drabelle tomorrow.
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This may be the world's most obvious post.

This may be silly.

This may be lame.

But this needs to be said.

If you don't want to hear this again, stop reading right now.

When you write fiction (or for that matter prose) of ANY kind--YA, "literary," erotica, mystery, thriller, you name it--then readers need to use their 5 senses to get the full picture. I remember reading a piece by Lewis Nordan, and in it he wrote that he goes through each page and makes note of all the places he could add sensuous detail. I remember thinking how much sense his idea made: literally going through your pages just looking for ways to enrich it through the senses. In my opinion, it's the sensuous matter that elevates good writing to great writing.

If I'm going to spend money on a book followed by time reading it, I definitely want the story to sound different than the newspaper, which is heavily weighted by facts. Let's look at an example, from Dennis Lehane's new novel The Given Day (this is the second time I've used this great book, I know, but it's perfectly illustrative). This is how Lehane starts chapter 33 (pg. 559 for those of you who have the book):


Danny met with Ralph Raphelson at the headquarters of the Boston Central Labor Union on the first Thursday in August. Raphelson was so tall he was one of the rare men with a face Danny had to look up into as he shook his hand. Thin as a fingernail, with wispy blond hair racing to depart the steep slope of his skull, he motioned Danny to a chair and took his own behind the desk. Beyond the windows, a hot-soup rain fell from beige clouds and the streets smelled like stewed produce.


Notice how easily this scene provides information that feeds our senses. We get a sense of how tall this Raphelson is in relation to Danny (sight); we get a sense how this man looks; we get a sense of the smell ("like stewed produce"); and we even get a sense of what the rain outside feels like: it's a "hot-soup rain." This is pretty vivid stuff, and it sets up the scene to come really quite well. How great is that? Three senses touched in, what, 60 or 70 words?

Whenever I read a manuscript, I look for this stuff. Word of warning to anyone who ever gives me anything to read!

Now, you don't have to cover all five senses on every page--the uses should always seem organic and not additions for the sake of it--but if you can make your words leap out at the reader and seem true to the experiences YOU certainly feel and see and smell and taste and hear when walking down the street, then you're on to something. Remember this: This is the writer's one real chance to make poetry out of his art, to describe the world surrounding her or him in new ways that make the reader say that's it, yes, that's exactly it.

Try imaging how you'd describe being IN the snowy cold image at the beginning of this post. Those of you who, like me, grew up with lots of snow know exactly what this experience is like. But it's hard to describe it, to get it right for others. Yet that's exactly what motivates me to try.

3 comments:

Jeanie W said...

I have a quote from EL Doctorow taped to the upper left hand corner of my computer monitor as a reminder of this:

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon."

Gottawrite Girl said...

Absolutely! Anything to zoom your reader directly into the story. So they're THERE. I've heard is said to write as though it's happening on a stage. Taking all senses into consideration, just like you and Jeanie say. Especially when writing out lengthy dialogue.

Excellent, and thanks!

artandliterature said...

Despite all those self-deprecating qualifications at the start of your post, you said some really great stuff here! I found myself adding a few extra sensory details into a scene I was working on -- just to keep myself in practice.

Thanks for the commentary, as always!