Engaging the senses in your writing

I was talking with my eleven year old son the other day and he was explaining in great detail about these people who I later learned are from the fictional online gaming world of Wizard 101. This isn’t the first time he’s done it, either. Both my kids regularly refer to characters from TV shows or electronic games as though they’re real. It drives both me and my husband crazy.

But then I started thinking that isn’t this what writers look for when we craft our stories? We want the characters to feel so real to the reader that they could be someone you know—or would like to know. Or could imagine falling in love with. Who doesn’t want to get that little catch in your gut like the heroine does when the hero gives her a smoldering glance?

How do you write to fully engage your reader?

Here are some examples of how to use your five senses to bring your reader into the story. These excerpts are from the partially edited second book in my Tangled Hearts series, Forever In My Heart, which will be coming out soon.

Sight

Vicky bit into a forkful of baked ziti and reveled in the divine combination of garlic, basil, tomatoes, ricotta, and mozzarella cheeses along with the slight bite of red pepper.

Taste

Back in the main room, Maggie poured his coffee, and he took it along with a cinnamon bun to his usual table by the window. Slathering the top with butter, he took a huge bite into a sticky explosion of brown sugar laced dough.

Sight and Smell

Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a high ponytail. A few strands escaped and curled against her neck. She smelled like berries, apples, and cinnamon and he had to fight the urge to reach out and see if she tasted as good.

Touch

He reached out and touched her arm. A spark jumped between them. She must have felt it, too, because she jolted. All these years and his blood still heated up being near her.

Sound

Surprised, she cried out and acted on pure instinct—or stupidity. She elbowed him in the gut. He grunted a moment before the gun clanked to the gun. She attempted to step aside, but her assailant grabbed her arm and punched her in the jaw. It wasn’t a strong punch, but it caused her to gasp for breath. Grabbing the cake carrier, she swiveled and smashed him in the head. He yelped and fell, swearing when he hit the hard ground.

 

In case you can’t tell, there are lots of food references in Forever In My Heart. I leveraged my Italian background in my story and enjoyed creating what I hope are scenes that make the reader imagine being inside Vicky’s café or at least make you crave something decadent. 🙂

Cinnamon buns anyone?

While writing this post, I did realize I shy away describing sounds in my story. It’s given me a renewed energy look for ways to go into more depth as I continue with my edits.

What tips do you have to engage your reader in the story?

Maria

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The Dreaded Sagging Middle

I wanted to blog about a topic many writers—including myself—dread. It’s the sagging middle. And I’m not talking about out waistlines. I’ll save that weight loss discussion for another day. I’m thinking of the middle chapters of our books. The part of our story that loses its drive, its enthusiasm, and well…its umph.

frustrated writer

Others call this midbook burnout. But whatever you call it, the result can be disastrous for both new and established writers. We start out strong. We picture our hero and heroine in our mind with vivid clarity. We know what they look like as well as their initial goals and motivations. We craft wonderful beginning chapters and maybe even strong endings. Then something happens mid-way through. The essence of the story gets lost. The conflict is too simple or too complicated. We sit at the computer for hours in frustration and write little. We decide the writing process is too hard and we even think about giving up.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The good news is there is a way to work through our frustrations. Here are the four tips that I find most helpful:

Flesh out character development scenes

 My favorite book on craft for writers is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. He breaks down the twelve stages of the hero’s journey. He calls step six “Tests, Allies and Enemies.” I’ve found this particularly helpful when I’m stuck in the middle of my book. By testing your hero and having him make allies and enemies you are allowing for great character development. You can learn a lot about a hero’s character by the friends and enemies he makes. Romances are all about the character growth of both the hero and heroine. So flesh out these scenes.

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Housekeeping and Editing…Two Challenging Tasks!

I admit I’m not much of a housekeeper. I know mothers that excel at having a well-kept home. I’ve stopped by to drop my kids off at scheduled play dates or even unexpectedly to sell Girl Scout cookies and have been invited into homes that are often tidy and beautiful. I do clean, but more often than not, there are toys strewn about, and my office/playroom is well…just plain messy.

MessyDesk

One rainy afternoon, I was mumbling under my breath while cleaning out closets when my hubby walked in and said, “What’s the big deal? Think of it as cleaning up your manuscript after the first draft.” I dropped the trash bag stuffed with kids’ clothes intended for Goodwill, and looked up at him in shock. As an engineer and introvert, he’s definitely on the quiet side, but sometimes he blurts out very helpful and insightful things. I started thinking and came to the conclusion he was totally on point.

So what do cleaning the house and editing your book really have in common? It turns out to be a whole lot.

Read the entire manuscript in one sitting

Get the feel for the story. Resist marking the pages and making notes in the margins. Just read for the content. This will reveal overwriting, sections that need more explanation, or unfinished plot points. It’s similar to walking through the house and noting what needs to be cleaned, which closets need to be organized, and how big of a task you have ahead of you.
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Say It Again, Sam: A Theatre Gal’s Approach to Dialogue

Photo credit: Rennett Stowe / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Photo credit: Rennett Stowe / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

BOO, and Happy Halloween!  Does writing dialogue scare you enough to make your hair stand on end like this guy on Halloween? Fear not!

At nearly every stage of my writing journey from fledgling to now, I’ve been paid compliments on my dialogue.  Dialogue is one of my favorite aspects of writing, especially during that darn first draft.  If I could, I’d write the whole thing in dialogue.  I think this stems from my music and theatre background because I tend to hear a story first through dialogue. I like to get up out of my writing chair and act out scenes, practicing inflections.  Fun times for sure when my hubs or my little walks in while I’m in the throes of drama.  Honestly, I’ve done some of my best work in my office.  My acting coaches would be so proud!

There are the obvious dos and don’ts to writing dialogue that we as writers are taught.  I promise I’ll get to a few of my fan favorites – there’s too many for me to cover them all.  First I want to share some things I learned in my theatre background that I believe carried over into my work as it relates to dialogue.

What is said ABOUT a character is more revealing than what a character says

I remember this ah-ha moment in Scene Study Class back at my Alma Mater, Ithaca College.  I’d been having a hard time fully developing a character because I had very little in the way of dialogue in the scene.  Once I opened my ears to what other characters had to say about mine, the scene and character came alive.  As a writer, a little insight from a secondary character about the Hero or Heroine through dialogue can carry a lot of weight with the reader, especially if that secondary character has been presented as knowledgeable or trustworthy.
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Thirteen Writing Resources for 2013

The year 2013 is well under way. I’ve decided to repeat one of my most popular posts, pay it forward once again, and share with you a dozen plus one lessons and resources from my arsenal of tools. Hopefully, you’ll find something useful for your own writing.

Thirteen may just prove to be the luckiest year yet—if you’re a believer, like me. I’m certainly wishing you a wonderful, belated 2013.

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Thirteen Writing Resources for 2013

Critique partners unite 

Ever feel like you are so caught up in revising your story that you can’t hear your characters anymore?

There are so many advantages to collaborating with critique partners who understand your voice and let you fly, but give you honest feedback when you’ve gotten into writer-gone-wild mode. Yes, it’s helpful when someone points out poor word choice or incomplete sentences but set your expectations higher when working with someone else’s manuscript and visa versa. The real challenge is in making your story sing, both beautifully and loud enough to draw attention to it. And, when your characters world gets murky and their voices sound flat, the value of good critique partners is immeasurable.
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In the Beginning: Tips on Starting Your Novel

Welcome! Congratulations to Roni Denholtz who won a $20 Amazon gift card in our most recent contest. We’ll contact Roni through email in order to coordinate her prize. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and I hope you enjoy my contribution this month.

Joanna


When I first started writing, one of the concepts most challenging for me was finding the right place to start my story. My very first manuscript opened with the heroine stifling a yawn. Seriously. Needless to say, feedback on said story mentioned that the opening was, well, boring. Gee. Who wouldda thunk it?

If I’m being honest, I must admit that I’ve had to rewrite the opening of every single manuscript I’ve ever written, save the current one. (In fact, I have one manuscript where the opening has been redone FOUR times.) So I’ve done quite a bit of research into the current popular thinking on the best place to start a story. I say “current” because tastes and reader expectations change over time. Not only that, there seems to be a decided difference on what the established, popular authors can do and what is expected from newer authors. So don’t read this blog post and then go pick up a Johanna Lindsey or Nora Roberts book to compare your opening to theirs. There is a reason why the bestselling authors can do whatever the hell they want. This post is not aimed toward anyone who has ever had a hardcover book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble.

So where to begin? Even if you’re a pantser, you should have a rough idea of where your story is going before you start writing. These may be loose thoughts rattling around in your head like marbles, or a obsessive/compulsive outline of every thought, scene, and detail in your book. Assuming you’re ready to start writing, the first thing you want your story to do is grab the reader’s attention. We want them to keep reading, right? If a potential reader is flipping through your book and happens to read the first paragraph, you want to engage them until they can’t put the put down. Lots of factors contribute to a strong beginning, so let’s touch on a few here.

The First Few Pages

No one can tell you exactly how many pages you have to snag a reader, an editor, or an agent’s attention. Some folks say five, and some say fifteen. Some even say all you get is one stinking paragraph. But what you should take away as the answer is NOT MANY.

Author Nathan Bransford says, “When you’re starting a novel there are only two things you’re looking to find: Voice and Plot.” Sounds easy, right? (Insert maniacal laughter here.)

But it is fairly simple. Think of it this way: you want to give the reader an idea of what your story is about and how that story is going to be told right from the get-go.

While no one can give you the magic formula to do this successfully, there are surefire ways to NOT to do it. Here are some common no-nos on starting your novel, paraphrased from the brilliant Kristen Lamb:

  • Info-dump. The story begins with lengthy world building, lots of facts, or backstory. Snooze.
  • Starting right in the middle of the action. You’ve got to give your reader a reason to care about what happens to your character BEFORE it happens. This point may seem like a direct contradiction of the above about info-dumping, but it’s not. You have to find a happy medium there. We want enough character building that we care about the character, but not a bunch of useless information better given later in the story (if at all).
  • Flashbacks and prologues. These are generally unnecessary, as they don’t move your plot forward, and they can be confusing for the reader.

Author Crawford Killian believes, “A novel (or a short story for that matter) should begin at the moment when the story itself becomes inevitable.” I love that description. It means starting in a place where the hero can’t possibly turn away from this new path. Also, you’ve got to show the reader what’s at stake, so the character’s concerns matter to the reader. Which leads us to the…

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is defined as “A plot point in the first act which disturbs the life of the protagonist and sets them in pursuit of an objective.” In other words, it’s the ball that gets the whole story rolling. We all know we need an inciting incident, otherwise there’s no plot. According to Scribe Meets World, the inciting incident:

  • jolts your hero out of his everyday routine.
  • is the event which sparks the fuse of your plot.
  • is something that must happen in order for your hook to kick in.

Examples are someone dying, something is won or lost, a tornado is approaching, etc. It needs to be something out of the ordinary that happens to chart a new course for your hero. And this can’t be something the hero does, it’s something that happens to the hero.

Now that you know your inciting incident, the big question becomes WHERE in the story does it go?

Most experts agree it must occur in the first act, and should go as close to the beginning as possible to serve as the bait in order to hook the reader. The inciting incident creates tension, which compels the reader to keep reading in order to find out what happens.

The First Line

Oh boy. This is a tough one. First lines are tricky because they matter so darn much. Editors and agents are very busy, and if you want your work to be noticed, you have to pay attention to even the first words on the page. It has to be a grabber, and many blog posts I found lobbied for the first line to “surprise” the reader. No one can tell you how to come up with a witty or dramatic first line. That takes years a practice and lots of trial and error finding your own voice. I can, however, give….EXAMPLES!

Hooray! It’s time for samples. These are all great (in my opinion) first lines of popular romance novels. I’ve compiled a list of both historical, classics, romantic suspense, and contemporary. When you remember that the opening should give a good feel for the tone and voice, you can see why these first sentences are all outstanding.

Glory in Death, J.D. Robb

“The dead were her business.”

The Spymaster’s Lady, Joanna Bourne

“She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.”

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Catch of the Day, Kristan Higgins

“Falling in love with a Catholic priest was not my smartest move.”

Something About You, Julie James

“Thirty thousand hotel rooms in the city of Chicago, and Cameron Lynde managed to find one next door to a couple having a sex marathon.”

One for the Money, Janet Evanovich

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.”

Nothing But Trouble, Rachel Gibson

“Just because a man was lucky to be alive, didn’t mean he had to be happy about it.”

The Darkest Hour, Maya Banks

“He’d hoped if he drank enough the night before he’d sleep right through today.”

Bad Boys Do, Victoria Dahl

“This wasn’t a book club; it was a manhunt.”

Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Crusie

“Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.”

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

This Heart of Mine, Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“The day Kevin Tucker nearly killed her, Molly Somerville swore off unrequited love forever.”

The Devil in Winter, Lisa Kleypas

“As Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, stared at the young woman who had just barged her way into his London residence, it occurred to him that he might have tried to abduct the wrong heiress last week at Stony Cross Park.”

Did I leave off any of your favorite opening lines? We love hearing from readers, so please share!

And now I’m off to rewrite the beginning of my current manuscript. Happy writing!

The Hunger Games and Small, Poignant Moments

Hi everyone! Thanks for stopping by the blog. This month, one random commenter will be chosen to win a $20 Barnes and Noble gift certificate. Leave a comment over the next four weeks and you’ll be entered to win.

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The Hunger Games: A Reflection on Small, Poignant Moments

This afternoon, I cried my heart out in a movie theater. I wasn’t the only one sniffling away for ten minutes or so. The movie was The Hunger Games. The scene that stole our hearts was when Katniss sang a song for Rue. Ironically, the same thing happened a year ago while reading the book. Same scene, same emotion.  This is the power of strong storytelling.

Today’s blog is my simple reflection on how an author—like the wonderful Suzanne Collins—makes moviegoers and booklovers alike, cry. Or laugh, wonder, and think.

Ever walk away from a book but a scene sticks with you in your head? The goal of small, poignant moments is to connect a reader with a character on an emotional level.

Take this scene from the Hunger Games:

All my bravado is gone. I’m weak from pain and hunger but can’t bring myself to eat. Even if I can last, eyes from some animal peer at me from the neighboring tree—a possum maybe—catching the firelight of the Careers’ torches. Suddenly, I’m up on one elbow. Those are no possum’s eyes, I know their glassy reflection too well. In fact, those are not animal eyes at all. In the dim rays of light, I make her out, watching me silently from between the branches.

Rue.

In one short scene, the author provides you with a likable impression of Rue and the heroine Katniss’s reaction to her. This scene initiates their friendship so when the tearjerker of a small moment appears later, it makes it so much more effective. Emotion: Worry for heroine mixed with compassion for little Rue.

Consider this scene from The Black Hawk by the fabulous Joanne Bourne:

She gave her attention to pouring hot water onto the tea leaves. Rain drummed on the roof. Since they were not talking, since they were not looking at each other, it seemed very loud.

He said, “As soon as you drink that, you should leave. It’s getting worse out there.”

I must do this now, before I lose my courage. “I am hoping to spend the night.”

This scene stuck with me for days. The simple act of preparing tea, so controlled and so nonchalant, contrasts beautifully with the tension between the hero and heroine.  The tea is prepared, swirled, and poured (before and after the excerpt above) yet it offsets the subtle internal dialogue between the characters. EMOTION: Anxiousness, hoping characters will break down the invisible barrier between them.

Consider this excerpt from The Lord of Scoundrels by the masterful Loretta Chase.

Her glance flicked over his companions. “Go away,” she said in a low, hard tone.

The whores leapt from his lap, knocking over glasses in their haste. His friends bolted up from their places and backed away. A chair toppled and crashed to the floor unheeded.

Only Esmond kept his head. “Mademoiselle,” he began, his tones gentle, mollifying.

She flung back the shawl and lifted her right hand. There was a pistol in it, the barrel aimed straight at Dain’s heart. “Go away,” she told Esmond.

Dain heard the click as she cocked the weapon and the scrape of a chair as Esmond rose. “Mademoiselle,” he tried again.

“Say your prayers, Dain,” she said.

This is one of my all time favorite small, poignant moments. What insight into both the heroine and hero—and a clever, never-done-before way of showing the darker side of both characters. The heroine clearly has had enough of Dain’s whoring ways, and what better way to prove her point! Emotion: Laughter.

 

Finally, the scene that prompted this post, from The Hunger Games:

“Sing,” she (Rue) says, but I barely catch the word.

Sing? I think. Sing what? I do know a few songs . . .

Sing. My  throat is tight with tears, hoarse from smoke and fatigue. But if this is Prim’s, I mean, Rue’s last request, I have to at least try. The song that comes to me is a simple lullaby, one we sign fretful, hungry babies to sleep with. It’s old, very old I think. Made up long ago in our hills. What my music teacher calls mountain air. But the words are easy and soothing, promising tomorrow will be more hopeful than this awful piece of time we call today.

           (Katniss sings song.)

Everything’s still and quiet. Then, almost eerily, the mocking-jays take up my song.

I love the bit about the mocking-jays and how even the mutated birds seem affected by Katniss’s humanity. This scene shows such strength of character for the author’s heroine that the movie The Hunger Games was able to effectively capture it, as well. Emotion: Compassion, respect, pride . . . you name it.

Next time you find yourself smiling or crying over one particular scene, stop and reflect on the author’s craft, and how she/he makes the scene stick within your mind as well as your heart.

Please comment and share your favorite small, poignant moments and why you remember them so.

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