Friday, July 9, 2010

Look Around and Smell Those Daisies! Writing Using the Senses

Oh, hai. I know it seems like I've forgotten you. But I haven't. I've just been super busy getting ready for SCBWI (!!!) in a few weeks (!!!!!) that I haven't had quite the usual amount of time to dedicate to blogging. But I really heart you guys, so I'm resolving to change that.

In between frantic rewrites, Zumba and spinning classes to sharpen my mind (the jury is still out on the "Does exercising more help Heather concentrate?" experiment. I think I might prefer a nap but I lost 2 lbs so...yay.), and wondering what I'm going to wear every day of the conference, I've been reading Connie Epstein's The Art of Writing for Children. This was on my list of recommended reading from the VCFA faculty, so naturally I wanted to read it before January (I am clearly an overachiever.) So far, the book seems to provide a nice overview of writing for children (picture books to YA), and gives good examples when pointing out how to look at things from a child's point of view. (The example so far are mostly from MG or chapter books, so if you're considering this read but you want something geared more toward YA, this might not be the book for you.)

The second chapter, which has so far been my favorite, was about using the five senses in writing. Epstein stresses the importance of childhood as a time of discovery, when everything seems a bit larger-than-life. So while the adult author might not notice certain details about an experience, the child/teen protagonist definitely will. In order to make your prose stronger, the best thing you can do is use as many senses as possible to describe the experience - particularly if it's something the character is dealing with for the first time, or has a strong emotional reaction to. She pointed out that one strong, well-chosen word or phrase can do a lot more than a long paragraph of specific details. She also notes that it's important to do all of these things to set a certain mood, and not fill your book up with details just for the fun of it.

This chapter really got me thinking about how I use senses in my writing. I think I use them pretty well. For example, there is one scene in my WIP where my MC is tasting fruit, and that was one of my favorite scenes to write - I remember closing my eyes and imagining every detail of the experience of eating fruit, then trying to find just the right words to describe it without going overboard. It took a few revisions, but in the end I think it came out great. Thinking about my own experience of something helped me describe how my character would react.

But I also tried to think of some of the weaknesses in my sensory descriptions. I think perhaps sometimes I go for the easy/obvious description, and don't read out and try to think of the not-so-obvious way to describe something. I want to start incorporating that more, and I think it will bring some unique perspective to my writing.

And now, a writing exercise! (I know, I'm like Shannon Messenger over here, giving you assignments.) Write a scene where you have to describe something, but don't use the obvious choice in sensory detail to describe it. For example, your character gets caught in a rainstorm, and instead of describing the way the rain smells or sounds or feels, maybe she opens her mouth and tastes it. Make sure the descriptions serve a purpose in the scene, and try to draw on your own experience, when possible.


  1. Great topic. I also struggle with adding more senses. I use touch the most and I think scent comes in every now and then with taste after that. Will use one or two, but rarely get higher than that and it's something I should work on really.

    I do zumba too! No spinning, don't like it, but I enjoy zumba. Didn't get to go this week though. :-(

  2. Great post Heather! And I need to check out a zumba class. Also I am sooooooo jealous you're going to SCBWI LA....can I hide in your suitcase?



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