All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Unknown and the Unexplained

"The one thing that prevents me from sitting in my office and getting some quality writing done is the cat staring at me from atop my bookshelf. I am not distracted by its sounds; it is very quiet. I am not intimidated by its presence. I do not feel judged by its unblinking eyes. Rather, the only matter I find so distressing about the cat on my bookshelf is the simple fact that I do not own a cat."
- Anonymous
Yes, the unknown. It is the single-most powerful weapon in the writer's arsenal. So many times we talk about details, description, and how we need to consider what details to bring in to a story. Sometimes, however, the most important part of description is in fact what we leave out. Leaving out one detail, one little point can be the whole hook of the story.

From a technical point of view, this can be tricky. Consider the classic story where the character is actually a ghost looking at the world (a wonderful story to write as well as read). When we leave out the fact that they are a ghost, we have to follow the rules that come with it. The character can't interact with other characters without revealing the ghost thing, but they can talk to the other characters. Perhaps this includes an assumption that the lack of response is just the character being ignored. If they are ghosts that look just like people, we need to exclude some other piece of information to make that a big reveal. A lot of rules to follow here.

Another style is leaving out a critical piece of information that the reader just assumes. In the quote above, the cat is never described as "my cat." The possessive is never used in reference to the cat, though it is slyly used for "my bookshelf" right next to "the cat" - twice. Leaving out the possessive "my" would be a giveaway that the cat does not belong to the writer, but the reader just skims over it with all the usual assumptions. That makes the reveal all the more powerful. In a well-written piece, the big tell at the end will make the reader go back through the story to see just how they were deceived.

Of course, this becomes all the more diabolical with gender pronouns. If a character named Jean is doing something and the writer wants to conceal the gender, playing the pronoun game can have great results. "Jean held the coffee mug in her hands" immediately ruins the mystery, or forces the writer to start putting in "he" if that's the reveal. But "Jean took the coffee mug in narrow hands" spares us from even using a pronoun until it's necessary. (Note: I am fully aware that this is a fatty sentence, because what else does someone hold a coffee cup in other than hands, but that is for the next post.)

The other trick that can further this end is drawing a line between the narration voice and the character voice. If you have a character slowly falling for narrow-handed Jean, that character can use whatever pronoun they prefer - that reflects their frame of mind. However, when Jean is described by an omnipotent and objective narrator, then it is important to strip away the pronouns and leave it completely ambiguous. In this way, the character is an unknowing unreliable narrator, simply because they are working on their own assumptions, which happen to disagree with the actual facts on the ground.

These little omissions are great ways to unsettle the reader and make them really reach in to the story for all the details. Of course, it is a very demanding task for the writer, as everything has to support the deception. But there is nothing more refreshing than a reader hitting that Sixth Sense moment when the big reveal hits and they have to catch their breath and wonder just what happened.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Questions In the Story

Every story comes with questions, and not just in dialogue. A part of every plot arc should be where the characters encounter some fork in the road, and the challenge begins. Depending on the style and genre of the story, the questions for that situation can come up long before the choice presents itself, at the moment a decision must be made, or in painful hindsight - or in any combination. How those questions are presented will not only fill in details about the characters involved, but will prompt the reader on what kind of story this is.

To be clear, a question represents some form of unknown - an unexplained situation, a missing fact, an unanticipated change - that has several possible outcomes. These are the key elements of tension and suspense - when the character faces a choice, the reader should be invested in their decision and want to know how it plays out. When the question is presented as unknown information, the reader should start looking for answers, studying all the scenes for clues. Without these, the reader is just riding along, waiting for a conclusion. Action isn't very active and suspense isn't suspenseful if the reader isn't invested; most every genre will fall flat.

A part of writing a particular genre involves how the questions are presented. A mystery/thriller leads with questions - What just happened? Why is our character in the middle of this? Who did it? A mystery, by definition, is about answering questions, so something better grab the reader's interest quickly. A thriller takes a different approach, where the action and suspense presents itself, leaving the reader to wonder what is happening, and how everything led to that situation. Mysteries that don't lead with questions aren't very mysterious, and thrillers that don't have the reader trying to figure out what is happening aren't very thrilling.

Most other genres, however, do not have as simple a structure when it comes to questions, and at that point we have to decide how to place them into the stories. Does the character approach situations analytically, placing the questions before the reader, or do they act, leaving the reader to consider whether that particular action was the best choice. And, of course, if these approaches aren't successful, how does that make the character look in the reader's eyes?

There are two categories of question situations that will engage the reader. The first is where the character experiences the a choice presented by the narrative. These are situations where the reader and the character are on the same page (so to speak) and have an equal body of information. Depending on whether or not the reader and character make the same decision, the reader may change their mind about the kind of person the character is. It is very investing, as they share the same situation.

The more dramatic questions come from when there is an imbalance of information. If the character is heading in a particular direction, but the reader knows that there is danger in that, the drama ramps up. If the reader is invested in a protagonist who is heading to his car, but knows a bomb is planted under the driver's seat, then there's alarm. Suspense. He's heading for danger! Take a cab! Drop your keys so you have to look under the seat! And conversely, if the character knows more than the reader and makes choices that the reader doesn't fully understand, the reader will read on, looking for answers (hopefully). This is more difficult, as if the character's actions seem totally inexplicable, the reader might give up on them entirely.

Think about where the questions come up in your story, and how they drive the plot. Furthermore, think about whether you are using them to build suspense, or to invest the reader. It will define the genre as well as your writing voice.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Writing About Gender

No, this post will not be a political or social statement regarding the whole gender discussion. I prefer to keep things simple and discuss things from the perspective of the writer – whatever gender they may be. All writers understand that there will most likely be male and female characters in their writing. Most writers understand that these characters should be clearly different in their representation. Some writers take special efforts to showcase the differences. Few writers do it justice.

Let's take a surprisingly difficult example: Our character wakes up one morning, gets up, walks naked to the window and throws open the curtains to let the morning sun warm their skin. This is a simple scene, but depending on the writer and the character, the portrayal can be wildly different. And as many examples show throughout literature, the description of the character often reveals something about the author, rather than the other way around.

(Note: So people feel more at liberty to share this, I will be replacing the gender-specific anatomical nitty-gritty with the safe terms, “boy parts” and “girl parts.” Figure it out.)

In the example above, our character’s gender is not defined and this is deliberate. This begs the question, what gender was the character in your head? Did you see a man or a woman? Once you have that gender in mind, how would you convey that information to the reader? If the character is female, male writers often convey this by describing the sun shining down on the girl parts. Female authors describing a man usually turn toward broader physique, leaving the boy parts out of the narrative. Here’s the question – is either method better or worse?

Obviously, if the author is writing in the genre of steamy romance, then such descriptions speak to mood and play a role in setting the tempo. However, most genres do not require describing any parts in detail because the gender is revealed from the first pronoun. Saying he or she immediately fills in the blanks without distracting the reader with unnecessary details. More importantly, it allows the reader to fill in their own blanks while enjoying the rest of the story.

If some part of the character’s physique is important to the plot – whether it is in their parts or whatever – then the writer should have no qualms about including those details. However, I have never read a story where the plot hinged on whether a particular boy part or girl part was just the right dimension to save the characters and turn around the plot. It’s a rarity at best.

As a generalization, male writers who are still developing their technique often describe female characters in physical terms: attractiveness, size of clothing, size of girl parts. This creates a very superficial description and the character will read as equally empty. As female writers work on their descriptive chops, their male generalizations go toward the three “F”s: Features, Face, Physique. (get it?) Again, not much depth in there. In both cases, the characters end up feeling like a prop to support some more important character that never shows up.

In describing characters, there is sort of a writing Bechdel Test for determining whether description is necessary or simply gratuitous. It all boils down to three questions:

  • Does the description contribute to the mood (romance, adult themes, etc.),
  • Does it contribute details that are important to the story’s progression, and
  • If the description was placed on a character of the opposing gender, would it still sound natural?

Let’s look at that last one in a little more detail, as it's the most important. In the example at the beginning, let’s say it was a woman throwing open the curtains. If the next line was about the sun warming her girl parts, well, the test would be to switch the gender and reread the sentence. Does it sound natural to have a guy throw open the curtains and let the sun warm his boy parts? Or does it just sound weird? As a win, the sun can warm her skin or his skin alike, and it works just fine.

The takeaway here is that as an author, it is your responsibility to write characters that speak to all readers (depending on genre), and that reveal themselves in ways important to the story. The best way to do that is to make sure the character stands out on their own merits, and does not merely reflect some facet of the writer. After all, it’s the character that drives the story – when they fling open the curtain, we should only care about their interests, not the writer’s.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Good Dialogue and the Ides of March

Yes, I could've talked about The Ides of March on my Friday post, which was actually the date in question, but the death of Caesar is not the point. Rather, this is about stand-out dialogue, and making the back-and-forth between two characters memorable. Some think this is easy, and yes, for some writers this comes naturally. For the rest of us, however, it takes effort and more than a little concentration.

First, there is a big difference between stand-out dialogue and authentic dialogue. Authentic dialogue is required no matter what you write. If you write a story involving 19th-century aristocracy, their references better match the era and not escape the boundaries defined by that particular time. It does not have to be perfect, but nothing can stand out as being a clear violation of that rule, because it will take the reader right out of the moment. This is tricky - the first car radio was casually referred to as a Motorola, but would using this term be a distraction to an audience used to thinking about that as the name of a tech communications company? Authenticity is difficult to manage, but always has to be considered.

Stand-out dialogue, however, is memorable for how it either amplifies a particular way of speaking or runs against a way of speaking. Will Rogers, arguably the finest American humorist of the 20th century, made himself known not just because of his homespun wisdom, but because his homespun quotables were distilled in a way everyone could understand. His writing in The Illiterate Digest was far from that, but more importantly it was precisely aimed at the every-man, at the person who would appreciate it. And it that regard, his way of speaking amplified the ideas of everyone reading his works.
"When I die, my epitaph or whatever you call those signs on gravestones is going to read: 'I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn't like.' I am so proud of that I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved. And when you come to my grave you will find me sitting there, proudly reading it."
- Will Rogers

The quote above is a simple distillation of something everyone believed, or wanted to believe. Between him and Yogi Berra, the words will last forever, yet there is nothing particularly fancy about those quotes. They are just thoughtful words that went through everyone's heads. He was just willing to put them on paper.

This naturally leads us to the other route - writing against the grain. If you give yourself a moment, an example will come to you. The professional gathering where someone is using unprofessional language. Talking in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, where one person is being far more eloquent than possibly anyone else. That one person at the card table who just seems to be on a different wavelength. Whatever the case, I can guarantee that in those instances, the one part of those conversations that you remember was the person who stuck out, for better or worse.

In the broad sense, this requires giving a character a different manner of speaking, which is best supported through some background information. Maybe the character's education is different than his peers, he grew up in a different area, or he just likes being different. Whatever the case, when this character talks, the writer makes sure that the words are just a little different.

In the narrow sense, this could be as simple as a catchphrase or terms that stand out from the social norms. David Letterman made a career with little, regularly-used, stand-out phrases. When other would "have a drink," he would go out of his way to say, "enjoy a refreshing beverage." Guess which phrase was remembered, and deliberately reused millions of times? For those people who insist on calling every sandwich a hoagie, we might not agree, but we remember. And God help us for those people who insist on using the word, "moist," whenever possible. We hate the word, but we remember them for using it. Constantly.

And this all leads us to the Ides of March. When I edited the book, Bughouse Square, one supporting character in particular stood out. He loved Shakespeare, he carried his works wherever he went, and threw those terms into every piece of dialogue possible. And while Shakespeare is possibly the exact opposite of how people spoke in 1950's Chicago, guess who stood out more? It wasn't the characters who sounded exactly like the time and place. It was the one man who insisted on treating March 15th as a holiday. And that is good dialogue.

Friday, March 15, 2019

What Stands Out?

A few years ago, someone I knew (also named James) died in a car accident; a head-on collision. The cause of the accident was a driver texting while driving. The texting driver crossed into the opposite lane and the two vehicles collided at a combined speed of over 100 mph. James was killed instantly, the other driver was seriously injured but survived. When I talked about this accident afterward, many of my friends said, "I hope that driver is thrown in jail for being so careless. That kind of stupidity has to be punished!" Most everyone was enraged that James died because someone was texting instead of watching the road.

Actually, James was the driver texting. James let his car drift into the other lane. James almost killed the other driver.

I bring this story up to show just how assumptions can play a huge role in a story, and by playing on those assumptions, the pivot of the story will stand out that much more. If you think about that story a few days from now, you may not remember James's name, or whether or not I mentioned other details. You will, however, remember how the guilty party was the person you sympathized with at first. You will remember how the story shifted. If any part stands out, it will be that. And with any story, that is the mission.

Now, not every story has a hook like that. Some stories are fairly straight-forward, and the twists and turns are largely expected. This is when the writer needs to think about what makes this story stand out. Something in there makes it special, if not different, and that's when the writer needs to target that feature.

I know a lot of people (myself included) who have written about their parents, spouse, children, friends, etc. They tell a story, they express the events and emotions, and bring it to a conclusion. A nice, well-rounded story. If they wrote it to put their feelings into words, then mission accomplished. However, for those people who really want their readers to remember these people, they need to find that one aspect that makes the character stand out.

Is every person memorable? Well, not really. Some people just fade into the background, not standing out in any particular manner. However, if they are the subject of a sketch, a short story, or a novel, then there better be something standing out - even if it is just how unimpressive they are. And once the writer figures out an aspect that really speaks to the reader, then it is their responsibility to drive that point home.

In the example above, I did not offer any details about James. The part that made the story stand out was that he was at fault for the accident. So to make that story stand out, I explained the story in a manner that suggested James was the victim of someone else's negligence. I never said that directly - it depended on the reader making certain assumptions. So, all along, the story is written to make the reader think James was innocent in all this. None of that stood out at the time. However, when the reveal hits, all of that preparation makes that one moment stand out. It was all a deliberate set-up to bring out one point, and hopefully it will not be forgotten.

Think about what really needs to pop in a story. Think about that one point, and make sure you take every opportunity to set up that moment. It takes time and effort, but when it pays off, your story will stand out, and the characters will be remembered for it.

And don't text while driving. Seriously - we spent the entire 20th century not texting and driving, and things worked out. Waiting until you get home shouldn't be a problem. For James's sake.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Interesting Antagonists: When the Bad Guy Isn't All Bad

Any conflict can be summed up as, "The protagonist versus...whatever." Traditionally, our whatever is the "bad guy" (or girl or thing, etc), and this antagonist is boiled down to that thing in the way of the hero's journey. Lex Luthor, Cinderella's terrible stepmother, Randall Flagg - all classic antagonists built strictly to get in the hero's way, create conflict, build drama, and make for an engaging story.

But do they need to be 100% bad?

Walter White - The protagonist and the antagonist.
Think of people who at some point or another played the bad guy in a particular part of your life. A boss who made your job difficult. A teacher with utterly no compassion for you as a student. A coworker who seems to say the wrong things at the wrong times and you pay for it. "The protagonist versus... the boss, the teacher, the colleague." If we take these people at face value, we can make them into bad guys. The boss hates you. The teacher had trouble with your older brothers and is now taking it out on you. The coworker is a backstabbing weasel. These are antagonists that create our conflict and get the story going. They work, but they can do more. In fact, they can do a lot more if they are not all that bad.

Let's start with the bad boss. We've all had them. I could name one in particular, but there's no need to go there. What I will say, however, is that in that moment, I only knew that boss to be bad, we butted heads a lot, and it created problems on a daily basis. That's a story people can relate to, and the reader hopes that in the end, I overcome that problem. It's good conflict, but it lacks dimension. It doesn't have depth. It's a simple story with a simple solution, but what do we really learn?

Now what if we explore that boss some more, and show what motivates them. It would be easy to just believe the boss was evil, but that lacks interest. Maybe the boss is motivated to make an impact at their job and really shake things up. Nothing wrong with that... other than it goes against the belief of the employee who knows that things are going very well and shouldn't change just for the sake of change. Now the conflict has evolved. It's not just boss versus employee, it's two conflicting ideologies. There might even be some sympathy for the boss, even though they make things very difficult for our main character. The conflict has moved beyond the story, and the reader has to understand more than one side of the story. The reader has their own conflict too.

Once we explore the bad boss, the evil teacher, the weasel coworker, we provide a broad range of feelings for the antagonist. Now, while they are still the bad guy, they are very real and cannot be easily dismissed. A conclusion where the antagonist just gets fired lacks satisfaction because we have some sympathy for them. The reader starts thinking about problem-solving, about best-case scenarios. The reader wants to resolve this situation. At this point, the reader has engaged this fiction as a real-life challenge, perhaps even with some hope for a win-win conclusion. The reader is invested.

Another particular bad guy is actually a woman in a certain sense - "The protagonist versus... Mother Nature." One cannot necessarily call Nature an enemy, but tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, packs of wolves and massive droughts definitely provide big problems. Sometimes the biggest antagonist is the world at large. Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" creates a relentless antagonist that goes beyond the occasional person. The real enemy is the end of mankind, and it is evident at every turn, stalking our heroes every day. It's not that Nature hates our characters; Nature does not care about our characters, and they are forced to survive while Nature does what Nature does. The conflict is constant and never-ending, and we can't put it down.

Lastly, the best bad guy is often the good guy - "The protagonist versus... themselves." How many people do we know who are often their own worst enemies? Even when they are kind, gentle, enjoyable people, their problem is how those traits get in the way of what they want to accomplish. Maybe it's a simple struggle: Someone who wants to get healthy but can't manage their diet. Maybe it's the person who wants to climb the corporate ladder but doesn't like playing all the politics of the business world. Authors have made fortunes off of the conflict within characters held back by past trauma that they have never faced. Look at Walter White and you will see a man constantly at war with his own demons, and often giving in to them.

Plenty of stories demand a straight-forward bad guy - The Devil has received plenty of ink for just being bad. However, always take a second and think about whether showing a little depth and dimension can make the conflict more interesting. Sometimes, not being 100% bad makes for a far better story (Look at the ones that remind us that the Devil was a fallen angel). A little good can make bad even better.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Writing Characters People Want to Read

I have been exploring different character types and figuring out how to find their most interesting parts. In particular, I have focused on anti-heroes, and what can make people want to read about people we wouldn't want to meet in real life. (For a primer on anti-heroes, check out an earlier post, "Anti-Heroes: When Even Death Can be Cool"). But this brings us to the main point - what makes a character enjoyable to the reader?

Instinctively, writers put down first drafts of characters that are mostly their virtues: loyalty, unchallenged honesty, a well-defined moral compass. These are all good qualities in a protagonist, but do readers really want these characters? Such characters make for easy heroes, but how long can that last? If a character is unflinchingly loyal, does the reader ever feel a sense of suspense about that character breaking a promise, or turning on an ally? Is there a lasting tension within that character's situation if we know they are morally bulletproof?

Tension - the most important part of any story - comes from questions in the story that the reader wants answered. When the reader questions a character's motives, the tension drives them to read a few more chapters in search of an answer. Therefore, the more readable part of a character is their weak spots. A character can be honest and sincere, but when the reader sees that character pulled away from those values, the interest escalates rapidly.

On that note, another important part of any character is depth. For whatever trait a character might have, the reader becomes attached to it if they understand where that quality came from. If a character will never tell a lie, well, that's fine. But if the reader learns that the last time that character told a lie, it set off a chain of events that cost him a friend, then the reader becomes invested. They understand the importance of this trait, and how the character values it. Not every trait needs its own backstory - sometimes people just don't lie. However, if it is a trait that becomes a point of tension in the story, then giving it depth places a higher price on that value being challenged.

Dimension also holds value for any character, but in a different way. Dimension is giving a character those qualities that might not be critical to the story but make the character feel real. What is their favorite color? Favorite drink? Do they drink? Smoke? Ex-smoker? Cubs or White Sox? Maybe they don't like baseball, or don't understand it. These are the little things that the reader can associate with, that the reader will read and see in themselves or in their own friends. At this point, the reader knows a little inside story about the character, even if it is just an incidental thing like they enjoy red wine with fish.

Once these qualities are brought out in a character, then that person becomes memorable. At that point, the reader wants to see where the story goes, and they want to join this character in the adventure. And at this point, the lead qualities of the character do not have to be honorable things like loyalty, etc. If a character isn't perfectly honest but they have the depth and dimension, then we see them as human - prone to faults but still someone we would want to hang out with.

At this point, it should be clear that even anti-heroes can become readable once they have those other qualities put into place. They become real, and they become very relateable. The reader stays with them, even if it is just to see if they get away with their plot. So, in short, what makes a character a readable one is a very simple trait.

They need to be written like humans.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Sensory Blending in Writing

In my last post, "Making Sense Out Of Sense," I talked about how to use sensory cues to drive emotional responses. When we offer our reader descriptions that do more than just fill in the scene, we bring them closer to the story; we engage them on another level. At that point, we have offered more than a complete sensory picture; we have created a full emotional picture. Who doesn't like that?

Writing is full of sensory overlap 
As we practice this technique and read about how other authors use it for effect, we will notice how some sensory cues don't quite fit. They work, but they work against the natural sensory matches. Music can be described with any number of sound descriptions - loud, gentle, off-key, rhythmic, etc. But what happens when we start describing sounds with other senses: Hot? Smooth? Sweet? Can a sound really have a temperature, texture, or flavor? No. Do those descriptors work? Definitely.

There is a medical phenomenon called synesthesia, where one form of stimulus triggers responses in another area of the brain. Sounds trigger physical sensations, numbers connect with colors, emotions show through other senses. Some say that everyone has some degree of sensory overlap, if they take the time to notice in. Ever been so mad that you "saw red," or so sad that you actually felt the color blue? That's a hint. And anyone who has had migraines knows that the pain literally looks like lightning shooting through their brain.

The important part of this discussion is that a good writer should look not only for how these descriptions show up everywhere, but look for what that evokes within the reader. Some things work, others do not, even though there is no natural connection. The term, "Smooth jazz" feels natural, but do other senses create a similar effect? Can jazz be velvet? Spicy? Bright? Aromatic? I am sure these sound like stretches, and yes they are, but they each do something to the subject.

Interesting note about synesthesia - mismatches can create intense confusion. For people who associate numbers with colors, math is very natural. However, if an addition problem is shown with colored numbers, and the numerical answer is a different color than the addition of the colors, these people get very confused. That may be a difficult idea to grasp, but let's look at it from a reading point of view.

If I write about a night at an R&B lounge, I can fill in plenty of details: the air heavy with cigar smoke, that malty mist of countless pitchers of beer being tapped, the mix of every kind of aftershave and cologne filling the room on a Friday night. Then the band steps up and breaks into a garlicky version of the Commodores' Nightshift.


At that point, I am sure every reader stopped, backed up, re-read the line, then tried to think about how Nightshift even remotely related to garlic. At that point, I have lost the reader, and it doesn't matter what their opinion is about either garlic or the song.

As a writer, you might know exactly what it means, but if it doesn't have a natural move for the reader, it fails. Other taste cues might work just fine - sweet, spicy, etc. Even tasty might work, though it would be a stretch. However, it is a very sensitive area. Merging sensory cues can bring the reader fully into the scene, but one slip and they fall away from the world you are writing about.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Making Sense Out Of Sense

This weird thing always overcomes me when I catch one of those winter illnesses so popular here in the Midwest: my senses lose control. My hands and feet feel wrapped in sweaty boxing gloves and I can feel things crawling under my skin. My sense of smell finds confusing odors like rotting gingerbread and moldy juniper. Everything tastes like salty, sticky wax coating my mouth and sounds echo about like I am listening to ghosts calling to me while I sit in the bottom of a deep well. Oh - and those fever dreams are none too fun.

Now, as a writer, I should always treat these things as opportunities to grow. This experience and ones like it give me the capacity to write vivid, detailed experiences about someone boiling with fever. However, I am going to go a different direction with it this time, and talk about framing a scene with the senses.

Re-read my fever experience above. The sensations from my hands and feet might be something a reader can identify with immediately, maybe not. However, I put in a few words that would contribute an uncomfortable feeling. "Sweaty boxing gloves" might not be familiar to everyone, but "sweaty" has its own detail that makes everything a little awkward. Feeling things on my skin is one way to describe those delusional sensations, but the reader identifies closer with crawling things, and once those things are crawling under the skin, the reader is feeling them too.

What does rotting gingerbread smell like? Moldy juniper? Honestly, I don't know. However, rot and mold are very deliberate word choices because they trigger negative responses. Lots of rot has no odor, and some molds have a nice smell - ask someone at a cheese counter. When used in describing this feverish feeling, I take advantage of their worst stereotype to ruin otherwise nice things like gingerbread and juniper. The reader now knows that the smell was something nice that is now ruined by those nasty words.

The sound and taste descriptors also use this way of cheating our way to better sensory presentation. I'm sure we've all had that waxy sensation in our mouth after being sick, or hungover, or whatever. Was it also salty? Maybe. Did it taste sticky? Well, sticky isn't a taste. However, it is a tactile sensation that we can include to bring another facet to our waxy-mouthed state. And as for the hearing thing, well, anyone who has enjoyed the quiet hell of an ear blockage knows that echoing sound that mutes out your world. Making it into ghost calls puts on a layer that allows people with healthy ears to participate in the discomfort of the moment.

(Side note: Some of these examples borrow from a condition known as synesthesia, where one sense stimulates other senses in response. More about this next week.)

Sensory description gives us much more than the opportunity to fill in those aspects of our world. The word choice can also expand into mood and the story's thematic elements, and place a lot of information into the reader's mind. Even just one sense can fill in an entire scene, establish a complete setting, and create an atmosphere that will carry the whole chapter.

My only advice of what not to do - don't get one of those good old Midwestern illnesses to really feel how wild your senses can get. No matter how much you want to grow as a writer, the sickness isn't worth it.