Your Novel Doesn’t Stink Enough

Scent. The forgotten sense.

Take a look at your work in progress. How often do you invite the reader’s nose into the story? My guess? Not as often as you should.

Consider real life for a moment. (In case you’ve forgotten, this is the life where you have to do laundry and feed the dog and occasionally acknowledge the existence of your spouse and/or children.) Breathe in each the following. Be sure to pause long enough for the brain to write the scene that goes with the scent.

Diesel fuel.

Chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.

The sidewalk after a summer rain.

Burning plastic.

Theater popcorn.

Cigar smoke.

Wet dog.

Spinning class.

The ocean.

Lavender.

Is your head spinning yet? Good. Then you get my point. In real life (see above for reminder of what this is), scent is one of our most powerful memory-triggers. Whereas I sometimes struggle to re-paint the visual elements of a past experience, scent memory acts like an impatient time machine. The moment I smell vanilla, I’m in my mother’s kitchen, barely as tall as the counter, fingers dusted with flour and waiting impatiently for the first spoon of cookie dough. The heady tease of campfire smoke takes me to any of a dozen childhood-through-adult memories, each flashing by in some visceral “Best Of…” camping memories video. And then there’s the unique pheromonic signature of those we love… or once loved. Sigh. The paradox of hope and a broken heart in a single inhale? Don’t even get me started on that one.

As with every other aspect of writing, using scent in story is an art form. It’s not as simple as saying “She smelled of raspberries.” Here are a few basic tips to make the most of scent:

  • Vary the manner in which you put the scent on the page. While it’s easy to write “she smelled like…” or “the air smelled like…” and so on, this sort of simplistic introduction to scent can actually diminish the reader’s experience over time. Mix it up. Use sentence fragments. Or just toss the source of the scent on the page. (“When she reached for the spoon, she knocked over the open bottle of vanilla and it soaked her sleeve.”)
  • Choose your scents carefully – what takes you back to a happy memory could take someone else back to a sad one.
  • Obscure scents can be effective (they take readers to very specific places), but familiar ones will have the most universal impact.
  • Allow plenty of space around the scent. Unless you are trying to overwhelm the reader in a particular scene, don’t throw a bouquet of aromas on the page. A single mention of burning plastic can linger almost as long in a story as it does in real life (remember real life?).
  • Scents can be used for good or for evil. Don’t be afraid to use them for the latter. Nothing will make a reader remember a villain more than being told he reeks of a decomposing mouse.

The nose matters.

That’s all for today. But before I go, I thought I’d share some of the titles I almost used for this post. Just because.

  • The Ol’factory
  • Scents and Sensibility
  • Sulphur for Your Art
  • The Odor Way to Write
  • Scratch and Sniff Your Way to a Pulitzer

In case you’re wondering – I haven’t forgotten the “First and Last” contest. Your entries are lined up in my reading queue. I’ve skimmed them once already. You people are quite creative. And slightly insane. In a (mostly) good way.

Winners will be announced Friday.

Smell you later…

Put Down Your Red Stapler and Go Home. It’s Friday.

Three things.

Uno – The “First and Last” contest is coming to a close tonight at midnight… but if you ask really nicely, I might let you finish your story over the weekend. Here’s a link to the contest info. And thanks to all who have already entered. So far, nearly 20 of you have taken on the challenge. I suspect a few more are waiting until the last minute to submit your brilliant work. Looking forward to reading each entry.

Two – I invited you to send suggestions for first and last lines that I might choose from to write a story… and some of you have done that. I might try to find a way to fit more than two of these in my story. This reminds me of a similar challenge I faced in an old blog of mine. I told readers I’d write a story using any word or phrase people sent in. Most sent a single word, and each got a short story. But this one sassy blogfriend sent me like a dozen (including, among others, “maggot-infested corpses” and “sargassum tea” and “Hello Kitty band-aids” and “a kite-flying windy day”) and challenged me to fit them in a single story. I did. And it was almost brilliant, if I do say so myself. (I’ll tell you more about that later.)

Here’s what I have to chose from so far.

First lines:

Joan hated dogs, especially hated them for breakfast.

If only he could see the future.

The end of the world was the best thing that had ever happened.

The striped cat glared at me.

The scent of roses had a chemical edge to it.

It had to be a trick, Nessie was just a myth, right?

Three attempts for three failures, and the last the worst of them all.

She wore bling like Christmas tree decorations, and I wondered if she could pay.

The song finishes too quickly.

Maybe this fertilizer will make our garden grow.

Last lines:

I was still hungry.

The jar was broken beyond repair.

The last thing he heard was, “dance for me monkey, dance.”

It burned on.

The feeling lasts forever.

Hot and sinfully smooth, just the way I like it.

If only the chairs were edible.

But it didn’t matter, not now.

The rain washed it all away.

He opened the envelope, no longer afraid.

Third Thing – While you’re waiting for the results of this contest (hopefully, by next Friday), I have a new challenge for you. Remember this post about what not to do with dialogue? Well, I want you to start thinking about what good dialogue looks like. Grab your favorite book and see if you can figure out what makes the dialogue shine. Listen to a conversation in a coffee shop and imagine it on the page. What would you keep? What would you delete? How many times do you need to mention who said what?

Next week, I’ll show you some of the good examples I’ve run across in recent reading.

Until then, write well. Read a lot. And send me cookies. (I prefer the cake-like cookies you typically only find in swanky bakeries. You know the soft’n’chewy kind. Chocolate chip. Peanut butter. Snickerdoodles.)

Thursday

Just a reminder about tomorrow’s contest deadline. Yup. That’s all I’m giving you today. Well, that and this link to an MSNBC article on why we get lost in a good book. Feel free to use the comments section to tell me what you think.

Tomorrow I’ll have a typical Friday grab-bag of random tidbits. Then next week, it’s back to regular blogposts packed with clever wisdom and snarky humor.

7 Excuses for Not Writing

seven-box1It’s still Sunday in my world. What day is it where you are? And what’s the future like? Do we all have jetpacks yet?

While I continue to be consumed by my editing work, I thought I’d give you seven excuses for not writing. Because, as we all know, these excuses play a key role in our efforts to cut our dreams off at the feet. Without them, we’d be writing all the time and getting better at it and paving the way for a successful future as published authors.

And we wouldn’t want that, now, would we?

You might want to bookmark this page so it’s readily available should the urge to write come on suddenly.

  1. I can only write when I have at least four hours of uninterrupted time. I only have three hours and forty-two minutes so I’ll just Twitter instead.
  2. The kids need to be fed. Okay, not right now, but eventually… and that takes a lot of forethought. I mean, do you even have kids? So what would you know about it anyway!?
  3. My laptop keyboard is too sprongy. I can’t write on a sprongy keyboard. I need a new laptop before I can write another word.
  4. I don’t have any ideas left. A Franciscan monk/ninja snuck into my bedroom last night and stole them from me because he’s tired of the monastic/ninja lifestyle and wants to be a famous (though still somewhat reclusive) author whose novels are so well-loved he gets invited to appear on Letterman where he’s asked to read a couple pages (just like David Sedaris does with his creative non-fiction) and before his segment – while he’s still in the green room – he meets Juliette Binoche and they hit it off and eventually run away to live in Sweden where they form a death metal band that becomes (in)famous for writing and performing terribly long and boring songs based on his bestselling books. Okay, fine. I guess he didn’t take every idea. I suppose I could write a novel about a monk/ninja/novelist… damn. Now I only have three hours of uninterrupted time.
  5. My muse left me for another writer.
  6. Tivo.
  7. Someone just published a book using the title I wanted for my novel. Now I feel empty inside.

See you soon. If the apocalypse doesn’t come first. Ooh… wait, that reminds me. Bonus excuse #8: I can’t write because the apocalypse could come any time and so what’s the point, really?

Peace. And enter the contest already, wouldya?

Time Travel & Teleportation Aren’t Just for Science Fiction

The written word defies the laws of physics. Right now, as you read this, the author of these words could be parasailing in Grand Cayman, or tied to a chair in the belly of an abandoned oil tanker while being pistol-whipped by thugs (a case of mistaken identity, surely), or (gasp) even dead. Okay, that last one’s a bit morbid, but the only thing you can be relatively certain of is that on Sunday, when I wrote this, I was none of the above.

But do you see what’s going on here? I’m talking to you from the past. Yup. We’re time traveling. I don’t know what “voice” you imagine when you read my words (I hope it’s a resonant, clever & sexy voice and not Steve Buscemi’s nasally weasel-whine), but the thing is… I’m not really speaking them, am I. It’s all in your head.

And that, my writing friends, is the magic of the written word. It takes on a life of its own the moment it lands on the page for someone else to read. And while all writing does this little trick to some degree, the best writing does more than simply speak from the author’s yesterday – it takes you to places you otherwise might never go, introduces you to people you otherwise would never meet.

Have you taken a train to Hogwarts? Stared in awe at Mt. Doom? Have you listened to Reuben Land’s asthmatic wheezing? Fought cold and fear with father and son as they walked Cormac’s Road? Felt the ache and uncertainty of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting’s honeymoon night on Chesil Beach?

The mark of a truly excellent story is its ability to grant you the impossible gift of living someone else’s life – to feel his or her pain, fear, wonder, joy. When you read a great novel, the words on the page dissolve into adopted memories nearly as real as the once-lived ones.

Does your novel do this? Or is it just a bunch of words on the page? Here’s an easy way to find out. Give your story to someone who doesn’t have to sleep with you at the end of the day. Ask him or her to read it, then… forget you asked. In a month or two, go back and ask what they thought. If their eyes light up and they recall a character or a story element in great detail, that’s probably a good sign (at least of that particular story element). If they say, “It was good” and that’s all? I think you have some work to do. (If they say “it was pure crap,” then surely they don’t know good literature – or maybe it was pure crap.)

Okay. That’s all. Nothing really earth shattering today. I mean, it’s Sunday after all, right? What’s that? It’s not?

I know.

Pretty cool trick, don’t you think?

Don’t forget about the “First and Last” writing contest. Still plenty of time to enter.