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Monthly Archives: December 2012

Falling in Love with Writing

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Glade Jul - Happy Christmas - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Glade Jul. Viggo Johansen. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First of all, a very Merry Christmas to everyone!  I love the holiday season and getting to be with family from all over the country, even if just for a little while.  This is also part of the reason I haven’t been actively blogging as much this month — the holiday prep monster has been greedily eating my time in huge chunks.  I need to work on getting as organized as my amazing friend Casey, who has three adorable young kids and an awesome craft business and still blogs constantly.

Anyhow, in all the Christmas madness this morning, my mother gave me a fun writing book.  I picked it up after all my little cousins had gone down for naps or to attack each other with Nerf guns, and it opens with the author reminiscing on his love affair with books.  This made me think of my own fall into writing as a kid — because it truly was a fall, with no hope of coming back.

As a little kid, I LOVED books, and around age 5 or 6, started writing all the time, though not quite as much as I was reading.  However, this writing was more like little drawings of characters and a paragraph about them.  In second grade, I graduated to writing a “book” on that big paper that kids learn to write on.  It talked mostly about my class and how we wanted to go on a field trip.  Plot was a bit thin on the ground, I’m afraid.  I was able to include every kid in my class in the story, though, which was quite a popularity bump.  In fifth grade, we had to write a story with our vocabulary words every week, and each week, I wrote a brief story about sisters Julie and Natalie, who managed to get into some pretty crazy adventures.

What has always drawn me into writing (and into reading, for that matter) is finding out the stories of interesting characters.  Interesting characters fascinate me even now.  What drew you into writing?  What keeps you going now?

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The Evocative Sense of Smell

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The Lightning Thief - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Courtesy of bn.com

Writers frequently overlook the sense of smell to focus primarily on sight.  Smell, however, packs a much tighter emotional punch; our sense of smell is associated very closely with the part of the brain that processes emotion.  Aroma, fragrance, odor — whatever you’d like to call it — can frequently unlock memories and associations for both your characters and your readers, if used with finesse.

Where some authors skip over the most emotional of our five senses, some use it to great effect.  Vastly different writing styles can use the sense of smell to set the stage, reveal character, or move the plot forward.  Within the first few paragraphs of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood incorporates scent to set the scene in an old, empty gymnasium:

A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls.

Atwood creates a feeling and uses this feeling to build curiosity.  Where exactly is the narrator, and why is she here?  We as readers want to know why we are here and where we are going, and in creating that curiosity, Atwood achieves an enviable goal.

Another example of scent working for a story comes up in a completely different book — but also a book that I love — The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.  Riordan uses scent to build the character of Percy’s step-father, Gabe:

I slammed the door to my room, which really wasn’t my room.  During school months, it was Gabe’s “study.”  He didn’t study anything in there except old car magazines, but he loved shoving my stuff in the closet, leaving his muddy boots on my windowsill, and doing his best to make the place smell like his nasty cologne and cigars and stale beer.

I dropped my suitcase on the bed.  Home sweet home.

Gabe’s smell was almost worse than the nightmares about Mrs. Dodds, or the sound of that old fruit lady’s shears snipping the yarn.

Riordan gives us a feel for Gabe’s character and tells us something that will be very important to the plot later (though I won’t spoil it for you by revealing that bit).  Gabe acts as a foil to Percy and his mother, Sally, showing us more about Percy and Sally purely through their reactions to him and interactions with him.

However, in order to use scent efficiently, we can’t just toss on a few extra olfactory descriptors.  The use of scent needs to pull its weight within the story.  Does your use of scent in your writing pull its weight?  Does it reveal character, plot, or important background information?  Does it create curiosity or build an important feeling?  If it doesn’t do these things, maybe it doesn’t belong there.

Have you read anything where the sense of smell stands out or plays an important role?  Which scents bring back memories for you?

P.S.  Check out a fun interview of Rick Riordan from Saturday’s Guardian here.

Dreaming of Endless Books

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Ever after library - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Ever after. Imagine the library down the hall. Courtesy of Google Images.

Earlier today, I was chatting with my better half, Beau, and I mentioned how I would love to have a library in our future house (which does not exist yet).  He didn’t quite see eye to eye with me on this one:

ME:  Can we have a library in our house someday?

BEAU:  We already have a library.

ME:  What are you talking about?

BEAU:  If a library is a room full of books, Library #1 is our living room.  Library #2, the bedroom.  Library #3, the office.

ME:  (dreamily) It would be all tall, gorgeous shelves full of books with comfy overstuffed chairs.

BEAU:  And maybe the bathroom is Library #4.

ME:  Hmph.  Not what I meant, punk.

This got me thinking about beautiful libraries.  I love libraries, and beautiful libraries are even better.  The first one that popped into my my is the gorgeous library at the monastery in the movie Ever After.  I can’t find a picture of that exact library, but it is multiple floors and open to the working area where the monks are making new copies of the books (this Cinderella movie is set hundreds of years ago).  Danielle, our Cinderella, lights up as she tells the story of falling in love with the book Utopia by Sir Thomas More.

Harry Potter Hogwarts Library - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Hogwarts Library. Courtesy of Google Images.

The omnipresent library of the Harry Potter books (and movies) also deserves a nod.  Major props go to JK Rowling for working the library into every book in the series.  Harry’s good buddy Hermione manages to find out something important from a book that moves the plot forward in every story in the series; the library is practically a character in the books.

Beauty and the Beast library - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Belle in the town book shop. Courtesy of Google Images.

There are also a couple of fantastic libraries in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (side note: I can’t believe this movie is more than 20 years old).  As a kid, the fact that Belle adored reading made me love her more.  Who could forget the charming town book shop or the luxurious library at the Beast’s mansion?

For some real-life beautiful libraries, check out this slideshow of twelve stunning libraries.  Which libraries (real or imagined) do you think of when you think of libraries?

Description that Jumps off the Page

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The Midwife of Venice - Novel Conclusions - Description in Writing

Courtesy of bn.com

As writers, we always want to weave our description into the story just enough to make it vivid but not so much as to slow the story down.  While Dickens may have been able to get away with an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House, modern authors usually can’t get away with that and still sell books.

We frequently hear about including the senses in our writing, but we need to remember to include descriptors that have a purpose.  Does it create a mood?  Does it tell us something important about our characters?  Does it move the plot forward?  Is it important later in the story?  Maybe the image of a gorgeous orange leaf floating down to a pond captivates your imagination as an author, but does it make sense for the story you’re writing?  If your character is zipping by that leaf at 60 miles per hour on her way to a family member’s death bed, perhaps that’s not the moment for that particular image.

Roberta Rich sets the scene and the mood and drops us right in the midst of the story with the very beginning of The Midwife of Venice:

Ghetto Nuovo, Venice
1575

At midnight, the dogs, cats, and rats rule Venice.  The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin.  Shapeless matter, perhaps animal, floats to the surface of Rio di San Girolamo and hovers on its greasy waters.  Through the mist rising from the canal, the cries and grunts of foraging pigs echo.  Seeping refuse on the streets renders the pavement slick and the walking treacherous.

It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.

In less than a hundred words, we know these things:

  • It is an odd time; something must be wrong.
  • Hannah lives in the super ghetto.  Literally.
  • Something creepy is about to happen.

The author gave us all of this information without telling us directly.  She uses multiple senses to show us the environment, set the eerie mood, and drop hints that something is about to happen, all at a bridge that comes up in the story again and again.  She pulls the reader in.

What have you read recently where the description jumps off the page?  What do you think makes for good description?

Related Info:

  • Check out an in-depth review of The Midwife of Venice here.  Like the reviewer, I also think it’s pretty cool that the book shows both good and bad Jews, Christians, and Muslims — it’s not just one religion versus another.
  • Agent Nathan Bransford has a great post on showing vs. telling here and how “specificity wins.”
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