Friday, July 25, 2014

Fuel for The Fire

St. Thomas Aquinas said, The senses are a kind of reason. Taste, touch and smell, hearing and seeing, are not merely a means to sensation, enjoyable or otherwise, but they are also a means to knowledge – and are, indeed, your only actual means to knowledge. This is all too true for writers. To create characters and worlds that resonate, writers must make them real, which means using the senses. 

How does one better use the senses in writing?  Differentiate between types of smells such as pipe smoke versus cigarette smoke. Use sound words that denote feeling like “argh” for frustration, “uh” for hesitation or “Whoowhee!” for excitement. Incorporate physical actions which active touch imagination such as a slap to the face or a kiss on the mouth. Write about smells, which activate taste sensors like the smell of chocolates as someone walks through the mall. Use specific adjectives such as a red, black, and green plaid shirt, as opposed to simply a colorful one, or a bumpy, crack-filled, pot-holed road instead of just an old road.

What to avoid:  Drop overused adjectives, like interesting, nice, and amazing. Use sensory language but don’t overdo it. Write about the senses only when it’s appropriate. Refrain from only using specific sensory words. Remember that you can activate the reader’s emotional sense when you describe a child studying a bandaged cut after his first fight.  And don’t forget that simply expanding upon a visual image can activate many senses, such as the image of a student face down on a cafeteria floor covered in crushed potato chips and sticky chocolate milk.

An author’s goal is always to keep the reader interested, which means incorporating concrete, significant details into our stories. What exactly are concrete, significant details? Details are anything specific and not general; for example Elizabethtown, NY, versus a town in upstate NY. Details become significant when the image conveys something important; for example the difference between torpedoing into a room versus walking into a room.  Details are  consideredconcrete when they evoke the senses and are not simply abstract concepts; for example simply stating that someone is infatuated, she likes Bill very much  versus a description of what a girl might say, feel and do when she sees a boy she likes, she blushed and ducked her head whenever Bill walked in.

Utilizing concrete, significant details through the use of sensual language involving smells, sights, sounds, touch and taste helps readers form connections in their minds, fueling the imagination….


The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell – as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope.  And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish.  But mostly it smelled of hay, for their was always hay in the great hayloft overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.

            E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, Picture by Garth Williams

 Paula Castner is a co-founder of Seven Bridge Writers' Collaborative as well as a freelance writer and workshop facilitator. She receives emails at


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Practice Makes Perfect

You know your creative batteries need recharging when, instead of writing, you’re reading about whether, how, and when to write. I’ve come to the end of a long project (and I do mean long), and the how to’s of the writing life are like Dixie cups full of water held out to the runner - they get me to the finish line., itself a cool shower of inspiration, recently offered up on its bookshelfManage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind. Edited by Jocelyn K. Glei, this colorful, little book (Amazon Publishing), is diminutive in size only. Full of useful, and at times inspired, advice on how to take control of your creative time and energy, Manage Your Day-to-Day, brings together not only writers and artists, but academics and business consultants as well 

Business consultants?  Yes, after all, for many of us, writing is our job. And like any job, can benefit from the occasional overhaul of motivational tools and time management techniques. With subheadings like, Building a Rock-Solid Routine, Finding Focus in a Distracted World, and Taming Your Tools, Glei covers some essential ground in the battle to increase a writer’s productivity and job satisfaction. As she points out in her introduction, creative minds are exceedingly sensitive to the buzz and whir of the world around [us]. Managing our workplace, and more importantly, circumventing our own psychological stumbling blocks, are essential do doing our best, most productive work.

Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, has some particularly useful insights along these lines. In his essay Understanding Our Compulsions, he describes why we often make bad or counterproductive decisions, and how temptation (I’ll just check my e-mail before I start….) sabotages our forward momentum:

The psychologist, B.F. Skinner came up with the idea of random reinforcement, where you give a rat a lever and every hundred times it presses the lever, it gets  a piece of food….  I think that e-mail and social networks are a great example of random reinforcement.  Usually, when we pull the lever to check our e-mail, it’s not that interesting. But, from time to time, it’s exciting. And that excitement…. keeps us coming back to check our e-mail all the time.

In Making Room for Solitude, Leo Babauta, argues that being alone is something the creative artist often has to relearn, practicing solitude, much as one would approach meditation. He advises setting aside increasingly long blocks of time, where the noise and bustle of the outer world give way to the quiet, contemplative, creative world within.

In his essay, Laying the Groundwork for an Effective Routine, Mark McGuiness argues that the single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second…..  By definition, this approach goes against the grain of others’ expectations and the pressures they put on you.  It takes willpower to switch off the world, even for an hour.  It feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset.  But it’s better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to surrender your dreams for an empty inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing your potential for the illusion of professionalism. 

To which we say, Amen.

Ultimately Glie’s book, is not so much a proscription, as a prescription, an authoritative guide to not only getting over the finish line, to getting the work done, but to sustaining and renewing a lifelong, creative practice. The routines we make for ourselves, the ways in which we renew our creative energies, these are as varied and creative as the work itself.

Now let’s get back to it….

Hollis Shore is a  co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer's Collaborative, and graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults program. She was the 2012-13 Boston Public Library Children's Writer in Residence, and a winner of the PEN New England Discovery Award for her novel, The Curve of The World.