I am sorry to be so late in posting today, but the morning started out with contract negotiations and that took my attention away from MW. My bad!
I am not going to be original at all today. I am jumping in on everyone else’s coattails and taking a suggestion from Stuart as well – I am going to talk about descriptions in terms of the senses for the next few weeks. Thanks Stuart, for the idea.
The sensory part of writing was always important to me as a writer. In the yearly years of my career it was usually visual because I’m a visual person. I see and react to what I see on an emotional level, so that made writing about visual clues and cues simple. Sensory writing got harder—and I began to add to my writer’s tool box with sensory images—when I met Bob. Bob was a writer in my old, long-lamented writing group, and he passed away a few years back after having a very debilitating stroke. But before that, Bob was a master of sensory input in his descriptions, and I learned a lot from him. I think we all did. So for this series of posts – These are for you Bob!
Sounds are underused by our society. When a writer describes the places his character is in, or even other characters by way of what they hear, it takes our visual-oriented readers into new areas. Used well, sounds add a complex layer to stories and descriptions and allow our characters to respond on a deeper level. A raspy voice tells the reader that the character has a serious cigarette problem or a cold or is sick. The sound of an uneven gait tells the reader that the person following on the dark road is injured. The tone of a voice shares emotional input, and assures the character that someone is lying.
In police procedurals, the tech-savvy investigator will listen to the kidnapper’s ransom demand and hear something. He or she will then run the audio through all sorts of specialized machines and discover the sound that places the kidnapper in a specific place. Perhaps it will be a buoy bell that places the call near the dock, or a bird call that indicates the caller is in the woods or even an exotic bird call proving the caller is at the zoo.
Character reactions to sensory input are important. The way sounds make our characters feel matters. The way our words (that include sounds) effect the reader adds to immediacy. The sound of a mewling kitten or a crying and terrified baby or the whinny of a terrified horse change our characters’ decision making processes and therefore the direction of a story arc. Or even the direction of an entire plot arc. The information sounds give can be pivotal.
From my own writing, of course, there is Beast. Beast has taken my own sensory writing to new and sometimes annoying levels. Beast is one of two first person POV characters in the Jane Yellowrock series. (And yes, I know that two-first-person POV novels are verboten. I didn’t care.) Beast is the soul of a partially sentient mountain lion who shares Jane’s body. She is a fabulous character to write because she is so visceral, so attuned to her world on a sensory level. She isn’t easy to write, however. Her voice is primitive, her thinking processes are violent, basic, and instinctive. Beast is stubborn, intuitive, and takes me places I never intended to go as a writer. Beast made me even more sensory-minded in my writing processes. Beast made Jane a different character from what I originally intended when I first found her.
So – taking from my own work, including the WIP (untitled as yet) I offer some hearing-examples and the way they work. Some are from Beast’s POV senses, some are from Jane’s, and some overlap between the two souls.
From Jane’s POV.
Overhead, a hawk flew, black against the dark sky. It called, greeting the day with a single, piercing cry. It was too early for most species of hawk to hunt. Something had disturbed it.
The hawk cry allows me as a writer to share several things: Setting – outdoors. Time of day – very early dawn. The single cry sets an emotional ambience of solitude. The fact that it is too early for this hawk to be hunting and the very fact that it is making noise, tells my character that something is wrong.
From Beast’s POV.
I panted. Listened for sounds. In the floor of car, Bruiser’s voice still called on the phone, full of fear. But outside there were no cars, no music, no voices talking over one another. Only silence.
In this scene, Jane has just been forced to shift into her beast, and the animal is taking in the world the only she can, via senses. Silence is unusual for Beast, who hears much better than human hearing allows. The fact that there is no sound made by man is unusual. And in this case, a very good thing.
I could hear my heart beat. Thumpthumpthumpthump, fastfastfast. Too fast. I tried again to find the calm in the center of myself, but there was nothing there, no center, no peace. Just the sound of my speeding heart and wet, raspy breath.
Something warm dripped and pooled in my palm with the hilt of the knife. Blood. I was bleeding out. I was dying.
This segment could be used for texture (as the blood pools in her hand) as well as hearing. Jane is in mortal danger. Deprived of vision except the inside of a car, her human ears are attuned to everything in her environment. And what she hears speaks of panic and fear and death.
Without turning my head, I glanced at Nikki. His face was closed, as ungiving as a marble statue. No answer there either. Well crap. “May I ask another question about your master, without giving offence?” I asked. What I’d like to do is beat it out of you, but I have my orders.
Ro chuckled, almost as if she had heard my thoughts. Vamps were adept as any predator at reading body language and interpreting vocal tones as cues, so maybe in a way, she had.
Here my character has given something unintended away. As humans, we do that a lot. Our tones speak the truth when we want to lie and vice versa. In the same way, our characters need to do that, and not only what they learn from other character’s slips and mistakes and tells, but what the POV character tells of herself to others.
From Beast’s POV.
Listened to sounds—cars, music from everywhere, voices talking over one another. Gathered limbs beneath, lithe and lissome—her words for me.
Ugly man-made light, shadow-stung vision. Yet clear, sharp. She never saw like this. Scented like this. I stretched. Front legs and chest. Pulling back legs, spine, belly. Little clicks fell away. Things from her hair rolled off boulders.
With Beast, even the explanations of what she hears and sees and smells have to be in her voice, which is tricky. I have to avoid the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” aspect of the words, while still maintaining the primitive speech patters of an animal who has learned some human speech. In this scene, Jane has beads in her hair before the shift, and the fact that the beads fall away is an indication that the physics allowing her to shift into another animal form do not include things other than her flesh.
I have to admit – I love Beast. I totally love writing from her POV. I love it so much that I have to resist the desire to write too much through her mind and senses and bore the reader.
“Troll?” Katie asked. Her body froze with that inhuman stillness vamps possess when thinking, resting, or whatever else it is they do when they aren’t hunting, eating, or killing. Her shoulders dropped and her fangs clicked back into the roof of her mouth with a sudden spurt of humor. Vampires can’t laugh and go vampy at the same time. It’s two distinct parts of them, one part still human, one part rabid hunter.
The sequence of sounds tells the reader (and Jane) that the enraged vampire in front of her is having an emotional reaction. The sounds tell us what is happening: the single dialogue word, followed by the click of weapons being withdrawn, and lastly by the laughter as the vampire remembers a moment of humanity in humor.
But seldom is only one sense used by a writer to describe or to show action. It is usually multiple senses that give immediacy to prose. In my WIP, I have a scene where sensory input and then loss of that input take the scene to new levels.
The muzzle flash blinded me, but I fired back, three shots in his general direction. He rose into my window again and fired two more shots. He moved freaky fast, and could see in the dark. Not human-normal. A punching pain hit me, like a hard strike delivered by black-belt with something to prove. Burning and icy. Chest shot. He’d hit me.
But I smelled blood, his as well as mine. Blinded by the flashes, deaf from the concussive explosions, I felt along my booted foot for my backup weapon. My chest stabbed with pain and I couldn’t reach the holster.
I am not finished with this scene – it’s rough draft from yesterday. It’s still too slow and I’ll likely change something (don’t know what) in the part here: He rose into my window again. “Rose” is too slow for the action, but I like the way Jane’s senses work and then don’t.
Mixed senses from Jane’s POV from Skinwalker
The sun was setting, casting a red glow on the horizon, limning the ancient buildings, shuttered windows, and wrought-iron balconies in fuchsia. It was pretty in a purely human way. I opened my senses and let my Beast taste the world. She liked the smells and wanted to prowl.
This little segment is one of the first times in the series that I mention Beast as a separate intelligence, and I did it with the merged reactions to the sensory input. Even now, I am not thrilled with this part, and in my mind, I still rewrite it every time I read it. But as we say here at MW – at some point, we have to stop rewriting and let our baby go.
Mixed senses, Jane’s POV.
He popped the top on a Coke and poured it over ice so cold it crackled and split when the liquid hit, placed a wedge of lime on the rim, and handed it to me. His employer got a tall fluted glass of something milky, smelling sharp and alcoholic. Well, at least it wasn’t blood on ice. Ick.
I used sight and hearing and smell to create an emotional reaction in my character.
A longer segment with mixed sensory input in Jane’s POV.
Our walk ended up at the Royal Mojo Blues Company. The smell of fried food and beer and the sound of live music blasted its way into the street, the house band rocking. The RMBC had an outside dining area, a bar, food that smelled hot off the grill, and a dance floor. And the people not on the streets? They were inside. The place was packed. My feet were tapping before I reached the door. After a preliminary sniff to rule out the presence of rogue, I headed to the dance floor, losing Bliss and Rick in the crowd.
A black woman with the voice of an angel blasted a foot-stomping seventies piece by Linda Ronstadt. She was backed up by five other musicians on drums, keyboard, bass, and guitars. A selection of wind instruments rested in a rack.
Conversations merged into a background roar, with Beast picking up a few words here and there: flirting, business complaints, a drug deal taking place sotto voce between two patrons near the bar. No vamp discussions. And the only vamp scent in the joint didn’t smell fresh, though it was familiar. Couples and singles were on the floor, so dancing alone wouldn’t make me stand out. I flowed onto the floor, into the crowd. Into the heat and swirling smoke and started to move. I opened with a corkscrew and shifted into a maya. One of the courses I took between children’s home/high school/teenaged misery and the freedom of RL—real life—was a year of belly dance classes. The best thing about belly dancing was the freestyle moves it added to my repertoire. On a dance floor? I smoke.
By mixing the sensory images, I give Jane a deeper impact on the reader. And hopefully make then want to go dancing. J
There is no right or wrong way to write. We say that often here at MW. But I posit that writing without strong sensory images (not just visual!) and character reactions to those images is wrong. Using our senses – all of them – is vital to intense, immediate prose that sucks the reader in and makes him part of our world.