Monday, February 4, 2008

A bit more about rewriting

Once upon a time, I handed in a few chapters, and my editor really liked them. But then I rewrote them a bit, handed them in again, and she loved them. "This is much more 'grounded,' than the first version," she told me. "What did you do to it?"

I had done only one thing: added all five senses.

Before the rewrite, my character was just driving her truck and seeing things. After the rewrite, she was still driving her truck, but in addition to seeing things around her, she also smelled coffee that sloshed out of a cup, she tasted fruit she'd had for breakfast, she heard a voice on her cell phone, and when her rear tires left the pavement and rolled over gravel, she felt that change through her butt.

Here's a rewrite tip that will seem obvious to some of you, but isn't to the rest of us: Check every single scene to see if it has all five senses in it: sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell. I don't mean check a few scenes, I mean check them all. Now it may be that you can't get all five senses into every scene without pushing too hard, and you don't want to push so hard that it seems overdone. It's tricky to get taste into most scenes, for example, and smell's not easy, either. There will be many scenes in which you just can't add them without being absurd. But if you can and it works, you will be amazed at how much more "grounded," in my editor's word, your story feels. Even the most imaginative flight of fantasy needs grounding, in the sense of making the world you are creating feel as real to your reader as this world feels to you.

When you check each scene, you'll probably find that you're naturally stronger in some senses than in others. I don't have any problem getting sight into scenes, for instance. But for the rest of the senses, you'd think I had a cold that clogged up my ears and my nose so I couldn't hear, taste, or smell anything. And touch? Forget it. Those senses don't always pop up naturally in my writing; I have to work on them consciously.

Checking for the 5 senses is one of the most enjoyable parts of rewriting, in my opinion. It's not hard, it doesn't take much work to improve what you already have, it allows you to get imaginative, and the rewards far outweigh the effort.

And one last tip about the senses: if you don't do anything else, at least make sure your opening scene is rich and ripe with seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling (touch). It will pull your readers deep into your story and hook them before they turn to page two.

Here is a lovely example of the use of two senses in the very first paragraph of a novel. It's from The Sultan's Seal, by a new writer, Jenny White.

A dozen lamps flicker across the water, moving up the strait in silence, the oarsmen invisible. A dry scuffling noise drifts from shore, the breeze too indolent to carry it very far. Wild dogs bark and crash through the bushes. There are snarls, a short yelp, then silence again.

flicker. . .silence. . .invisible. . .dry scuffling. . .bark. . .crash. . .snarls. . .yelp. . .silence.

We are there, on the water, in the boat. And we wonder. . .what made the dog yelp, and why did it go so suddenly silent? In four sensory-laden sentences, she's got us. Even with such a brief passage, you can see why this book was named by Booklist as one of the top 10 first novels of last year.

Hook editors, agents, and readers by baiting your scenes with provocative, believable, and imaginative sensory images. If you can do that, you've got them, and they'll follow you anywhere.


Nancy P said...

What are you seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, and smelling right this minute?

I'm seeing how black this typing looks on my monitor, feeling the concave shape of the keys under my fingers, tasting the piece of berry pie I just ate, hearing the furnace, my breathing, and some ringing in my ears, and smelling. . .

Hmm, I'm smelling bacon.


Now that's weird. My mom's asleep. I'm not cooking bacon.

If I were a character in a book I think I'd jump out of this chair and go see if:
a.) my ex-husband is back, or
b.) I left the stove on, or
3.) ? Gulp.

Nancy P said...

G'night. :)

AndiF said...

I'm hearing thunder, seeing lightning, feeling wet dog fur, smelling wet dog fur, and tasting sodden air. Hmm, now what could all of that suggest? Oh I know ... that the house is full of muddy, wet towels.

Good morning all. said...

Nancy, this is so well put. Thank you! Oh, and of primary importance, too. :-)

And so easy to forget. (Is "What I just forgot" one of the human senses?)

I used to keep the five senses taped to my wall where I write. -- That sounds a lot trickier than it really is. :-)

They're going back up today on a yellow Post-It note.

P.S. Absence of an expected or anticipated sensory experience works just as well. Having a character eat something and NOT taste it at all (poor example) is perhaps an indicator of shock. Or grief.

Someone saying they're leaving and, after the door closes, the sound of the car starting is NOT heard.

And, of course, we've all had the experience repeatedly of a date saying she didn't feel a thing while we made love. Or is this just me?

Rick Bylina said...

Nancy #1...Amen to the 5 senses. When I critique a chapter for other authors and feel that it is "flat," the number one suspect is the lack of the senses.

DA GUIDELINEZ #2 on my blog is about the five senses plus two ( .

Nancy #2...At last night's meeting of the Quail Ridge Book Store Mystery Readers Book Club in Raleigh, NC, "The Virgin of Small Plains" was positively reviewed by two different members. Also, mention was made of NP's past books. Several nodded and wondered about the availability of your previous novels. Send me the skinny on what you wrote earlier about their availability, and I'll pass it on to the group.

Anonymous said...

Morning, everyone! Someone near and dear to us recommended that I do the same thing when I was rewriting, Nancy, and it really did make a difference. I'm going to try to remember to add it up front this time, instead of in the rewrite.

I love your writing tips!! Thanks so much for sharing.

But now I want bacon... :-)

Jen said...

I'm sitting propped up by a couple of very soft pillows, one pressed into each hip for support, savoring my morning coffee as I listen to the heavy rain pound on the roof in quantities sufficient to gut-check the new gutter, smelling fabric softener on my sweatshirt, and looking for my friends inside my computer. Oh, and here you are!

PS. Nancy, I'm pretty sure it's the mystery smell of burnt toast you have to worry about. Burnt toast = possible impending stroke, whereas medical experts broadly agree that phantom bacon smells just indicate that one ought increase one's club sandwich intake.

Anonymous said...

the decades old new england trip roared back as he crunched the maple cured bacon -- meaty smokey sweet -- two eggs eyed him waiting their turn sizzling in the black iron skillet over the hissing fire the butt end of a loaf soaking the popping grease above them

neck hairs rose

his free hand grabbed the ivory-handled knife in the ready

-cormac mccarthy said...

Cormac's back and cooking breakfast!

Thank you.

And thank you, Jen, for the burnt toast reminder. I'd forgotten.

FARfetched said...

Oh, Nancy makes the save at the last minute! This is what I was trying to figure out what my short stories needed in that last fuss-over before sending them out.

I should have thought of it myself, though. I mentioned how some of my better haiku efforts engage several senses.....

Nancy P said...

lol, Andi, and well done!

lol to you, too, Ghost. I will laugh every time I think of you trying to pin those slippery senses to a wall.

But yeah! They ARE important enough to deserve their own post-it note! I use index cards to check stuff in each scene. I make myself look for and check off every sense in every scene. If a scene is missing a sense or two or five, I add all that I can.

Then there are senseless scenes--but that's a different matter. :0

And, also yeah!, what a character doesn't see, taste, smell, etc., can be of great importance. The Dog That Didn't Bark.

Nancy P said...

Rick, how very nice! Thank you, and I will. I'll e it to you. I love QRBooks. Say hi to Nancy for me.

lol, Jen. Note to self: increase club sandwich intake. As for your sensory report, I love it, and also how you took the senses and built a whole little visible, smellable, hearable, taste-able,feelable scene around them--the support of each hip, the thought of the gutter,etc. Nice. And, yeah, here we are, waving at you.

AndiF said...

Revised 4:36 a.m. comment: All my senses are tuned to reacting to Stupor Tuesday based on cues from Sniff.

Wake us when it's over.

Kelly McCullough said...

Treadblogging. I see the wall and the laptop. Taste my lovely Assam White tea, hear the treadmill and feel the impacts against the soles of my feet. As for smell, I'll only say that I've already done several fast miles and leave the rest to the imagination of the reader.

Maria Lima said...

Morning, all!

Nancy, one again you're spot on with the timing. I was reworking some scenes last night adding sensual touches...SENSES, dudes, get your minds out of the gutter.

Right now, I smell...nothing, as my sinuses are fighting a pseudo-winter cold. It's ridiculously warm and I'm waiting for the other weather shoe to drop.

Cormac, lovely brekkie, I'm so there.

Back to the saltmines. Hope everyone has a lovely day.

Nancy P said...

Beth, don't worry if you can't remember to get it into early drafts. If it doesn't come naturally, that's okay. (It doesn't for me.) It's--thank goodness--the kind of thing that can be completely fixed in rewrites.

On the other hand, if you CAN train yourself to think that way, so much the better. Over the years, I've improved in that regard a bit, but honestly, not all that much. Most of my sensory work gets done in rewrites.

Nancy P said...

carmac. . .so nice.
"meaty smokey sweet"
Right there, you've done something that's really hard for a lot of us, which is to find a way to describe taste so a reader really gets it.

And, man, is it ever true that flavors and smells bring memories "roaring" back. (Maybe we'll try something on the blog with that idea some day soon.)

Nancy P said...

Far and Maria, cool, I'm glad I "knew" just when to write this. :)

Maria, you did it right there in your comment. . .used the lack of senses to communicate "a cold." I think one of the things you lucky vampire (and other creature) writers get to do is play with both the presence and lack of senses in unusual ways. What can vampires sense, not sense, how is the sensing different from ours, etc. I love reading every writer's own version of that stuff. (Hmm, maybe we'll do something with *that* someday on the blog, too.)

Kimberly Frost said...


There's a special workshop on revision this weekend that I'm going to. And my plan is to make a checklist. I've put the five senses on it as well as the rest of your CAST list that you presented at WRW. So, yes, thank you.

Also, I sent you an e-mail last week via your website. Did you get it?

Nancy P said...

Hi, Kimber--I'll be e'ing you sometime today. (I got behind 'cause of travel.) That's very cool about the revision workshop. I'll be eager to hear if you get some good advice out of it.

Family Man said...

Morning Nancy and everyone.

Just made it under the wire here. Nancy you're talking using all the senses when I'm usually talking not using them. Naps and all. :)

We're getting ready for some thunderstorms coming in and it is actually so warm that I have the a/c on. That's just not right for Feb.

katiebird said...

Hi, I'm sorry to be so quiet today. I was at the ER with my dad. He cracked his open -- he's fine now -- but we were there until about 4am.

I slept, but I'm so tired, my vision's jumping all over the place.

It's supposed to be super Tuesday. I wish I could just vote, but I'm going to have to Caucus tonight. Unless I don't..... But since I'm in charge of the Credentials Committee of the Caucus, that would be a hard one to pull off.


Anyway, like I said: Good Morning (HA! I just realized it's 1pm!!)

Kimberly Frost said...

Nancy - No rush at all. Just wanted to make sure it got there. Cyberspace is so dicey at times. What I really need is a nice webgoblin to hand deliver my e-messages. Then I'd never worry. :)

Kelly - treadblogging? That's one solution to keep the cats off the lap while working.

Hi everyone!

Andi - It's about to rain here, too and I'm excited. I love a good thunderstorm.

Kb - I'm so sorry about your dad. Get some rest.

katiebird said...

Thanks Kimberly. I am. I'm doing laundry, but the washing machine is doing most of the actual work....

Anonymous said...

Oh kb, I'm so glad he's okay! What a scary night for you all! I hope you get some rest, and that he doesn't have a massive headache...

Maybe do a little caucus...


katiebird said...

Luckily (I guess) we've got a lot of experience with accidents & emergency rooms in our family and I wasn't worried at all. My biggest fear was that he'd refuse the CAT scan & I'd have to call every couple of hours to check up on him. But he had it done and everything's fine.

The thing that (could) anger me is that they originally went to the emergency room at around 5pm but left because there was such a long wait.

THEN he called me at 11:30 to take him.

But that's my dad -- you can't change him.

Conda said...

Great post and reminder for all us writers, Nancy. I think part of the problem is that we are such a visually-oriented society (video and the internet, sometimes both together)but as Donald Maass points out, novels are not movies.

Nancy P said...

Sniff should be our resident expert on the sense of smell.

Family man, lol. Does that make you senseless?

Kb, good grief, what a week! Best wishes to your dad!

Nancy P said...

Good point, Conda.

I'm off to our caucus soon. The weather seems to be co-operating so far.

boran2 said...

That's a fascinating post, Nancy. It sounds like very good advice. Thanks for educating the writers amongst us, and us non-writers.

olivia said...

Nancy, I love love love reading your writing tips, and this one is fantastic! Thank you ... :D

olivia said...

katieb! {{{{{{Hugs}}}}}}!