Archive | February 2014

Make Your Scenes Real

mealVery often when I’m reading a manuscript for another writer the scenes will fall flat. The primary reason for this is that I (as a reader) am not pulled into the scene. The world feels flat because the only description is a little bit of what can be seen. When you neglect the other senses, the scene suffers. To be plausible, a scene needs to pull in the reader by using all the senses so the reader experiences the world.

So how do you weave in the five senses–sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste–without overloading the scene or the reader? Here are a few tips.

1-Start with the strongest sensation. What would your character notice first? Give that to the reader first, too.

For example, here’s a description from Burn Baby Burn where the heroine, Mackenzie, walks into a building on the edge of purgatory:

No reception desk. No chairs for waiting. Just lots of black marble, and the painful graffiti of demon-Aramaic dripping red across the ceiling and floor. Someone had also turned the air conditioning to ice-burn cold.

The chill crept along her skin as she walked, and it slipped through the soles of her boots.

Notice that the sense here is touch (the cold touching Mackenzie). There’s a little description of what can be seen (people are visual), but the strongest sensation here is of cold. So the details focus on providing that detail, and that sense is used to make the scene more real and vivid for the reader.

2-Be specific. The more specific, the better. If you say, He smelled like the woods. That’s nice. It’s poetic. But woods can smell moldy, damp, or like pine and very fresh and dry, or like a lot of things. And many readers have never been out of the city. So “woods” is not a specific description or smell. You want to layer in details that make the sense specific.

Here’s another example from Burn Baby Burn:

The half dozen other times she’d had to come down to this musty hole—and every time it had been to dig Josh out of his research—she’d thought it looked like the stacks at UCLA’s library. Miles of tall shelves with wide, leather-bound books stretched into climate controlled coolness. It smelled like library stacks, too—like dry, old paper. The place left her itchy. But any memory of college did that.

Notice the words used. Musty. Dry, old paper. A comparison is made to library stacks, so if the reader’s ever been in stacks, this will make the scene vivid. But even someone who hasn’t ever been into any library still gets the details of leather, dryness, mustiness. The more specific your details, the more the reader will “sense” the scene. Or in this case, smell the scene.

3-Go for the unexpected. If you use the usual descriptions this makes the world seem cliche. You want sensations that stand out and catch the reader.

Again, here’s an example from Burn Baby Burn:

Before she could think about it, she had him in her arms and had her tongue tangling with his. She heard his gun thud against the floor about the same time as hers, and she had her fists on his shirt to rip it off so she could get to his skin because she needed to touch him. And, oh, hell, could the man kiss—pushy and demanding, and just enough bite to make it interesting. He tasted of cherries, and if she didn’t get him on the floor in the next ten seconds, she’d die.

The guy Mackenzie is kissing tastes of cherries because he just drank a cherry Slurpee, so it’s logical that the taste would still be on his lips. This also avoids the cliche of him tasking like “man” or something else that would be too vague and not really locked into the scene and the character. Notice here, too, that we have both touch and taste being important, which shows the intimacy (you’re generally more into touch and taste and smell when you are really close to someone physically).

4-Look to contrast senses. A beautiful place that smells bad. A creepy sound along with a sensual touch along the skin. Contrast are always more interesting.

For example, in Burn Baby Burn Mackenzie walks into a beautiful house:

The rooms had a faint scent of lavender, and something else vaguely familiar. Stopping, Mackenzie took in a deep breath, and realized it was mint—with a vague hint of cloves, and something a little off. She’d know the scent of Josh’s charms anywhere, but this smell had a sour tang that made her want to open windows to air out the place.

So the house is described in a way that seems inviting, but the sour tang gives the reader an uneasy sensation that something is off in this place (and it really is).

5-Remember that a reader needs to be introduced to characters and to settings. This is where description is vital, and you do need to provide the right amount of description so the readers can see the characters and the world. This is very important in the first part of any story where everything is new to the reader.

Here’s a character introduction from Burn Baby Burn:

Glancing at the driver, she came up with an alpha silverback gorilla vibe; short hair going gray, and a lot of long-limbed muscle. The black dress shirt, rolled back at the cuffs and open at the throat, added to the image. And his khakis had not come off any rack. Judging by the expensive clothes and the weapon-edged angles to a face half-hidden by reflective aviator shades, she’d go for another line of work as this guy’s main vocation.

Notice that by putting the description in Mackenzie’s viewpoint it shows the reader what Mackenzie is seeing and thinking. That helps the description avoid the “laundry list” of physical assets. Also, this is where you can get a little lyrical and tell the reader a little not just about what someone looks like but what emotion does that look inspire.

Remember, all the senses help to convey an emotional reaction.

6-Use dialogue. The line from Star Wars, “What an incredible smell you’ve discovered,” delivered with sarcasm does more than say that it smells bad.

Here’s a similar line from Burn Baby Burn:

“This house smells of blood.”

The words came out a deep rumble, and Mackenzie glanced at Felix. Was this his way of saying this place creeped him out, too? Or maybe that he felt all homey because of it?

Have your characters react to the world in ways that help realize the world for your readers.

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Viewpoint Shifts

One of the key techniques I learned as a writer is viewpoint control, meaning when to shift viewpoint and how to shift smoothly. This generally is not a problem for writers working in first person, but I’ve also read works lately like Shannon Mayer’s Rylee Adamson series which mix first person and third (that’s a trick too pull off!).writingdesk

I’m teaching a POV workshop this March-April and here are a few tips to help with knowing when to shift the viewpoint and how to shift smoothly.

When to shift viewpoint?

1-Don’t change the viewpoint unless you need to. Stick with the character who has the most emotionally at risk in a scene.

2-Stay with viewpoint as long as you can to keep the emotion and tension in a scene.

3-Only shift viewpoint if the scene becomes stuck, or the story forces you to switch.

For example, maybe you’re writing a love scene.  You’ve started in the heroine’s point of view because you want the reader identifying with her and this is a big emotional moment for her.  But the hero may have a moment, too, once the sex is over—maybe that’s the point he finds himself becoming emotionally involved with the heroine. You finish the scene out, and the hero has to leave. Right there, if you stay in the heroine’s viewpoint, the hero is going to walk out and that leaves the reader with just her and no conflict—if her issues in the scene are over, the hero’s AND his viewpoint need to come into the story.  Now you either have to have omniscient info about him and that could pull the reader out of the story, or you have to force thoughts into the heroine’s head that are going to read like plot exposition (and not really her thoughts).  Or you have to shift viewpoint if you want to follow the hero and stay with what’s going on with him. Now you have an excellent reason to change viewpoint.

Above all, make your decision to change viewpoint based on the fact that there’s no other choice to make this scene work.

How to shift viewpoint smoothly?

Shifting viewpoint is a lot like handing off a baton in a relay race–it’s easy to fumble it if you don’t smooth the shift for the reader. This  means you want to treat every point of view change as a place where you can lose the reader. Here are tips to help you smooth shifts:

1-Make viewpoint shifts happen in new paragraphs, not the same paragraph.

2-Use proper names not pronouns.

3-Use a bit of action to smooth the shift.

As an example of this, let’s look at an awkward viewpoint shift.

She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. She wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would he understand? He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.

Right there we trip up the reader in that we move straight from one character’s head to another. Most readers will need to re-read that passage. So let’s apply the three tips–break up the paragraph, apply names, and use action to shift the viewpoint.

She ran into the room, panting hard, gasping for breathe. May wanted to tell him everything that had gone wrong, but would Tim understand? Leaning against the wall, May put out a hand to steady herself.

Tom covered May’s hand with his own. Under his touch, he could feel the heat from her skin, and her rapid pulse thudding hard in her wrist. He thought she looked a mess, her hair tumbled and her face red, and he only wanted to help.

The action of May reaching out and Tom covering her hand, the use of proper names before we move back into pronouns, and the paragraph break now all signal a viewpoint change.

But if you really want to force yourself to learn viewpoint control, write each chapter in one viewpoint only. You’ll learn a lot.

 

 

Horse Sense for You Charactes

akhal-teke1I’m doing my “Horse Sense for Your Characters” workshop over at Savvy Authors starting Monday (Feb 3), and there’s still time to register if you like. But I thought it would be good to talk about why I came up with this workshop–and why you might need it.

The workshop came out of my own frustration at reading what otherwise would be a really good story–except the things horses did (or had done to them) stretched out of my ability to suspend disbelief. This happens a lot with historical romances where you almost always have to include horses. And it can happen with modern novels set either around horse breeding, showing, or racing.

What are the worst mistakes?

1-The horse who acts like a dog. An recent animated movie committed this sin and had the horse lapping up water like a dog (they suck water down like Hoovers). Horses are not big dogs. Granted, they sometimes act like big, dumb dogs, but they have a whole different set of instincts due to being prey animals.

2-The horse who acts like a car. This is even worse. Horses do not park well, not even when tied. Horses have to be harnessed or tacked up and have to be cooled off and have to be walked and fed and watered and generally take a lot more care–this is why cars won the battle for convenient transportation.

buckedoff3-The easy to get up and down from horse. Even the shortest horse is a long way up from the ground. Unless we’re talking pony, most folks cannot easily swing up on  a horse (I knew one cowboy who had this trick, but forget it if we’re talking knights with armor here). Getting on and off a horse is a production–and horses seem to delight in moving right when you’re most off balance with one foot in the stirrup.

4-The stretch limo horse. Horses have limits of weight and speed and distance. The weight limit is a big one. Most horses can manage one person, but two is a huge burden, and generally puts weight over the horse’s loins (not good). It’s also really uncomfortable to ride double, and so not that romantic.

5-The kiss. Speaking of romance, the kiss from horseback is generally a myth. Yes, some horses will stand still for this (really, really well trained horses). Most horses feel you leaning and shift away–making for a really awkward moment. If you want some laughs at the expense of others, check out You Tube for the mounted weddings (hint: billowing wedding dresses and horses do not mix well–brings new meaning to the phrase run-away bride).

6-The stallion! Truth is stallions are generally a pain in the butt. If they’ve been used for breeding, they want to breed everything. You may think your mare is touchy, but stallions are just as moody. Yes, there are some good ones–and some very well trained ones. But, in general, if you want a good, steady ride, you’re looking for a gelding who’ll keep his mind on work.

arabian7-The big hero on the Arabian. Don’t get me wrong, I love Arabs–and I’ve ridden some great ones. I’ve  never seen one bigger than about 16 hands and that’s a rarity. They’re usually between 14 and 15.3 hands high (with a hand being 4 inches). This means they’re on the small side–any guy over 6′ is going to look like he is riding a pony. He will not look dashing–and I always start laughing at this point in any book that puts that big dude on that little horse.

So, in general, think of horses as characters–they want to eat (and eat some more). They have their own fears, their own opinions about things, and their own tempers. They aren’t dogs, or people, or cars. They are wonderful, however. And if you’d like to learn more, particularly about horses through history, stop by the workshop.