Monday, October 13, 2014

Open Mic & Guest Post on Utilizing Senses in Your Writing

This weekend my writer's group, Pikes Peak Writers, put on some extra programming to take part in Arts Month. On Saturday, we had teen improv, then that evening we held an open mic night, where we encouraged writers to come out and read their work. We had good attendance at both, and they proved to be fun.

Now, I am not a person who's comfortable with public speaking. I force it because I run writing events, so kind of have to be up there. I really didn't want to read, but a few friends convinced me to. It was worth it, despite the fact that I think my face was flaming red the whole time (it felt warm, but who knows if it was visible). It was a kick hearing reactions from the listeners. And though it was not for feedback, I got some great extra feedback from an attendee I respect, so that was worth it, as well.

One thing I do enjoy doing is giving workshops, though I'm still a nervous wreck. I find this less personal than reading my own work or just being myself in front of people. I have one coming up next weekend, though it looks like it may be cancelled for not enough attendees. We've had some cancellations and several members (this is for a different writer's group--Pen Women) who usually come to the meetings are out of state (and country) or have something else going on already. I've noticed that this has been a busy month for a lot of folks. Unfortunately, there's a minimum attendance for the location it's at, and we're not there yet with the RSVPs we have. I'm finding it hard to take time for continued prep when it may very well be cancelled as of tomorrow.

Back to open mic. If you ever have the chance to participate in an open mic, I highly recommend you try it. Not only was it fun listening to everyone else read their pieces, all of which were good, but like I said above, it was nice to get that live feedback from other attendees as I read. It's a great way to see what's working and what isn't. Give it a try!

Okay, onto our guest poster. Have you ever read a story that left your senses tingling? Those authors who use sense description tend to create stories you can feel, smell, and taste, not just see and hear (the two most common senses described in writing.) Today, Nikolas Baron from Grammarly stops by to discuss:

Image by Gina,

Why Utilizing Your Senses Enhances Your Writing

When you read about a new recipe, what makes you want to put down the Cheetos and bake that pretzel bun? Was it that it only took twenty minutes? Or was it because the description was so inviting, delectable, and appealed to your senses? You wanted something crunchy, salty, and yeasty. You wanted something that smelled like a German restaurant. When you write fiction, using your senses adds an extra layer that traps the reader like the scent of a freshly baked loaf of bread.

Scientists say that our most memorable moments from our lives are linked to smell. We remember the fresh paint of our little brother’s room before he was born. The rubber cement we used to make posters in elementary school. Our Nana’s meatball recipe. If you can sit and write down all of your favorite memorable smells, and incorporate them into your story, you’ll be well on your way to inviting your reader on your story’s journey.

Senses are the best way to show the reader rather than tell. When you show, you give the reader the tools to figure it out on their own. When you tell them everything, your writing is not only weak, but lacks the depth of creating a viable scene.

What if I wrote something like this: I walked into the door of the old cabin that was made out of pine. There were pretzel buns on the table and it was raining. I looked for my old blue hat but couldn’t find it anywhere so I traced the countertop with my finger. I saw a bluebird outside and it chirped quickly.

In comparison to this: I ran into the old cabin slamming the door behind me. I shook off water droplets from my jacket and leather hat while breathing in the salty, yeasty air of the kitchen. The moss wept outside while bluebirds called to each other for help. I snagged a hot pretzel roll off the counter and swept the crumbs off the cool butcher-block counter onto the floor.

See, touch, hear, taste, smell. There’s a lot more punch in the second paragraph than the first. You can tell it’s raining, notifying you of the smells and sights. You can see and hear the birds chirping. You smell the fresh baked rolls and touch the cold countertop. You taste the warm bread and touch it’s crusty outside. There’s so much more to learn from the second paragraph where you show the reader with their senses rather than telling them with no interaction. Readers want to be transported when they read a story. If you fail to appeal to the senses, there’s no way for them to full immerse themselves in the story.

One of the ways I like to incorporate the senses into my writing is by proofreading. When I go back through my story, it’s easy to see where I can improve and where the sense descriptions are weak. I also like to use the website Grammarly to help me proofread. Grammarly suggests helpful synonyms that are context-optimized to my style and story. It can help me improve the quality of my senses descriptions while also cleaning up my grammar and punctuation mistakes.

Incorporating the senses into your writing helps to transport the reader to the land you’ve created with your writing. It enhances their experience within the story and allows them to connect. Think about all of your strong memories. There are tons of sights, smells, touches, sounds, and tastes.

Think about the last time you ate your Dad’s famous chili. How long did the smell stay in the kitchen? How did it taste? Did it burn your mouth? Did you see him smile while making it? Did the pot boil and splash? From all of those senses, you can produce a very accurate and impressive description of the scene. Something readers can imagine and relate to. Try to incorporate using senses into your writing and see the difference. Read up on those who write excellent sense descriptions. Your readers will thank you.

By Nikolas Baron

Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.

Personally, I recommend Barb Samuel. Her book "How to Bake a Perfect Life" is full of comforting sense descriptions you can get lost in. Does anyone else have a book or author they'd recommend for studying the use of sense description in writing? Which sense do you use the most? Which scent do you use the least? Have you read at an open mic before? Just attended one? Would you attend one if it were offered? 

May you find your Muse.


Christine Rains said...

I fear public speaking too, but I force myself to do it. I go red as a beet. A few times, I've lost my voice. Thankfully I've never passed out! *knocks on wood*

Great guest post. Smell is definitely strong with me. I think I use taste the least, but I try to make sure all the senses are represented in my stories.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I hope you get some more RSVP for your workshop.
Great guest post. I don't have a strong sense of smell so I don't include it as much as I should in my writing.

Anonymous said...

You did not appear nervous at all while you were reading. It was perfect timing to pair your thoughts on open mic night with your guest blogger, because one of the successes of the story you read was the inclusion of so much sensory detail that everyone in the room could relate to. You could teach a master class with that story. :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Shannon, I'm not much for speaking in front of people either.
Incorporating the senses was something I really had to learn. I have to really think about a scene to capture those things in my head and translate them to paper.

A Beer for the Shower said...

I wish we lived closer so we could take part in more of this stuff. Open mic night sounds awesome. Do we get nervous? Hell yes. But it's still a blast.

Oh, and thanks for the comment reminder! We e-mailed Jessica about the book.

cleemckenzie said...

Sounds like a worthwhile event. I'm all for using those senses to lure the reader into a story.

Andrew Leon said...

I'm not into the public readings anymore. Not the short, open mic type things, anyway. What I've learned is that they are wasted time if you're actually trying to sell anything.
Maybe it's just me.

Andrew Leon said...

Oh, also, I got a spam email from you this morning, at least I think I did. It had your name on it. said...

Funny you mention open mic, I've been pushing myself to do these at local cafes. It's a nice, semi-big thing in my town. We've many local musicians and poets. I've really enjoyed it, though I had to fight to be heard once. The coordinator, a musician, said "We don't usually do poetry. Do you sing?" I told him no, thinking, you don't want me to sing. So I read an erotica poem, and I think they like poetry now. Smiles.

Shell Flower said...

Great job putting yourself out there. Glad you received some feedback, too. This feels like a particularly busy year--my writing group has cancelled a lot lately.

And the guest post is a great reminder. I always get good responses to stories where I remember to really use the senses, especially touch for some reason.

Crystal Collier said...

Nice. Way to hop in front of a crowd!

And to Nikolas...totally awesome. The sense are the key to immersing the reader into the story.

Anonymous said...

Open mic night sounds like fun. I'm not big on getting up in front of people, but I think it would be fun being in the audience supporting those brave enough to read their work to everyone.

Anonymous said...

I love incorporating the senses in my writing and reading descriptive stories.

Public speaking is never easy, but I do get into the rhythm of it.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Christine, it's funny, because I got dinged in a critique panel for using smell. They said the focus on smell must have meant she was a werewolf (she wasn't).

Susan, I didn't. So we've rescheduled for next year.

M.B., woo-hoo! Noted for the future! Really? Not read at all? My face was roasting hot.

Alex, I was good at visual, but I started focusing on at least hearing and smell. Touch (other than, say, temperature) is something I need to focus more on, and taste is the rarest for me.

B&B, I'd hoped you guys could come down, but I know it's a long drive, and I rarely come up there. We *may* do more open mics, as it got a good response.

Lee, thanks!

Andrew, the majority there weren't published, but were sharing their work just to share. There were three there who were published, and they each sold some books, which was NOT the purpose of this open mic. That's my only experience other than readings that occur at cons. And uh oh on the spam. I'll need to find out what email addy.

Robyn, ha, that's fantastic! Won them over. This one was writers only, so we chose a quiet venue.

Shell, I bet touch is the second least used sense in writing, so putting that in there really gets to the readers.

Crystal, it wasn't as horrible as it could have been!

Susanne, there were a few supporters there who didn't read.

Medeia, that's a good thing. I do, as well. It's when I emcee and have to just do the boring parts that I well and truly hate it. But reading my work feels like standing naked in front of everyone.

Andrew Leon said...

I'd tell you, but I don't remember, now, and I deleted the email.