Saturday
Oct092010

Playing Ourselves Into Wide Open Spaces - part two

As if last week's riches weren't enough, here is the conclusion of Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich's wildly inspiring and moving blog piece. Read it... and then go out and play! -Anne

 

Olugbemisola Rhuday-PerkovichPlaying Ourselves into Wide Open Spaces - part two

A few years ago, I left myself with a week to write about 200 pages (don't ask) of 8th Grade Superzero, then called Long Time No Me. The only way that I got out of that one was through play. I came up with the silliest, wackiest, most ridiculous things -- and I threw them in.  Even though much of the text didn't stay, the anything goes sensibility freed me to get it done, to laugh at myself amidst the frenzy. And one of the characters made up during that week remains, and is one of my favourites.

 • Let go of rigid definitions of ‘writing’ and ‘creativity’.  Celebrate the notes you write to yourself, the doodles, the scratches and sketches.

• Read something from a new-to-you cultural tradition. There's more to life than the Western Bildungsroman, and Aristotle isn't the end.

 • Write a Top Secret note to a friend, and fold it up till it’s tiny and tight. Pass it to them as a surprise.

• Make up your own words. Invent your own language.

 • Make a book, like an accordion book, or a craftzine for kids. I use Ruth McNally Barshaw’s technique of making an 8-page booklet out of one piece of paper constantly.   Mail your book art to yourself.

• Write a song, and sing yourself to sleep.

• Take opportunities to be multiliterate.  Many of us already fool around and mess about in digital spaces. We write differently on Twitter, Facebook, on our blogs, and in articles. Embrace the opportunities for playful writing with digital tools.

 • Make a glog!

 • Make an audio recording of your story. What additional texture does your voice add, the surrounding sounds, the silent spaces?

 Play allows us to “think, wonder, learn, and  explore without worrying about skill" writes Ginger Carlson in Wonder Child. Ask why, and why not. I'm often asked where I get my ideas from, and usually my answer hovers between sarcasm and embarrassed incoherence. Edi at Crazy Quilts opened up so many new stories and worlds and creative opportunities for me just by asking Why Do You Write?.  Jenn at Book Lovers Inc. asked authors "If someone wrote a biography about you, what would the title be?". My answer was one of the more mundane (I had two, either "Overthinker and Underdone" or "Wholly Hybrid"); other authors played freely, coming up with hilarious and delightful results.

 • Do Nothing. Chances are, 90% of the people around you already think that you do nothing all day, and then a fully-formed book and a giant check pop out of your mouth just before bed -- so don't worry about it. Sit. Lie down. Sit on a stoop, on the grass, in the bathroom. Just be.  Do not try to think of something. Or anything. Or that thing. Or this thing. Let the thoughts that have been tiptoeing around the perimeters of your soul, waiting patiently to be welcomed in, waiting for you to give them leave to speak above a whisper.  Two wonderful pieces on the importance of that kind of meaningful rest were include Jim Burke's Holding A Space for Oneself, and Sister Diane's treatise on relentless input and the creative mind.  Read them, and then don't do anything.

On the night before my mommy died, we played together. My sister and I read aloud from the back issues of Readers Digest that were as plentiful at the hospital as the beeping machines. I read the corny jokes and kids-say-the-darndest-things anecdotes. I got to an article about the benefits of bananas, and my mother, a former nurse, hospital administrator, community health center director, teacher, and author who could no longer speak aloud, mouthed that my sister and I should always eat bananas.

 The next morning, we went to the hospital and up to her room; we were the first to discover that she had died.

 We spent the day in a hospital lounge; friends drifted in slowly, shocked and proffering food. I refused, and refused, until finally I barked "Bananas. I'll eat a banana." And I had one, and then another a bit later. And when one of my other mothers was unsuccessful in getting me to eat anything else, and I'd said "only a banana" for the umpteenth time, like a stubborn two-year-old, she laughed. A short laugh that was filled with so much love, kindness, sorrow, and gentle playfulness, it almost breaks me to remember it.

 But the memory of that almost playful moment on that terrible, horrible Day is precious. I can smile when I remember that that particular other mother and mine sat through those endless shows and story plays, boring baton routines and costume changes; even the one where we charged extra for a cake that was made crunchy by the inadvertent addition of eggshells. I can remember to put my whole self into every moment of my life, to play with my story, to be all that I am. So much of my creative spirit was lit by the stories my mother told, of when-she-was-a-little-girl, and Anansi, by singing and dancing to Boney M.'s  "Brown Girl in the Ring" -- I fantasized more about being that girl than I did about being a princess. I smile and remember to play to celebrate the myth and magic of life. I play to remember why I believe in Brown Girls in the Ring, burning bushes, magic wardrobes, fairies, Voldemort, and Heaven. We can play to, as author Amanda Blake Soule writes “fully know, love, and embrace our creative selves".  I play to write all of my stories, the funny parts and the sad ones. I play to take my work seriously, and myself less so.  Play for a while. Play as if your life depends on it. I think, sometimes, it does.

Thursday
Sep302010

Playing Ourselves Into Wide Open Spaces 


 

Stuck for ideas? In a creative rut? Feeling stale? Just read this fabulous creativity blog piece overflowing with ideas to get you unstuck by Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich. She is the author of 8th Grade Super-Hero, called a "masterful debut" in a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, and that was an Amazon Best Books of the Month in January 2010. Check out this excellent interview on Cynsations if you'd like to learn more about her. And now... prepare to be inspired! -Anne 

 

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich: Playing ourselves into wide open spaces 

I do many things quickly. I’ve always torn through books, can move my apartment from disaster to passable in moments (with the help of closets and hidden corners), and can whip up a meal in minutes. Writing stories is not one of the things that I do fast. I am a slow, slow writer.  Most of the time, I don’t accept or enjoy this; I get anxious, I feel guilty, I pace my tiny (messy) apartment, talking back to my cat, or worse...just checking out that one thing on the Web.  I see that Author X just got a 'very nice deal' for Book 17 in her paranormal series, while I am still plodding along on sub-normal, solitary Book 2.  I know the things that help me work -- walking, knitting, stitching, browsing, doodling, kneading and pounding...but I am reluctant to turn to them. Why? They feel a bit like...playing, and that’s not allowed.  Why?

 Remember when you were told to "Go play?" When it was the right thing to do? Watching my daughter play out her stories, I get glimpses back into my own childhood. Stories were a whole body activity, whether it was curling up under my mother to listen to a read-aloud and accompanying songs, or splaying out on my grandmother’s sun-splashed veranda, with a handful of living room Canada mints surreptitiously munched, or the countless, endless “shows" that we did, productions small on actual talent but big on enthusiasm and costume changes and and-then-what-happeneds...my whole self was engaged. My daughter today, in creating her shows, hurls her whole self into them, even when it seems to involve an impossible feat of the imagination (I listened to recent story play that appeared to involve Hercule Poirot, Beyonce, and a family of hedgehogs).  There are grand gestures, bellowed songs, and of course endless costume changes.  I believe in the importance of play, of playing into our stories, and playing out, of playing with language and life.  It is a particular creative way, and I cling to its remnants, the memories in myself, because I know that in order to write, my whole self has to ‘play’ along. Twyla Tharp, in The Creative Habit, writes:  “Everything that happens in my daily life is a transaction between the external world and my internal world. Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it."

 There is a kind of 'being', that I think of as play, too. One of my best friends and I have a tradition of 'laying around'. It essentially involves food that someone else has prepared and being apart together, in separate rooms, if space allows, just not doing much of anything. Maybe one of us reads and the other watches TV. It is one of the most important rituals of our friendship, as is the habit of saying a line from the movie Clueless, or sending an inside-joke text that says only "Scone!"; these patterns of playfulness that were the foundation for our work together in making a book trailer for Superzero.  We worked on it with no real plan, or script, or idea of what we were doing in some sense. But we had a long history of laying around and playing around, and when it came time to work, we could play well together (if not always nice).

 

 

  Tharp also writes about muscle memory, the way that your body remembers the physicality of days gone by. There’s virtual memory, where you project yourself into feelings and emotions from your past, and let them manifest themselves physically; there’s sensual memory, when smells, tastes, sounds, and colour flood the imagination with images from the past.

 • Play one of your favourite childhood games. Think about the circumstances in which you used to play, what you enjoyed most about it, who enjoyed it with you. Play a current favourite of a child or children today. Play Charades, Simon Says, Twister, hopscotch in any of its global variations.

Remember. Look at childhood photographs, tell yourself stories of when you were young. Jot them down, or don’t. The important thing is to experience them through the remembering. Recall a particular age, and let your mind just travel back to moments in that time; the music, the movements, the small and large pleasures, the heartbreaks, the sounds, the smells...the deepest joys.

 • Do something you missed out on doing when you were a kid

 • Daydream

 • Run, wheel, or roll as fast as you can

 • Go down a slide, or swing in the breeze

 • Music: Who are the most playful artists on your playlist? Listen, and dance.

Dance to the music in your head, the way you do in your mind's eye.

 • Invent recipes

• Make yourself a high tea. Use fancy dishes. Dress up.

 • Pig out. Eat finger foods all day. Eat breakfast or ice cream for dinner.

 • Eat a piece of cake. (I just put that there, because, well...it’s cake!)

 • LAUGH

 • Take a walk, and talk to yourself. We're writers! We're allowed to be weird.

 • Go on a neighborhood adventure. I owe much thanks to artist Paul Ramirez Jonas and his Key To The City, a public art project. I call myself an explorer of the city, but participating in this all summer allowed me to play in all kinds of ways in all five boroughs of New York, and the story ideas came at every turn.

 • Dress up for no reason at all.

 Playing with art and craft supplies is an important part of my play. I'm very partial to craft books of the 70s, all of the needlework, stitchery, knitting, -- everything exudes an enormous and unfettered playfulness.  And most of the time, the processes and products involve everyday materials, trash-into-treasure, playing with what you have. One of my favourite artists, Jean Ray Laury writes, “The greatest potentials are often within the smallest things. The person who finds no pleasure in little events rarely finds pleasure in life’s big occasions. It is not necessary to see the Pyrenees or the Himalayas to appreciate the wonders of nature -- you can watch a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis in your kitchen window and witness one of nature’s most spectacular sights. I am not suggesting that it wouldn’t be wonderful to get to the Himalayas, but it’s silly to sigh over the possibility so distractedly that you don’t even see the garden spider or praying mantis you’re stepping on."

 • start a collection of tiny things.

 •find some rocks, and paint them.  Or just let them be.

 • Make or buy some good quality clay and just pound it, squish it, roll it -- make and old-fashioned pinch pot or one of those hand print paperweight thingys

Make a puppet. And then play with it. Talk to it.  (Come on, you know you talk to yourself ALL the time. Why not a puppet?)

 • Make a collage. Want to be inspired by genius at play? I recently visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum and learned that he was also a <a href=“ http://www.theparisreview.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5835">collage artist</a>.

 • Make a pipe cleaner (chenille stem) creature, a corn husk, stocking, or clothespin doll

 • Play with a dollhouse, or make your own

 WordPlay: Writing, in cognitive science terms, involves complex “problems" that require higher-order thinking skills to be solved. Play helps me think, to sort things out, to figure out what I do think. We acknowledge (sort of, except when we want them to take tests) its importance in child development. The ‘authorities’ tell us, so it must be true:  “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength," from a statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “...play is important to healthy brain development."  As creative people like Emeka Okafor know, play creates change. In Part Two, I'll focus on the importance of playing with words, language, and story, and then, to paraphrase Madeleine L'Engle, letting that chaos settle into cosmos. 

Sunday
Sep192010

Storytelling Through Comics

 

If you've ever wondered, like me, what exactly is the difference between comics or graphic novels and picture books, prepare to be enlightened. We are honored to host Tracy White on our blog this week. She is a webcomics pioneer who began publishing her work online in 1996. A native of New York City, Tracy has made comics for gURL.comAOL, and Oxygen TV, as well as a docu-comic for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum about the experiences of immigrant teens living in New York. Her webcomic has been nominated twice for an Ignatz Award. Tracy is currently an adjunct professor at the Interactive Telecommunication Program, which is part of NYU's TISCH School of the Arts

How I Made It to Eighteen is her first book. Booklist called it "a compelling and highly textured story." "Stacy’s story of anxiety, abuse, self-harm, addiction, and depression, is also a story of an interesting, creative young woman and her friends..." said VOYA. "White’s novel uses stark black-and-white imagery to construct her frank and honest story of a fraught adolescence." In this blog post, Tracy offers tips and ideas on the myriad ways of combining words and images.

 

Tracy White: Storytelling through comics

 

My favorite way of telling a story is through comics. Comics are different from picture books because images in a picture book generally re-enforce what the text says to help young children read. Go on, take a look at one you have in your house (there must be one somewhere). If there’s a sentence like “It was a bright and sunny morning when Henrietta Pig ran into town”, there will, in all likelihood be a picture of Henrietta the Pig in the morning (the sun will be rising) running down a road that has a sign pointing into town, or some variation on that scene.

Comics, on the other hand, often use a combination of words and images to create a new idea, each aspect providing one part of the bigger picture so to speak. In a comic the sentence “It was a bright and sunny morning when Henrietta Pig ran into town” might be accompanied by an image of Henrietta sneaking away from a farm with a mean looking farmer wielding a knife nearby.  Or you not even have the general description words like “bright sunny morning”, “Pig” and “run” because those details are in the drawing. So the sentence above your illustration could end up being “Henrietta thought it’d be a good idea to take a trip”.             

If you like the idea of combining words and images, but prefer to focus on the words, you can collaborate with an artist/friend who’d rather draw. Or if you like the idea of also doing the graphics but don’t know where to start, or drawing seems daunting you can try using photographs (pose people, dolls, action figures) or cut outs from magazines or any other idea that comes to mind. Don’t underestimate stick figures. They work really well too. Just check out “Diary of A Wimpy Kid.”

Of course there are many other ways to manipulate comics like the use of color. If the story is sad you could have all you drawings in a shade that suggest that emotion. Your choice font can express a mood too: A pointy, jagged thin font conveys something totally different from a round, flowery cursive one.  And then there’s placement of objects within a panel, layout of the pages, the shape of each panel, lighting, detail vs. simplicity; the list goes on.  Each of these decisions, like the paragraphs, periods, commas, verbs, nouns and parenthesis that we use in text based stories, can help forward your narrative.

Mostly though, just enjoy playing with the virtually unlimited number of ways to present your tale.

Tuesday
Aug312010

Clara Gillow Clark: The people I want to put in my books

I met Clara Gillow Clark about twenty years ago, when we both lived in the same rural Northeastern Pennsylvania community. One day we sat in the children’s room at the back of our local public library and Clara told me stories of her childhood. Although it was many years ago, I haven’t forgotten that conversation. Certain things stuck in my mind: she had attended a one-room schoolhouse; she was the seventh child in a family of seven, and she was writing a book inspired by her mother’s life. That book became Clara’s first published novel, Annie’s Choice, and since then she has written five other works of historical fiction for middle grade readers. We are so happy that Clara is our creativity blogger this week. She speaks here about her writing roots… —Anne

The youngest child in a family who came from "a long line of farmers and readers," Clara Gillow Clark began school in a one-room schoolhouse and-when she wasn't wanting to be an inventor, archaeologist, geologist, missionary, or solo violinist-grew increasingly drawn to writing. After marrying and having a son, she read a magazine article on children's author Judy Blume, who, like her, was a stay-at-home wife who sold her own crafts before starting her writing career. Inspired, Clara Gillow Clark began commuting to writing classes in New York City, while juggling jobs ranging from teacher's aide to store manager.
 
Her long efforts paid off. "Now I work at home,"she says, happily. When she's not writing--or reading, or teaching writing, or talking shop with other writers--she enjoys baking, gardening, and walking the dirt roads bordering her little red house, surrounded by her own meadows, woods, and lake. "Walking," she says, "is a love I learned from my father, who took his sprawling brood on nature walks and taught us to stop long enough to really see things."

                                                                                                                

Clara Gillow Clark: The people I want to put in my books

“To me no man is himself; he is the sum total of his past. . .”    William Faulkner

There are many reasons why I am a writer. I would say that the need to write came from the sudden death of my father when I was six and the upheaval of family and the ensuing poverty—not immediately, but certainly by my middle grade and high school years.  But I ALSO became a writer because of teachers.

First there was my mean 2nd grade teacher, Miss Lampart.  She wasn’t only mean, she was terrifying, somewhat like the teacher in Roald Dahl’s book Matilda. She wore spiky heels and lots of jangly bracelets; she had big red lips and long, red, very sharp fingernails, which she often dug into the cheeks of little second graders. At least she dug them into mine! Nearly every morning of second grade, when it was time for school, I’d tell my mother that I was sick and should stay home. Mostly, she made me go to school, but I got really good at play-acting illness and did stay home a lot.  One day, Miss Lampart made me stay in at recess to write a story or poem to go along with my drawing of a rabbit. My best friend stayed in with me and encouraged me, “Hurry up and write something! Recess will be over,” she told me.  I held my head and moaned, “I can’t think of anything to write,” I said.  “Just write something!” she told me. So faced with my first deadline, I wrote a poem because a story was too many words. The poem turned out to be my first published piece, thanks to Miss Lampart. She was still mean, but I wouldn’t have had that wonderful feeling of accomplishment without her.  So it was that ART got me into writing, and then it was MUSIC that taught me how to keep going.

I started playing the violin in fifth grade, and by sixth grade I thought I was getting pretty good. Not as good as Irene Wetzelberg the Concertmistress of the orchestra, but not bad. Then my music teacher taped me playing an etude from a Samual Applebaum book. I sounded like a screechy cat fight and wanted to end my failed career as a violinist.  My music teacher wouldn’t let me. Thank you, Mr. Pierce, because I did keep practicing and I did get better! I ended up becoming the Concertmistress in high school, but if I had quit I never would have known or believed that I could do that! I learned that playing an instrument is a process, much the same way that learning to write is a process.  You don’t start out writing publishable prose. At least I didn’t, but I knew that if I kept working at it I’d get better. If I’d quit the violin in sixth grade, I don’t think that I’d have become successful as a writer or have a book with my name on it. I am a writer because someone believed in my talent and wouldn’t let me quit. Believing in myself then was very very hard for me, but, now, fortunately, it’s only about every other day.

Later on there were others—my senior English teacher, Mrs. Chamberlin who submitted a poem of mine that was published, and Patricia Reilly Giff, who read an early attempt of mine and told me, “Oh, you are a writer!” Of course, I believed her and kept writing and writing and writing for ten more years before my first book contract came for Annie’s Choice.

Today I write historical fiction. I love to read history and to research, but what I really love are people.  Not just people living now, but people who were alive before I was born. I want to know what they wore, what they did from jobs to favorite pastimes, how their lives were like mine and how they differed.  I’ve been told that what I write isn’t really historical fiction because I don’t connect my stories to famous people or important historical events like war, for example. But what is more important than people in everyday life going about their business and creating the real fabric of our society? They are the people I want to capture, the people I want to put in my books. 

 

Sunday
Aug152010

Mitali Perkins: Creating the Magic Carpet of Place  

An Introduction by Anne Mazer: I first encountered Mitali Perkins through her book, Monsoon Summer, which immediately captured me with its warm, realistic voice, and compelling portrait of an Indian-American teen who spends an eye-opening summer in India. The book had everything – a romantic story, a quest for identity, and a “strong female character trying to bridge different cultures.” Her books tackle big subjects but are always down-to-earth, relatable, and irresistibly readable. Check out her blog, (and this fantastic introduction video below) for more of her thoughts on life and books between cultures. Here Mitali shares her thoughts on how to create the magic of place…

Mitali Perkins was born in India and immigrated to the States with her parents and two sisters when she was seven. Bengali- style, their names rhyme: Sonali means "gold,” Rupali means "silver,” and “Mitali” means “friendly.” Mitali had to live up to her name because her family moved so much — she’s lived in India, Ghana, Cameroon, England, New York, Mexico, California, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Massachusetts.

Mitali studied political science at Stanford University and Public Policy at U.C. Berkeley before deciding to try and change the world by writing stories for young readers. Now she’s settled in Newton, a town just outside of Boston, where she writes full-time. She’s the author of Secret Keeper and Monsoon Summer (both from Random House), The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen (Little Brown), the First Daughter books (Dutton), and Bamboo People and Rickshaw Girl, both from Charlesbridge. She tweets, facebooks and blogs at Mitali’s Fire Escape, where she strives to provide a safe place to think, chat, and read about life between cultures.

Mitali Perkins: Creating the Magic Carpet of Place  

I love the scene in Disney’s animated version of Aladdin when Aladdin holds out a hand to Jasmine, inviting her to leap on his magic carpet and discover a “whole new world.”  It reminds me that the best writing can also be a magic carpet, taking us to unfamiliar places—even when our physical bodies remain curled up on a sofa.  

I traveled to unfamiliar worlds a lot as a kid, living in six different places (Calcutta, London, Ghana, Cameroon, New York City, and Mexico City) before immigrating to California when I was in the seventh grade. That’s probably why I was drawn to writers who created a strong sense of place and made me feel at home there, like Elizabeth Enright (The Saturdays, The Four Story Mistake, Thimble Summer),  L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon),  Maud Hart Lovelace (Betsy-Tacy), C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), and J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings).  Now that I write books myself, I try and transport my own readers to “whole new worlds” by following three guidelines. 

Use details about place to reveal more about people and plot.  

Every detail should reveal something about my characters and what they’re experiencing.  If a description doesn’t further plot or character, I try to cut it, no matter how beautiful or poetic it sounds. For example, Bamboo People, my novel from Charlesbridge coming July 1, 2010, is about Chiko, a Burmese boy who is forced to fight in the army. Early in the book, I describe Chiko’s first morning in the military training camp: 

They lead us out to the field, into a misty, gray dawn. Shivering in my thin clothes, I notice Tai beside me. He’s wearing only a longyi and a torn T-shirt, but he doesn’t even look cold. Instead, he pats his belly and tips his head in the direction of a tarp, under which a few soldiers cluster around a cooking fire. My own stomach rumbles in reply; the last meal I ate was lunch yesterday, with Mother.

Hopefully, even as my reader imagines himself in this place, he gleans a bit about the characters in the story—namely, that Chiko isn’t used to such harsh conditions, but Tai is, and that Tai has a sense of humor. I also hint at plot—Chiko’s forced inscription—by having my character recall lunch with his mother the day before.

Choose place to reflect a theme.   

Place can serve as a powerful metaphor for a theme resonating throughout your story. Secret Keeper (Delacorte, 2009) is set almost fully inside a joint-family house in Kolkata, India. Here’s the description of the place as seen by the protagonist for the first time: 

Asha stared up at the three-story house that still looked run-down since her visit four years before. A path wound through a long garden and led to a screen-in veranda. There were two narrow yards on either side, one with smoke rising form a garbage pile and laundry hanging on a line, the other squeezed between the Gupta house and the large newly painted house next door. Coconut and banana trees blocked the sunshine on every side except the front, the windows on the first floor were secured with bars, and the property was completely fenced in.  

Asha, faced with extremely limited choices, eventually finds a way out of a tight situation, so words like “narrow” “squeezed” “blocked” “secured” and “fenced” echo the theme of the novel. 

C. S. Lewis used the place-theme technique often in the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta is an orphan journeying to a land he will soon call home. What better place to put him than in a dark mist, walking through a narrow, dangerous mountain pass?  

The world became gray. Shasta had not realized how cold and wet the inside of a cloud would be; nor how dark. The gray turned to black with alarming speed … The road kept on getting to somewhere in the sense that it got to more and more trees, all dark and dripping, and to colder and colder air. And strange, icy winds kept blowing the mist past him though they never blew it away.

When a great Lion rescues Shasta, the setting reverberates with the change:  

The mist was turning from black to gray and from gray to white … Now, the whiteness around him because a shining whiteness ... He lifted his face and their eyes met. Then instantly the pale brightness of the mist and the fiery brightness of the Lion rolled themselves together into a swirling glory and gathered themselves up and disappeared. He was alone with the horse on a grassy hillside under a blue sky. And there were birds singing.

There’s no better way to learn how to create a sense of place than from reading experts like Lewis.

Rely on more than two senses when describing place.  

Despite Hollywood’s amazing computer-generated artistry, the written word has a big advantage when it comes to taking people to another place. If I’m journeying via film, I lose three senses — I can't smell or taste or touch the way my imagination enables me to when I'm reading.  

Case in point: the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The movies enabled me to see and hear Middle Earth through the use of amazing sets and incredible sound. But they couldn’t accomplish what happened while reading the books, when I fingered the thick, green vines in Fangorn Forest, smelled the evil reek in the valley of Mordor, and tasted the hearty flavor of simmering mushrooms – thanks to the powerful combination of Tolkien's words and my imagination. Of course, every description of place doesn’t have to engage all five senses, but strive to do in your writing what a movie-maker couldn’t do when telling the same story. 

In my book Monsoon Summer, I take my readers with Jazz, the main character, into an Indian marketplace, and tried to engage four of the five senses (I’ll bold these attempts to make them easier to spot):  

I wandered through the stuffy alleys, shaking my head as vendors sang the praises of their wares, trying to lure me closer. There were piles of orange and yellow lentils in hanging baskets, narrow bottles of golden oil, copper pots in a range of sizes, and strings of blue rubber sandals. Naked lightbulbs hung from low ceilings, glowing on the faces of the men and women sitting cross-legged in the center of each narrow stall.

By the time I reached the enclosed fruit and vegetable market, sweat was pouring down my back. I sniffed the fresh ripe fruit and fingered piles of glossy zucchini, red tomatoes, green bell peppers, and purple onion.

Weave your own magic carpet 

Try this exercise. Choose a particular setting like the woods at night, a bustling school cafeteria, the elevator in a skyscraper, or a place of your own invention. Now introduce an angry, depressed, elated, scared, or thoughtful character into that place.  

Write a paragraph describing the place through that character’s eyes, using first person present tense (I stumble into the elevator and …) Here’s your mission: choose details to reveal insights about your character, use the place as a metaphor or symbol of the emotion he or she is feeling, and engage as many senses as you can, making sure you cover at least three.  

Once you’re done, get rid of your character, pick someone completely different, and rewrite the paragraph (i.e., if she was an angry biker chick in your first take, rewrite the description of place from the perspective of a cheerful old man).  

Read both paragraphs aloud to yourself or to a writing buddy. Even though you’re describing the same place, you probably chose strikingly different nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. 

In a writer’s careful hands, place becomes the third strand in a strong spin of plot, place, and people. Soon, your readers will be soaring to new worlds on the magic carpet of excellent writing.

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