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“Advice to Self, and Anyone Else Who Cares to Listen”
~by Maureen Kovach
“Where do I start? What should I say? I can’t do this.” Trust me. As a high school English teacher for over twenty years, I’ve heard it all, and probably most often from myself. No matter how many paragraphs, essays, poems, short stories or novels a person composes, we are all faced with these concerns and many others as well.
What makes a piece stand out from all the rest? How can an author of a college entrance essay or a 100,000-word novel ensure his or her words will be remembered? Those words must etch a picture in the reader’s mind so that when the last essay is set aside, or the cover of the novel is closed, the voices and the images take up residence in the reader’s mind and tease him or her to reflect back on the words that tickled those senses to the surface while reading.
I ask my readers what makes my words leave a lasting impression. A number of reviewers point to imagery, description, and characterization.
“full of wonderful imagery and fabulous characters…”
“Fun read, great descriptions. Made me want to go to the island in Lake Erie where the story takes place.”
“Maureen has a very descriptive writing style and I had to savor all the description. Not a book to rush through, but a book to savor and enjoy. The descriptions of food often left me hungry.”
“The island and places around the island come to life. The characters are easy to picture and seem quite real.”
Sensory imagery is the key.
So lesson number one: Show, Don’t Tell. Appeal to all five senses when writing a scene. Picture it in your mind. What do you see? Can you compare a thing, a person, or an event to something else? What sounds do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? Check often to make sure you are not just ticking off a list of facts. Mark Twain advises us, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her out and let her scream.” Get it?
Okay, on to lesson two: Get to know your characters intimately before expecting your readers to connect with them. Use a character development worksheet. There are many good ones available online. Take the time to fill it out completely and keep it in a safe place. When you’re writing book two or twenty-two, you will be able to remember the details of your characters’ lives, because believe me, your readers will. Know the intimate details of even the minor characters. What are their dreams, their fears? What kind of neighborhood did they grow up in? What are their religious beliefs? What kind of family did they come from? Are they rich, poor? What are their attitudes toward work, toward animals? Most of this information will never appear in your book, but when faced with any number of situations, you will know exactly how they will react. Your readers will love them or hate them, laugh at them or admire them. In any event, they will not be indifferent to them.
And finally, if the characters bore you, how do you think your readers will feel? If they don’t close your book and want to call a travel agent to visit your setting, why not? Use strong verbs, similes, metaphors, and sensory imagery. Make the magic happen.
Now to get out my red pen and get to work.
The evening sky made me think of rainbow sherbet as I watched the sun set over picturesque Kelleys Island. The sound of waves lapping against the side of my small skiff as I steered toward the lakeshore had a cathartic effect—my breathing and heart rate were finally returning to normal. From a hundred yards off shore, it was a postcard perfect scene. Idling past the breakwall, past the pier and the beach, I envisioned the fingers of charcoal smoke curling their way through the pastel clouds, clutching and twisting, distorting the idyllic scene. I could almost smell it, faint at first, but increasing in intensity, a foul odor like hot summer asphalt mixed with the sweetly noxious smell of burnt cupcakes. It would make your eyes water and your nostrils burn.
Increasing my speed, I glanced over my shoulder then focused once more on the shoreline, imagining the result of my handiwork and the thrill that would course through me when my mission was complete and my trophy, the charred remains of my victim, was discovered.