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So You Wanna Be a Writer, Pt. 3 (Prose for Body and Brain)

Occasionally, in conversations with some Worthy Aspirer, I will be asked about the mechanics of description. Specifically, how does one make something vivid? Being easily distracted, it is not hard for me to quickly frog my way into bigger discussions about the nature of metaphor or vicarious experience or even the nature of knowledge itself. Not that I really know anything about these things, but how hard is it to speculate and wonder aloud? I do think such meta-topics are important, but kicking them around isn’t always immediately and practically helpful to someone trying to describe a country road or a lonely dog.

So here is today’s (or perhaps, tomonth’s) hot tip, and please bear in mind that I most likely stole it from someone else who deserves (but is not receiving) credit. Do not slip into writing for the mind and the mind alone. In other words, do not play merely upon our abilitiy to reason. And do not focus only on visuals. Write for the whole person. Write for the body. Or try to.

When we say something was vivid, we mean that we felt it. We tasted it, heard it, saw it, smelt (or smelted) it. We have five senses (at least). Access them. Access your readers’ sensual memories (and you know what I don’t mean). Make your characters all the way human and put us all the way in their shoes. Then we can tell if those shoes are hot and moist, too tight, or too loose. We can tell if the ground is rough and hard or sponge-turfy. Don’t feel the need to be encyclopedic (yes, yes, show don’t tell). As you move through a scene, reveal small things to the different senses, and don’t be surprised when a reader says they can feel it.

This is simplistic, but it is a starting point. Aim for the whole person. Aim for the downy hair between the shoulder blades and the grinding joints. Aim for the throat and the diaphram and the stomach. Make people nervous, breathless, and hungry.  Or just mad.

15 Comments

  1. at
    Elizabeth
    April 8, 2009 at 8:19 am

    One of the things I liked best about Dandelion Fire was how involeved all five senses were. Or was it six?

  2. at
    Robert Treskillard
    April 8, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    Great advice, Nathan!

    This has been both a struggle and a joy for me since I’m writing from the perspective of a mostly blind character. Probably a good way to start my writing journey since it forces me to feel those other things.

    But just reading what you wrote above makes me think I could do better in a few parts.

    Thanks for the encouragement,

    -Robert

  3. at
    Mandi
    April 10, 2009 at 9:37 am

    I read 100 Cupboards yesterday and just wanted to say thanks and I thought it was a marvelous story. I look forward to the sequels. It seemed to me to be distinctively American in the best possible sense.

    I wish you all success.

  4. at
    Tanya
    April 12, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    Hello – I am a small-time-kid’s-book-review blogger (and mom and kid’s bookseller, both for 14+ year now) and I have just written my (enthusiastic, naturally) review of “100 Cupboards.” I always like to include as much author and book info as possible. Besides a link to your site and a mention of your blog, I was wondering if you could confirm some info I read in another review of the book: Is this series going to be a trilogy?

    I realize that “Dandelion Fire” just came out on 2/24, but do you have a title for the next book I could share?

    Thanks for your time and for adding a great new, unique series of fantasy books to the shelves!

    -Tanya at books4yourkids.com

  5. at
    Tanya
    April 12, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    Me again. I forgot to ask who gets credit for the excellent map of the 99 cupboards in the beginning of the book? Is it cover artist Jeff Nentrup or someone else? Both map and cover are are brilliant – wish there was more!

    -Tanya

  6. at
    Lauren Phillips
    April 13, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    I really liked 100 cupboards and Dandelion Fire because of the realness of it. It wasn’t like a lot of books where the characters are all perfect. Everything that happened you could relate to something in your own family.
    I like that type of book it gives you more of a feeling of being there in it.

    Good Work and I hope you write more exciting/funny adventures.

  7. at
    Lauren Phillips
    April 13, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    if you have any book sugestions (I know I spelled that wrong) for a young teenage girl in destperate (oops) need of something to read please tell me. I simply cant stand not having a good book to pick up. Not reading a book makes me feel like I hadn’t eaten breakfast.

  8. at
    admin
    April 13, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    Hiya Lauren,
    Take a look at Megan Whalen Turner’s stuff (if you haven’t already). I really enjoy her books and recommend them to boys and girls alike. Cheers.

    NDW

  9. at
    admin
    April 13, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    Hi Tanya,
    This is indeed a trilogy. Book 3 will be called The Chestnut King. As for the map of the cupboards, I drew the original and then Random House went looking for someone with actual artistic ability to make it look good. Jeff Nentrup is terrific, and I love all the stuff he’s done for the series. I’m already excited about the early cover art he’s come up with for Book 3. Cheers (and thanks for the review).

    NDW

  10. at
    Lauren Phillips
    April 14, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks for the advise I will have to look some of her books up.
    I had a question about your book though.
    In Dandelion Fire when Henry was being Christened and Mordecai came in.
    Why did Fat Frank tell him to throw the knife? Didn’t Frank know that it was Mordecai?

  11. at
    admin
    April 14, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Hey Lauren,
    Fat Frank did know, which is why he wanted Henry to throw the knife. That knife is what freed Mordecai. I was stealing from an old Celtic mythology about faerie abduction. According to some stories, the only thing that could bring you back from faerie entrapment was the christening of your own child–and at the christening, a blood relative had to throw a blade over your head, or you’d walk right through the room and back to faerie-land for good. But I should stop talking, or I’ll end up spoiling the next book. Cheers.

    NDW

  12. at
    Clara G.
    April 29, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    I just started Dandelion Fire today, it is just as great as the first one. The part in chapter 2 when Henrietta was searching for the key to Grandfather’s room and Henry was watching the dandelion that was on fire, the description was amazing!!!!! It seemed so real and the picture in my head was clear like I was right there.

    Where did you get the idea for the trilogy?

  13. at
    Hannah
    May 8, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    I love the way you write… so simple, yet so descriptive. Every action is worded perfectly and I can picture it in my head so clearly. You certainly have magic! It was really cool to meet you and to have the opportunity to talk with an author. I hope to be one too, some day…

  14. at
    Allison Mayhugh
    May 30, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Wow, I totally agree with Lauren. My friends in fifth grade call me a nerd, but I can’t just sit around watching TV. It gets boring after you see every episode of Spongebob. PS: I adored Dandelion Fire and 100 Cupboards. I would have read both sooner, but our librarian didn’t tell tell until last minute. Lauren: If you’ve haven’t read this read it:Lepike Ridge. That book is so cool. And read The Hunter game or something like that. I’ve read it, but it’s a little gory, but it’s OK.

  15. at
    CB
    June 28, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Wow. Mr. Wilson, your last comment, about the knife, I really had no idea what was going on. Was Fat Frank thinking Mordecai was somebody else? (retorical question) But that really cleared it up! One question though. (why do I always say that? Doesn’t the question mark tell you?) When Caleb was yelling no when henry threw the knife because he didn’t know it would free him? Or did he know? (no, caleb isn’t evil…) Did he think Henry would accidentally (not sure if it was an accident the knife didn’t hit him) hit Mordecai?

    Sorry about all the questions I write everywhere. I am like a bad rash. You can’t get rid of me!

    CB

2 Trackbacks

  1. By N.D. Wilson on Writing « Ad Fontes on June 14, 2010 at 7:22 am

    […] Pt 3 (Prose for Body and Brain) […]

  2. By 5 Things: On Writing « Booksmoore on February 22, 2011 at 11:44 am

    […] So You Wanna Be a Writer, Pt. 3 (Prose for Body and Brain) […]

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