What does your reader's eye behold?

In The Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath lectures on gentility: “To do the gentil dedes that he kan; taak hym for the grettest gentil man.” (Gentility in Middle English meant  nobility of character, refinement.) Over the centuries this morphed into the homily handsome is as handsome does, which first appeared in Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1776).

Word count: 386                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Stephen King says Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader's. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader feel the heat of attraction. Flat adjectives like handsome, beautiful, sexy, lovely mean the writer is making the reader do his job.

The day my husband and I met, I carried my own scuba gear – all eighty pounds of it – to and from the beach. It never occurred to me to ask for help because my usual dive buddies didn’t offer it. My husband had only dived with women who thought he was there to make their experiences easier. Then he met me: I drove myself to the dive site, unloaded my own gear, and dived in the frigid water of the Pacific Northwest in a forty-pound dry suit. Where other men might have seen someone unappealingly independent, my husband saw the most attractive woman he’d met in months. How lucky we found each other.

So if a character finds another sexy and attractive, I want to know why. The reasons say as much about the attractee as they do the attractor. Does the hair on his neck stand up when he hears her low throaty voice? Does she have a foot fetish and adores him in Blundstones?

Like so many rules of craft, it’s simple in principle and much, much harder in execution. Here are some points that I try to remember:

  • If food is delicious, will the reader’s mouth water?
  • If the character is crying, is the reader’s heart breaking?
  • If the character is beautiful, is the reader captivated?
  • If a fire is burning, can the reader smell the smoke?
  • If someone is singing, can the reader hear the tone of the voice?
  • If a character picks up a cold drink does the reader feel the sweat of the glass?

How do you draw a reader into your world?

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Pictures from Wikimedia Commons: Four Great Beauties by Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diaochan, Yang Guifei

Is your filter on?

Next week I’m going to a BBQ with a Western theme. The invitation arrived weeks ago and since then I’ve tramped through thrift stores and flea markets from North Vancouver to Packwood, Washington. I’ve assembled enough pieces to pass muster: a pale blue cowboy hat, a darker blue fringed jacket and a pair of black cowboy boots. In design, leatherwork and condition, my boots are very similar to this picture. Turn them upside down and they tell a different story: they have been re-soled and re-heeled many times.

Word count: 440                                                                     Reading time: 1-2 minutes

I’ve started wearing the boots around the house to get used to the feel of them. When I pull them on, a strange thing happens: I walk differently. I channel their former owner. I feel the way the arch of her foot shaped the vamp of the boot. I close my eyes and press down on the ball of the sole and see dusty paddocks, smell the sage-scent of horses, and feel the burn of the desert sun. My own filter turns off; I start taking photographs of her life.

Then I turn the tables and try to see my life as she would. When I boarded the Queen of Oak Bay ferry on Tuesday I imagined the previous owner of these well-worn boots clapping eyes on the huge car ferry for the first time. To me, BC Ferries are just part of the highway system: a route that connects BC’s islands to its mainland. To travellers unaccustomed to the busy-ness of the ferry terminal and the power of the ships, it’s an exciting part of the journey, fraught with joys and risks that habituated users often fail to see. Tuesday I looked the vessel with fresh eyes.

That made me realize I need to turn off my filter more often. I need to walk in other people’s boots more often. That can only help me find the excitement in everyday life that is necessary to improve as a writer. I need to be more like Edward Gorey and find the floor that opens:

I really think I write about everyday life. I don't think I'm quite as odd as others say I am. Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that's what makes it so boring.

Are you like Edward Gorey? Do you see the floor opening up underneath you, sweeping you into another world? Or is your filter on and all you see is the ferry line up and another delay between you and your destination?

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons by: Ealdgyth

What's in store?


Around 10:30 Monday morning I walked up to the line of carts outside the supermarket, quarter in hand. The next available trolley had two beer cartons in it. I hesitated. If I didn’t want that one, along with the job of removing someone else’s garbage, I would have to walk halfway across the parking lot to the next row of carts. I shoved my coin in the slot, the locking mechanism released, and I tugged the cart. It did not move with gentle effort.

Word count: 483                                           Reading time: about 2 minutes

The boxes were full. One carton held two dozen bottles of beer, the other two dozen cans. I looked over my shoulder for a hidden camera. I surveyed the parking lot to see if anyone was frantically tearing his hair looking for lost treasure. Then I pushed the cart into the store and ferried that heavy load around as I shopped.

That type of ordinary beer has a shelf life of 3-6 months and only a total collapse of the brewing, spirits and wine industry would induce us to drink so much of it so fast. So I wheeled my cart over to customer service and a smiling supervisor relieved me of the found fortune. She promised to take it to the staff picnic if it remained unclaimed.

Regardless of the fate of the beer, I had the reward of imagining who, how, and why it ended up in that shopping cart. My storylines, as always, started with questions:

  • Had someone decided impulsively to stop drinking?
  • Had someone decided for them and stolen and stashed their beer?
  • The Liquor Store* had opened only at 9:30. Was the purchase abandoned within an hour of being made?
  • Had people been partying near the shopping centre the night before and did they drunkenly forget their last brews? If so, who pushed the shopping cart up the small slope and locked into place? 
  • What were my rights of salvage if I decided to keep it? Did the losers-weepers rule apply?

From these I conjured a number of stories and resolutions. I imagined a grateful beer owner being handed back his or her prized bottles and cans. I imagined someone thanking me, then learning I’m about to have a book published. I imagined this person saying, “I’m a movie producer. I love your story! I must buy the rights to your book.”  

One of the joys of writing is the infinite number of stories in the universe. One of the frustrations of writing is the infinite number of stories in the universe. Some, like this one, appear like cottonwood seeds on the breeze. They blow in and out of view quickly. While they’re in our sight, they give our imaginations an intense five-minute workout.

Have you had a dull day brightened by an unexpected story recently? Has yours been transitory and forgotten or did it develop into something more lasting?


* this is BC after all and we cannot be trusted to buy our alcohol at a supermarket.

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons: Reihe_Einkaufswagen by 4028mdk09 

Time out

 Word count: 242  Reading time: 1 min.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Jack Torrance, that creepy character in The Shining, was onto something with this thinking. He wasn’t the only one who thought that way. Sir John Lubbock said, “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.”

Today I topped 34,500 words in my NaNoWriMo novel and I felt just a little depleted. So I did the obvious: I took a break. The sun was shining, bald eagles were congregating by Harrison River (this weekend is Eagle Fest), and the open road beckoned. While I may not have added to my word count during the long drive and brisk walks around different parks, I came home with a notebook full of scribbled thoughts. Tomorrow morning I will open the novel, refreshed and playful. If there was a better way to spend this fine autumn day, I can’t think what it might have been.

What have you done to revitalize your writing recently? Do you take a break? Go to a play or maybe just watch a good movie?

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Noon: Rest From Work by Vincent Van Gogh

All of me, why not use all of me

Word count: 491                   Reading time: 2 minutes   

If you watched the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games, you might have noticed the fabulous woman percussionist who led the 1,000 drummers. When Dame Evelyn Glennie talks about music as she did in a TED lecture in February 2003, she talks about the physicality of making and listening to music. She is an expert on that subject: in spite of being profoundly deaf by the age of 12, she was accepted into the Royal Academy of Music. She urges us to listen to music, but not just with our ears. She says we should use our bodies as the resonating chamber to experience it. To make better music, musicians must likewise open their bodies to find the music that isn’t on the page. They must interpret and translate that which others cannot see.

After watching that talk, I wondered how writers might use their bodies to be resonating chambers for a more physical experience of writing. Is there a way to break out of the narrow space between our fingers and the screen? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Write with pen and paper. (How many times have you heard this? Still, Natalie Goldberg and the dozens of others who recommend it are right. It does give a closer, more intimate connection with the art).
  • Stand up to write occasionally. Being a chair warrior is an inevitable part of writing but standing opens the body and in doing so, it opens the mind and imagination.
  • Write in bare feet, to stay connected with the ground.
  • Cut a picture out of a magazine or download one from the internet that looks like one of your characters or backdrops. Stick it on a pin board and stare at it.
  • Pick up a pencil, crayon or paint brush and illustrate a small aspect of your story. Draw a map of the town or neighbourhood where events are situated.
  • Listen to music while you write. Get up and dance occasionally (no one’s watching) and let the paralysis of sitting slide away.
  • Go outside and crush a handful of leaves and feel the texture as they break away.
  • Set a cup of tea or coffee beside you on the work desk. Inhale deeply as you sip. Roll the liquid around your mouth before you swallow. How would that taste to your protagonist?
  • Read your work aloud because that’s where you’ll hear if your cadence is good and your dialogue natural.
  • Go for walks and let the ideas settle over you like autumn leaves or spring blossoms.

Whatever we see, hear, feel, or touch, there is always a story behind it. It may be part of our narrative, trying to get through to us.

How do open your body so your story will resonate through you? Can you remember any particular moment when a story or resolution came to you doing something entirely unrelated to the act of putting words on paper?

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Photo by: Silvijo Selman