After asking directions from the librarian, I turned the corner and saw a large wooden door to the left. I opened it and walked into a conference-looking room, which surprised me because I didn't realize the library had such rooms. A woman in the far corner fussed with a standing camera, and several people sat scattered throughout the rectangular room, some on their phones, others sitting quietly with pads of paper on their desks in front of them. No one talked.
I had to make a decision. Would I sit where the camera could see me or sit in the back? I decided to get the most out of the workshop and chose a seat near the front. That is, until I recognize a retired ESL teaching colleague of mine a couple rows back. I hadn't seen her for over a year! I quickly moved to sit by her and chatted quietly. I told her about my drumming, writing and everything else.
In conjunction with the Writer in Residence program I told you about, my local library is offering free writing workshops to the community. The first one this month was called, "More than 5 senses: How to write Great Description," taught by Tom Leveen.
Smelling Darth Vader
My friend and I stopped our conversation mid-sentence because a man in a baseball cap, t-shirt and jeans in the front of the room announced loudly and rapidly that it was time to start the workshop. He paced in front of the room, holding a water bottle and introduced himself as Tom Leveen. He said he was going to go through some guidelines (not rules!) for writing captivating description and encouraged us to take notes.
Tom started by asking us what Darth Vader smelled like. People shouted out things like "oil, metal, burned toast," and other things. He told us that he asked a similar question to some middle schoolers not long ago. He asked them what the joker (from Batman) smelled like. Kids said, "blood, fire," and other such things. Then, he said, he saw one girl in the middle of the room thinking very hard about the question. She said confidently, "vanilla and lavender."
Tom said he was taken back and thought, she really doesn't understand what I'm asking here! Instead of calling her stupid, which is what he wanted to do, he said something like, "Oh! That's an interesting perspective. Why do you say that?"
"Because," the girl said, "that's the last thing you'd expect." Tom was floored. Bam. She got it.
As writers, we naturally go for sight when describing a scene. It's the simplest in a lot of ways. How often do I write about smell, touch, taste, and sound?
Tom encouraged us to add at least one non-visual description per page, which I plan to take to heart. Smell, I believe, is particularly powerful. My creative writing teacher Josh says that smell links us to our memories. When I smell pine sol, for example, I remember my mom growing up. She likes having a very clean kitchen.
We have more than 5 senses
Tom Leveen says there's more than just 5 senses. Think about these:
1. Temperature (This is not touch!)
2. Pain (Not the feeling you get when you touch your hot car, but feeling pain in your appendix.)
3. Equolibrio (Sense of balance)
4. Pro-peroseption (relation of body to itself)
He went through these super fast, as with everything else, but I managed to jot them down so I can reflect and test them out.
As promised, he gave us 8 guidelines (not rules!) for writing fiction successfully. I'm not going to include them here because my notes are kind of a mess and it would take me forever to type it all out, but I will tell you that it felt like a crash-course for writing fiction, and it was awesome!
Q and A
After our crash-course in description writing, he opened the floor for questions. A couple people asked about publishing, finding an agent, that kind of thing. One person asked about how to write the Point of View (POV) of a teen or young adult to which he talked about syntax and paragraph sizes.
One woman sitting on the back row asked about scoring interviews for research. Tom gave his go-to answer which is social media. He told her to ask on Facebook. If that doesn't work, there's always absoluewrite.com, or poisonpen.com. Out of curiosity, he asked who she was hoping to talk to. She said a coroner. A man on the far left near the camera raised his hand. He was holding a business card. "I'm retired," he said. "But I used to work as a coroner." Everyone cheered as the woman stood and took the business card.
I asked Tom about the writing process. As you may already know, I'm super interested in it right now. I'm desperately searching for my style to writing longer prose. He told me that I don't have writer's block. No one gets writer's block. It's not a thing. He said, "you have project-block." I told him what Bill Konigsberg told me about writing chapter 1 the first day, revising chapter 1 and writing chapter 2 the next day... etc.
"It's not working for me," I said.
"It sounds awful," he said. "I don't write linear like that." Then he said, "Don't be afraid to waste words. That's what they're there for." I think Josh said something like that before. Or maybe it was Anne Lemott. I can't remember. "Jump in anywhere!" he told me. "Maybe you want to write a fight scene today, which isn't going to show up until later in the book. Go for it! Put two characters from different stories in one room and see what happens. Trust your style!" He encouraged me to make an outline. Once the book is finished, I can go through the hero's journey and add in elements that might be missing.
So, that was the workshop. I encourage you to look to your community and see what's going on. Maybe our library is just awesome, but I bet there's things going on near you. Even though writing "is like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub," (to quote Steven King) there are opportunities for writers to get together and talk about the craft. Who knows? You might meet a retired coroner.