Writing the Five Senses: Touch

Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!

I’m excited to share the fourth part of my newest post series in which I explore how writers can use the five senses to engage the reader. The first three installments of the series addressed sighthearing, and smell. A lot of readers found them to be valuable, so you’re welcome to check them out!

Today, we’ll be focusing on touch. I’ve selected excerpts from the works of fellow bloggers (with their permission) to show examples of each sense used effectively, as well as excerpts from my novel-in-the-works (with my permission) to show examples of my attempts to use each sense effectively. Buckle up for some sensory stimulation, grab a cold glass of orange Crush, and enjoy!

Touch

In the conventional sense, a touch is a transference. It is the taking of one’s palm and placing it upon another thing as to affect it. Not deviating far from the conventional conception of touch, a writer’s “touch” can prompt a reader to feel, to cry, to laugh, to delight, or to think, if only for a short while. But what does touch entail? Well, the heart of it lies with feeling. Describing touch is not restricted to detailing what one’s fingers feel while grasping something. Remember, the sense of touch encompasses sensation. Considering that a writer’s goal is to “touch” the reader, or impart sensation unto the reader, I think exploring how the sense can be stimulated can greatly benefit one’s storytelling.

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Tapping into the reader’s sense of pain

It is challenging to make a reader feel anything for the fiction you write. Prompting a reader to feel a character’s grief, for example, is a grand task. Seeds must be sewn, nuance must be heeded, and space must be made for the reader’s imagination. There is significant value in channeling emotion from page to person, yet there exists a more immediate way to engage with a reader’s feelings through the sense of touch. How? Bring the pain.

A few months back, I shared an excerpt from my novel-in-the-works. The passage included a description of pain following a character’s reception of a knock to the jewels. What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming reaction to the description. Many who left kind comments on the post mentioned that element of the passage.

I already love Clarence! You have to admire a guy who can laugh after such pain! – By Hook or By Book

Loved their interaction- had just the right amount of humour and, well, pain. – The Orangutan Librarian

Excellent excerpt! I felt the pain a little too much throughout your writing. The focus on it was well done. – Transhaan

I certainly aimed to illustrate Clarence’s pain, but for it to have garnered so much attention by its own accord signified that some sort of connection was made between the readers and the writing. That’s a powerful thing, and it ought to be explored. I suppose the reaction makes sense. Every human knows physical pain, so expressing it in a graspable manner is likely to arouse something within the reader.

Fellow blogger Aimee Davis had me cringing at a particular segment of her short story, Chameleon (as a courtesy, I will mention that Aimee has included a trigger warning at the beginning of the piece, and understandably so. It is grim and mature).

It doesn’t take much for him to push her down. She is small and drunk. She falls against a sharp edge of his metal bedframe left exposed. It cuts into her back, but she ignores the pain and tries to stand, fists balled. She trips over her trembling knees and falls again, cracking her head against the corner of his bedside table.

Darkness. 

– Aimee Davis, Chameleon

Ouch. The phrases, “falls against a sharp edge of his metal bedframe,” “cuts into her back,” “fists balled,” and “cracking her head against the corner” amalgamate to communicate raw pain. In seeking to touch the reader by means of pain, it is important to remember that one ought not to treat descriptive pain as a cheap trick. Davis’ piece is awash with residual hurt, and so I found the excerpt of pain featured above to be entirely fitting and appropriate. Jarring the reader just to spur a reaction is in poor taste.

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Imparting Hot and Cold

Just like pain, sensations such as hot and cold are universal to the human experience. Experiences like bare feet on cold morning tile and the head-pounding heat of summer sun are points of commonality between people near and far. Because stories are reflections of the human experience, a writer can’t go wrong evoking such feelings to add a vivid layer to one’s writing. Check out the following excerpt from my novel-in-the-works.

The Gish gasped at the sight of a swirl of fire breaking away from the burning logs with unanticipated violence. The lash of flame roared as it charged at Clarence faster than he could consider falling away from it. He watched wide-eyed as a stroke of treacherous fire whipped at his face. The blistering heat of it threatened to scald his skin if it reached any further. The darting rope of fire yanked the sweat from his pores and he fell to the ground limp.

Clarence blinked. Sweat weighed heavy on his eyelids. He blinked and the world stung. He couldn’t do anything about the sweat creeping between his lashes, burning his eyeballs. He saw a red blur that he was sure was the sky. He saw brown circles. His head throbbed like a swollen geyser making to burst. He couldn’t breathe. His fingers went numb. Sound fell into itself. His head rolled to one side and Clarence smelled the mocking tartness of spilt berry stew. Then he felt nothing.

Did you feel the heat? Hopefully. Nudging your reader to feel the sensation a character feels can only enhance the richness of their reading experience.

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Using Tactile Detail to Convey Information

Sometimes, the sense of touch is simply the sense of touch. Fastening details to a physical touch can convey a whole lot of information. Take a handshake, for example.

One can communicate emotions, intentions, and character traits through a simple handshake. Some details one can address when writing a handshake include…

  • how the characters’ hands are oriented. Are their hands level with one another, or is one character holding his palm upward and the other downward Planet of the Apes style? Hand orientation can convey the status of the characters who are shaking hands.
  • how firm the characters’ grips are. Are they squeezing hard, or is their embrace loose? Grip can convey underlying emotions harbored by those characters who are shaking hands.
  • what the characters are doing with their free hands. Is one character placing his free hand on the other’s arm? Atop the other’s hand? On the other’s shoulder? Secondary hand placement can convey the proximity of the relationship shared by those characters who are shaking hands.
  • how long the characters’ handshake lasts. Is the embrace brief, or does it last for a long while? Duration can convey the amiability shared by the two characters who are shaking hands.
  • how the hands feel. Is one hand soft? Wet? Warm? Clammy? Callous? Hand quality can convey the lifestyles or emotions possessed by either character engaged in the handshake.

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The list is not exhaustive, but it is a start. More importantly, it’s illustrative of the key point. While a touch can propel the plot, it can also reveal things about the thing or person being touched. Don’t neglect to articulate how things physically feel!

Final Point: One can stimulate the reader’s sense of touch by tapping into the reader’s sense of pain, conveying sensations such as hot and cold, and detailing touches to communicate information. Exploring these techniques can yield exciting results. Hopefully this post prompted you to think about a few fine techniques!

What do you think? Did any of these methods/examples strike you as effective? Fellow writers, how do you go about stimulating a reader’s sense of touch? I love hearing from you!

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

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Writing the Five Senses: Smell

Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!

Today, we’ll be focusing on smell. I’ve selected excerpts from the works of fellow bloggers (with their permission) to show examples of each sense used effectively, as well as excerpts from my novel-in-the-works (with my permission) to show examples of my attempts to use each sense effectively. Buckle up for some sensory stimulation, grab a cold glass of Cherry Coke, and enjoy!

Smell:

Mr. Krabs was wise when he said, “Do you smell it? That smell. A kind of smelly smell. The smelly smell that smells… smelly.” Indeed, a smell has the potential to make an impression, whether that impression be positive or negative. Given that storytelling is a reflection of life, smell has weight in writing, too. Drumming up a particular scent in the reader’s mind can add richness to the reading experience. Let’s take a look at a few ways in which writers can weave smells into their writing.

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Using nuanced smell to convey information:

To start, let’s take a look at this striking passage written by fellow blogger M.L.S. Weech from the first chapter of his book, Caught.

“You’re a wasted birth!” she said in her sharp, nasally voice. “A child I should have known better than to bring into this world.”

Her hand raised to his head, and a small whine escaped Caden’s lips as she used bony fingers to yank him toward her by his mop of red hair. He fought for a moment, but at that time, his mother was much stronger than he was. Fighting only caused him to fall screaming. She simply dragged him by his hair through his door and then down the hall. He slid from the smooth, pine-scented floor onto the white carpet of the hallway. His pajama bottoms rolled down, allowing the carpet to burn into him as he slid along its rough surface. Streaks of blood stained the white fibrous floor.

Did you catch the brilliance conveyed by a single description of scent? Here we have a horrid scene in which Caden’s mother is dragging him across the floor, drawing blood and screams. The woman clearly has no love for her son, and yet…“he slid from the smooth, pine-scented floor onto the white carpet of the hallway.” The floor is clean! The floor is freshly cleaned, as Weech indicates by the detail of “pine-scented floor.” From this detail, the reader can infer that the mother cares for her home more than she cares for her son, enhancing the horror of Caden’s predicament. Perhaps this isn’t the case, but the implication embedded within the detail is provocative.

Weech uses a nuanced detail to both stimulate the reader’s senses and to reveal significant information. Note how Weech bolsters the detail about smell with other sensory descriptions. Details are best when one weaves them into the fabric of the passage as opposed to stitching them atop an already-cohesive section.

Using smell to set the scene:

Sometimes a single smell can frame a setting. If Spongebob Squarepants was novelized, the chapter where Spongebob and Patrick dumpster dive could begin with a description of the dumpster’s sour smell. Such a description would convey the foul nature of the ordeal and bring the reader closer to the protagonists. I’ve pulled an example of setting the scene using smell from my novel-in-the-works.

It was a wonder the press house wasn’t on fire. Every man had a pipe in his mouth, and matches were struck as often as machines whined. A thick haze of smoke clung to the air and buried the place in a sooty smell. The sharp odor of burning tobacco was not foreign to Clarence—he smoked on occasion—but the dense cloud festering in the press house was overwhelming even for him. Baking heat summoned sweat from his pores and slicked his skin enough that his clothes stuck to his body. Clarence was suffocating on ashen air, but he couldn’t leave. He had only just arrived.

When interlaced with visual, auditory, and sensory descriptions, the olfactory details of “sooty smelland the “sharp odor of burning tobacco” help to develop the scene at hand. From this point forward, the reader understands that this press house smells like smoke. A reader might imply a smoky smell by the description of lit pipes alone, but specificity can embellish the scene further. It’s important to note that it’s often far too glaring to write, “The room smelled like x.” This is why I built a bridge between the “sharp odor of burning tobacco” and Clarence, the one who is doing the smelling. His connection to the smell manifests through the detail of his smoking habit. This way, the olfactory description doesn’t stick out like a poor note emitted through Squidward’s clarinet.

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Using smell to appeal to the stomach:

This one is just plain fun. I love food. Intimately. For me, food in writing ought to be regarded as holy. Neglecting to thoroughly describe what a character is eating is sacrilegious as far as I’m concerned (This is yet another reason as to why I love reading Robert Jordan). The act of eating food is one that involves every sense, but smell is among the most important. After all, you can’t taste if you can’t smell. Check out this bit from my novel-in-the-works.

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Because the kitchen door never halted its pendulate motion, smells of cooking flooded the common area enough that the acerbic spice of perfume faded to nothing. Joshua practically swooned when the airy aroma of baked bread touched his nostrils. Along the tendrils of golden scent wafting from the kitchen came the intoxicating smell of cooking meat. Joshua looked to Shoushan, none at all surprised at the sight of his eyes widening in a way he found impressive for a Chinaman.

That was a blast to write, and I hope that it’s a blast to read, too! Don’t neglect food. Instead, seize the opportunity and assert its place on the page! Smell is a key component of food, so do be mindful of that. Writing food is a holy task, remember?!

Final Point: One can enhance the reader’s sensory experience by tapping into the sense of smell through the use of nuanced olfactory details, by setting the scene with descriptions of smell, and by embellishing food through describing its smell.

What do you think? Did any of these methods/examples strike you as effective? Fellow writers, how do you go about stimulating a reader’s sense of smell? I love hearing from you!

As always, stay classy.

~J.J Azar

Writing the Five Senses: Hearing

Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!

I’m excited to share the second part of my newest post series in which I explore how writers can use the five senses to engage the reader. Last week, I focused on the sense of sight. The post was received quite well, so be sure to check it out if you’d like to be caught up to speed!

Today, we’ll be focusing on hearing. I’ve selected excerpts from the works of fellow bloggers (with their permission) to show examples of each sense used effectively, as well as excerpts from my novel-in-the-works (with my permission) to show examples of my attempts to use each sense effectively. Buckle up for some sensory stimulation, grab a cold glass of Ginger Ale (the champagne of sodas), and enjoy!

(credit to my cousin Jordan for deeming Ginger Ale the champagne of sodas. He is a man of brilliance).

Hearing:

When delivering a speech to a crowd, you can use all of the hand gestures you want, but if your voice is stuck in a monotonous “Bueller”-like drone, you can be sure your audience will check out. Adjusting one’s voice throughout a speech helps to engage the audience because the inflection gives life to the words you’re delivering. Much the same, one can write the most beautiful imagery, but if one neglects to incorporate auditory description with the visual description, the writer has missed an opportunity to add depth to the story. Without auditory description, a passage risks coming across as lacking, or empty. Allow me to describe the scene of a park on a summer day.

“Mark sauntered through the park, in awe at the deep green of trees bursting with vivacious foliage. The simmering sun splashed its golden warmth upon joggers trotting steadily along hard-packed dirt trails. Joyful children swung and leaped along the pastel-pigmented playground.” This is a fine, functional description. The images are pleasant. Even still, if one were to include auditory description among the visuals, the picture could prove to be far more stimulating for a reader. Perhaps the trees are swaying easily in the wind. Perhaps the joggers are panting, or their shoes are pounding against the pavement. What if the children are laughing? Are the swings squeaking? Are any birds chirping? Let’s take a look at some ways a writer can tickle readers’ ears.

Stimulating hearing through precision

I find that the most impressive auditory descriptions present sound precisely. If I were to write, “Gordon beckoned his chefs to stop cooking when he heard a chirp,” the reader would be left with only a vague idea of what Gordon heard. The word “chirp”signifies a bird, but what kind of a chirp was it? Was it an alarming chirp, implying a bird loose in the kitchen? Or was it a muffled chirp, implying a bird stuck in one of the cupboards? A far more illustrative description would be, “Gordon beckoned his chefs to stop cooking when he heard a faint chirp in the distance.“Faint chirp in the distance” is a simple addition, yes, but small details often have the capacity to change the entire dynamic of a sentence or passage. The few extra words give a far better idea of the volume and location of the sound. It’s not flashy, it’s not glamorous, but it clarifies the scene a great deal.

Variably, a writer can enhance his/her expression of sound without adding a single word to embellish the sound indicator. Instead, a writer can swap an imprecise word for a precise one! Compare, “the heavy wind blew against his back” to “the heavy wind roared against his back.” “Roared” carries a far more sonorous sound than does “blew.” The wind’s intensity is cranked up a few notches by “roared” alone. Imagine what you could do by tacking on a beefy metaphor. Suddenly, your wind is alive.

So when it comes to writing sound with the intent of offering the reader a more involved soundscape, keep away from generalizations. For the sake of pace, a writer may not want to embellish a sudden sound, such as a shout, but at the very least, consider making that “shout” a “shriek.” There’s a liveliness to auditory description that shouldn’t be stifled by uninspired vocabulary.

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Stimulating hearing through dialogue

Dialogue is my favorite thing to write. Placing characters at odds in a battle of clashing quotation marks is a whole lot of fun. I enjoy the challenge of giving each and every one of them an individual voice. In crafting a character’s voice, diction plays a massive role, massive enough to warrant its own post. But there is another element of voice-crafting that can stimulate a reader’s ears: that is, giving life to a character’s vocal quality. Telling the reader how a character sounds helps to engage the auditory sense even when scenic description is on hold and dialogue is at the forefront. Take this passage from my novel-in-the-works as an example (long-time readers will likely recognize it. Forgive me for my repetition)!

“Hold on just a moment.”

At the sound of that voice, a voice harsh as whiskey’s burn, a voice cold as winter’s frost, a voice powerful as hammer’s charge, every man and woman pulled their attention from the circle of six and put it to the man standing behind Joshua. Joshua moved with the crowd, turning with apprehension to witness the man looming over him.

With an introduction like that, the reader isn’t likely to hear silence when their eyes pass over this character’s next line of dialogue. And that’s what we’re going for, right?

Sound as pacing

Using sound to dictate the pace of a passage is one of my favorite techniques to read. When done properly, the effect can be remarkably immersive. Take this passage from the first chapter of fellow blogger Eva Blaskovic’s short story, Ironclad, as an example.

I bring the shovel and hit the dirt, removing bite after bite of ground, pushing downward with my sneakered foot. In the mulchy soil, even the force of my light weight is enough to hasten the process.

I’d planned this for a month, yet now that the time draws near, apprehension seeps into my limbs as surely as this darn mist dampens my clothes.

“Dig, Emilio,” mi tío, my uncle, would say. “The hours till dawn grow short.”

I dig, heave the dirt, breathe, and dig some more, until I find my rhythm. Dig—heave—breathe. Eva BlaskovicIronclad, Chapter 1 (Mi Tio)

The pacing technique encapsulated in “dig—heave—breathe” section conveys Emilio’s digging without fastening it with redundant description. The rhythm works well in part due to the initial, more thorough description of Emilio’s digging. Eva’s use of the word “bite” to describe the sound of digging paired with the details of “mulchy soil” contributes an extra layer of sound to the passage, not to mention a vivid image. To harken back to an earlier point, using the word “bite” to describe the sound of dirt being heaved from the ground is precise and original. Eva’s decision to have Emilio recall his uncle’s words likewise helps to fill the soundscape on the page.

Final Point: One can stimulate the reader’s sense of hearing by using precise sound indicators, by attributing vocal quality to characters’ voices, and by pacing a passage using auditory details. A fair mix of these techniques can do wonders to fill the soundscape on your page!

What do you think? Did any of these methods/examples strike you as effective? Fellow writers, how do you go about stimulating a reader’s sense of hearing? I value your feedback like I value my Ginger Ale!

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

Writing the Five Senses: Sight

Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!

I’m excited to share the first part of what is sure to be my richest series of posts to date. I’ll be taking a look at how writers can use the five senses to engage the reader. Today, we begin with sight. I’ve selected excerpts from the works of fellow bloggers (with their permission) to show examples of each sense used effectively, as well as excerpts from my novel-in-the-works (with my permission) to show examples of my attempts to use each sense effectively. Buckle up for some sensory stimulation, grab a cold bottle of Coca-Cola, and enjoy!

Sight:

Storytelling is a visual art. If I tell you, “Upon hearing Kylie’s absurd Starbucks order, the angsty barista rolled his eyes and began preparing the meticulous drink,” you’re not likely to smell the coffee smell characteristic of Starbucks. You’re not likely to hear the indie-acoustic music characteristic of Starbucks. You’re not likely the taste the poorly prepared coffee characteristic of Starbucks. Instead, you’re likely imagining the situation as it is presented to you: visually. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sight is the foremost human sense, after all. Telling what we see is the default means of storytelling. If we were bats, we would put more weight in auditory description, but we aren’t (well, not all of us. I, for one, am the Batman). Because we tell stories this way (visually), it’s crucial that writers spice up their visual description. One can go about merely describing what a setting looks like, and at times, a functional description is all that is needed, but “functional” isn’t what I’m looking to ponder today. Stimulating is! I want to investigate how a writer can flood a reader’s mind with vivid images that vibrate pleasantly.

Stimulating sight through nuance:

To start, let’s take a look at an excerpt that Gordon Ramsay might call, “RAW!” Raw in a good way, that is. In the following passage from fellow blogger A.Z. Anthony’s short story, Kiss of the White Mistress Part 1, Anthony evokes a handful of powerful images by writing with nuance.giphy (2).gif

The stew settled into a calm heat, steam rising in thick curtains as Jao took a steadying breath and stared down into it. A shadowy silhouette stared back up at him. His face, he realized, but different. A ghastly mockery of what it once had been. This was not the face of the man his father had raised. Not the face of the man his little brother had grown up knowing. But it was his face now, like it or not. His confinement here had changed him, bent and hammered him into a fouler and crueler man. Soon, his captors would learn just how foul, and just how cruel. It was almost a blessing, Jao thought, that his companions were not here to see it. A.Z. AnthonyKiss of the White Mistress Part 1

Stunning, right? Stunning, but not flashy! This passage resonated with me the first time I read it because Anthony’s words conveyed the situation at hand so clearly. My mind produced a full image of what was occurring (Of course, the image was bolstered by the preceding and following paragraphs not included here). A deeper look reveals why this passage painted such a clear picture. Did you catch how Anthony relaxes his prose prior to Jao’s reflection? He uses the phrases, “stew settled,” “calm heat,” and “steadying breath” to lower the passage’s heart rate, so to speak. Then, he darkens the passage’s tone and introduces the reader to backstory regarding Jao’s haunting past. Jao witnesses his “shadowy silhouette” and begins to reflect. We see the words, “confinement,” “bent,” “hammered,” “fouler,” and “crueler,” all of which stand in stark contrast to the initial, relaxed details.

Anthony only described a man looming over a pot of stew, yet the muscles he added to the scene made the scenario engaging. It made it appealing to “look at.”

Stimulating sight through scale:

Likewise, a reader’s sense of sight can also be stimulated by vivid, sweeping images. Take this passage from my novel-in-the-works as an example.

From bow to stern, port to starboard, the Ping Dong was surrounded by boundless blue water. She was a moving island of red sails and black softwood cutting into the sea with an arrow’s intent. Her spread sails were shaped like dragon’s wings, or perhaps carp’s fins. In any case, her sails bore an unmistakable Chinese aesthetic. Even the Ping Dong’s hull was cut much like a sleek fish, curving like a bowl and paneled with red squares which seemed scales when laid atop the black planks that comprised the ship’s hulking hull. Creaking and groaning as she bobbed up and down swelling waves, the Ping Dong flew eastward in a forward manner, never slowing in the face of wind or tide.

Hopefully, this passage communicates a living image which you can visualize in great detail. This sort of method is fitting when one intends to introduce the reader to a new setting or a transition to a new time. One wouldn’t be wise to apply description this heavy to every page, but precise application can provide for grand results!

Stimulating sight through acute attention to one particular detail:

Have you ever read a story where the narrator attributes a name to a character who is unknown to him/her based upon a glaring physical attribute (ex: Katniss Everdeen naming an opposing tribute, “Foxface”)? This technique serves a writer well in that it helps him/her to identify a character shorthand, yet it also expedites the reader’s ability to form an image in his/her mind of said character. Think about it. If my character is about to fight five men, I could certainly take it upon myself to describe each opponent, but the description is likely to dissolve soon as the action starts. Furthermore, asking the reader to remember what is in all likelihood frivolous information simply isn’t cool. Labeling a character by a distinct feature clarifies what he/she is like. To me, “Foxface” characterizes far more than the tribute’s face. I perceive the character as being nimble and red-headed. The name sums up her demeanor as much as it does her face.

Final Point: One can stimulate the reader’s sense of sight by weaving subtle description, by painting broad illustrations, and by applying acute attention to small details. A healthy mix of these techniques can yield exciting results. Note, there are a plethora of other ways to play with sight. This post highlights only a few fine techniques.

What do you think? Did any of these methods/examples strike you as effective? Fellow writers, how do you go about stimulating a reader’s sense of sight? I love hearing from you!

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

Writers, Trust Your Readers

Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!

Today, I want to dive into an issue which has been irking me for quite some time. The idea of trusting the audience is something that I once thought to be simple. As a young lad, my father and I went to the movies nearly every weekend. What I wanted was simple: I wanted for the director of whatever movie I was seeing to trust the audience. I did not want to be spoon fed, I wanted to figure things out for myself. I wanted to think. This is one of the reasons why Inception struck me so profoundly that I deemed it my favorite movie upon leaving the theater. It remains my favorite to this day even after over 20 viewings across the years (If you think DiCaprio was awake at the end, you are sorely mistaken and we can talk about that in the comments. Don’t worry, I’m a professional. It’ll be okay).

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Things have changed a bit for me. Now I’m in the creator’s position, except in my case, I’m writing a novel. The rules are different. When one commandeers a film, visual detail is obligatory. Shots must be framed and filled to portray moods and focus attentions. Yet when one wields a pen and tackles a blank page, the circumstances differ. Detail is no longer obligatory. The author must provide some detail, of course, enough to paint a living picture and a fluid understanding in the reader’s mind, but how much is too much? How little is not enough? This is what I’m wrestling with through the lens of trusting the reader. The issue is one of space: How much space should the author leave open for the reader to

1) create images?

2) unravel plots?

Let’s address the first point: When it comes to creating an image of a setting populated by characters, how much space should the author leave open for the reader to fill in himself/herself?

I have found that my writing is laden with an abundance of visual and sensory detail. (If you would like read a brief excerpt from my novel-in-the-works, you are welcome to do so here). Like any writer, I have a strong idea of what is populating my page at any given moment, and so I feel that, in order to convey the world to the reader, I have to write descriptively. Other writers prefer to write more concisely, offering key descriptions and leaving it at that. In many cases when I read, regardless of what the author describes a character as looking like, I tend to imagine whatever I want. So are my heavy descriptions futile? Perhaps for some readers. Nonetheless, I’m still seeking balance.

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In some cases, I will set a scene using extensive detail. In other cases, perhaps when the dialogue is meant to be quick or there is sudden action taking place, I’ll forego the details and cut to the chase. I figure this provides a cushion to the reader to piece together what is happening for himself/herself while it also serves as a pacing technique. I think Robert Jordan showcases the technique of forgoing detail expertly. Typically, Jordan describes everything in his world with hyperfocused detail. The exception? Swordfighting. Instead of describing movements of those engaged in combat, he attributes names to the moves exercised by blade-wielders, names like ‘Swan Rises Over the Lake’ and ‘Horse Trots Through the Field.’ Descriptions in that vein brilliantly entrust the writing to readers’ imaginations.

Ultimately, I want to approach trusting the reader with filling in visual blanks as follows: The first time I introduce a setting or character, I won’t restrain myself from describing what I feel needs to be described. Over time, the necessity of such description about the same characters/settings will become unnecessary. I will trust the readers, at the point, to understand the desert as it is portrayed in my story, as it is a frequent setting. I will trust the readers to understand the intonation of my characters’ speech and their novel expressions after a time. I will still describe the settings and expressions, but I will describe them for the sake of indicating them rather than re-explaining them.

Trust applies perhaps more readily to the story element of plot (point 2). My younger self demands that I not spoon-feed the plot to my readers-to-be, and I certainly don’t want to let the kid down. Linear, predictable plots are no fun, but writing Inception is no easy task. How can an author trust the reader to bear not knowing something? How can an author handle withholding information from the reader and trust that he or she won’t shut the book and stop reading? I think the answer is simple: give your reader bread crumbs with some peppered olive oil! So long as your reader is given morsels of delicious bread at every turn, they will stick around for the main course and leave full and happy. But if you throw a steak at your reader soon as they sit down and rush them out the door soon as they finish, they won’t be charmed, they’ll be annoyed and frankly unimpressed.

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Much the same, the bread will help you to make your dramatic reveals all the more impactful. “Oh, that was hinted at in Chapter 2! And in Chapter 5!” I learned this lesson after failing to leave bread for the reader.

Many months ago, I sent a very early draft of my novel-in-the-works’ first chapter to my cousin Alex Azar, author of Nightmare Noir. He gave me the following criticism about the passage below:

___

“This carpet, where did you get it?” the stranger demanded. His silver-green eyes frantically tore across every inch of the carpet’s ornate design. The question wasn’t particularly directed to either of the couple, and so both hesitated, unable to comprehend why the man could possibly be interested in a soiled rug.

Lynn-Holly shook her head profusely as if to rid herself of her confusion. “A client gave it to me. It was a gift.”

What does she do that she has a client? If this does take place in the 1800’s she wouldn’t really have a job unless she’s a hooker and her client is a john. – Alex Azar

___

I got a good laugh out of his criticism, but after I laughed, I searched for the earlier bit where I explained that Lynn-Holly was a seamstress to show him that he must have skipped over that part. Alas, I couldn’t find the part because I hadn’t written it! I know that Lynn-Holly is a seamstress, it’s no secret, but I forgot to tell the audience! Thus, this passage made no sense. This instance provided me an important lesson that if I want something to be so within the pages of my novel, there must be breadcrumbs. There must be context. If you give your reader bread, and the bread is good, and you refill the bread basket frequently, you can rest easy knowing that they will probably enjoy their steak when it comes.

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So that’s all. What do you think? How do you go about trusting the reader? How do you balance detail with imagination? Mystery with reveal? Let’s talk!

Thank you for reading. As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

Why I Value Character Over Plot

I saw a movie a while back about a bunch of hit-men trapped in a warehouse after a botched robbery. The hit-men are trying to figure out who ratted them out. The whole movie takes place in a warehouse! The whole thing! We don’t even see the robbery, we only see a guy running from the robbery. There is one random scene at the beginning which took place at a restaurant, and another in a car, I think, but for the most part, the movie has one setting. By the end of it, we know who the rat is, but over all…nothing happens!

That movie is called Reservoir Dogs. It’s one of my favorites of all time. *cue Kanye*

“JJ, what is this sorcery? You just switched like a light switch.”

Allow me to explain, disembodied voice.

Reservoir Dogs is a story of such small scale, of such little consequence, yet it’s stellar. How? How can a story that largely takes place in one ugly-looking room be stellar? Lovely ladies and classy gents, the answer is character.

Character, for me, is the most important aspect of every story.

I understand why others disagree. I understand why others value plot over characters. Some want to read for what happens while others want to read for who it happens to. I fall into the latter category. Note, I understand that many may tilt their heads and ask, “Why would I have to decide? I like both.” I like both too, but there has been a long debate between the two, and so I’m weighing in on it.

Imagine this: a Mexican musician living in Detroit releases a couple of records in the early 1970s. His sales are pitiful. Then, in 1997, he wakes up to find that he’s actually sold more records than Elvis Presley…in South Africa. Little does he know that his politically charged, poetic lyrics have become rallying cries against apartheid. He doesn’t know about his explosion of fame because he isn’t receiving royalties. Word of mouth doesn’t reach him because people assume he had killed himself on stage while performing. Well, this man is known as Sixto Rodriguez, and he’s a real dude. A real, living dude. With a style often compared to that of Bob Dylan and a particularly remarkable first album (Cold Fact), he’s a man worth knowing. Rodriguez’ story is shared in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

Check out the first lyrics to his song, “Rich Folks Hoax.”

The moon is hanging in the purple sky
The baby’s sleeping while its mother sighs
Talking ’bout the rich folks
Rich folks have the same jokes
And they park in basic places.

The priest is preaching from a shallow grave
He counts his money, then he paints you saved
Talking to the young folks
Young folks share the same jokes
But they meet in older places.

So don’t tell me about your success
Nor your recipes for my happiness
Smoke in bed
I never could digest
Those illusions you claim to have going.

~Sixto Rodriguez, “Rich Folks Hoax”

Rodriguez’ story is undoubtedly a fascinating one. I mean, does anyone find his story to be underwhelming? I wouldn’t think so. This man’s life’s plot has merits of its own, but I wouldn’t be sharing it with you if Rodriguez wasn’t who he was. Even after touring South Africa and Australia and the US and a host of other places where he eventually gained fame and fortune, he still, to this day, lives in his little apartment in Detroit. He’s soft spoken. He’s humble. He hardly seems fazed by his own staggering, unlikely story. It’s because of Rodriguez, the man, the character, that I chose to share his story. If the guy was an egotistical dufus, I wouldn’t give him the time of day.

If the most remarkable story ever told is written about the least remarkable of people, I simply won’t care. Think about it this way: if somebody you do not care for shares a crazy story about how he scaled Mount Everest in seven minutes or had a conversation with a gorilla, you might be mildly intrigued. Mildly. On the other hand, if your closest friend shares a remarkable story, you will be far more invested and interested in what your friend experienced. Why? Because your care about your friend! I would much rather a story be character-driven than plot-driven.

Reservoir Dogs is founded upon the strength of its characters and the dialogue between them, not its plot. Sure, the movie has a sound plot, but the movie’s heart lies with Mr. Orange, Mr. Yellow, Mr. Pink, and all the rest of ’em.

I figure I’ve made my point. I want to hear from you. Which do you prefer? Character-driven stories or plot-driven stories? Let’s talk in the comments below.

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

Violence and Gore in Writing: Is There a Limit?

Happy Friday, lovely ladies and classy gents! Before I dive into this week’s topic, I’d like to let you know that I’m holding a Question/Answer in light of the blog hitting 100 followers (woo!). WordPress has been wonky following the recent update, so I wanted to make sure you knew. If you’d like to leave me a question, I invite you to do so here!

Now, onto what you clicked for: violence.

In an almost paradoxical fashion, violence is a fascinating subject. Humanity has learned the horrifying consequences of violence en masse time and time again, yet we have yet to shy away from it. Inflicting harm upon another human being is understood to be immoral, yet we enjoy reading, hearing, and watching stories full of violence. Isn’t that interesting? We sure give violence a whole lot of limelight for something we hate. One would think violence would be treated more like how Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino was treated at the 2011 Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump (The star of Jersey Shore was booed because he was intolerably unfunny).

But we don’t treat violence like we treat the Situation. Rather, we treat violence closer to how we treat Rihanna in that nobody actually likes her, but she is impossible to avoid so you nod along to her songs anyway.

There are two key reasons why violence is pertinent in our stories:

  1. it’s a knowable, human plot device which can be used to propel the story forward
  2. it’s fun.

No, really. It is. When Quentin Tarantino was asked to account for the violence in his films while promoting Kill Bill, he responded, and I quote,

Because it’s so much fun, JAN! Get it!

Tarantino’s right. Violence is fun. Don’t we all enjoy executing Mortal Kombat fatalities on our friends? (The intestines come out the nose, you say?) Don’t we all enjoy Tarantino’s Tupac-fueled western shootouts? I know we enjoy UFC, and it’s not only for the leprechaun who would surely pull out my sternum with his bare hands if I made such a comment to his face (please don’t hurt me, ye Lucky Charms mascot, ye). e475e88202155040418450dd9d53a8cb83b0a142.gif

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Violence in reality is a whole different ball game. I’ve seen fistfights up close. I’ve been in a couple. And you know what? It’s nothing like the movies. Do you guys recall Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes movies? Neither do I. But I do recall Holmes’ freeze-timey-hyper-perception trick where he observes his opponent and devises an intricate way to immobilize him by exploiting his weak spots. Yeah, real life isn’t like that. Fighting is comprised of a nearly incomprehensible flurry of balled fists and blurred limbs. All of the choreography you’ve seen in Star Wars goes right out the window. There’s nothing cute or coordinated about violence. There’s no rhyme to it. There’s no glamour, no flashiness. Even in the UFC, where professional fighters spar with each other, the result isn’t a dance-like fight like we see in Kung Fu movies. And we know this.

Be it through the news, documentary footage, personal experience, or WORLD STARRRR!!!!!, we’ve all seen the ugliness of real-world violence, yet we still feature it extensively through fictional means. I find that to be interesting. Not surprising (violence is practical and exciting, as I said), but interesting.

Throw in gore on top of violence and we have an intrigue smoothie (How’s that for a visual?). Indeed, if violence is the piñata, gore is the candy. This leads me to the question posed in this post’s title:

Is there a limit to violence and gore in writing?

The technical answer is no. A writer can technically write novels chock full of graphic butchery and extensive violence. I have yet to read a novel that is so blatantly gratuitous from start to finish, though I’m sure many of you more wizened readers can recall picking up such a book. It should go without saying that writers have a right to write whatever they would like. Everyone has that right, and it should remain so.

But I don’t care to discuss technicality. Sure, technically I can eat a book if I divide it into small parcels and pair it with hummus and a touch of olive oil, but that would be a pointless display of jackassery more than anything. I’m interested in pondering what sort of responsibility a writer has when putting pen to paper. Should violence be written graphically as to portray its heinousness Hacksaw Ridge-style, or should violence be written “cleanly” as to only communicate the bare action? Should graphic violence be written sparingly, only “when essential?” Or perhaps violence should be written 100% freely, with no restrictions or second thoughts paid to it. Let’s discuss.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself at odds with Polyphemus, a cyclops. The hero and his crew devise a plan to escape the monster’s clutches. What follows is a pure thrill.

Heating the end of the pole until it was glowing red, we ran it toward the Cyclops like a battering ram, aiming it for his eye and driving it deep. The thing sizzled like hot metal dropped in water while I twisted it like an auger.

Polyphemus came awake with a roar, tore the spike from his eye and began groping for us in his blindness. His screams of frustration and rage brought the neighboring Cyclopes to the mouth of the cave.

– Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Book Nine

Graphic, right? The cyclops had his eye gouged by a large stick! By telling this particular part of his story in such a graphic manner, Homer succeeds in thrilling the reader in spite of (or perhaps because of) the nasty details. The imagery was not the point–Odysseus’ escape was the point (no pun intended)–yet the imagery served the passage well.

Euripides’ Medea approaches violence differently. Though Euripides describes the murder of King Creon and his daughter in graphic detail earlier in the play, he handles Medea’s murder of her own young children with more restraint. Here is how that particular act of violence is portrayed. Note, I’ve heavily trimmed the passage in the interest of giving you the essential pieces (breaks indicated by ellipsis).

MEDEA
I’ve made up my mind, my friends. I’ll do it—kill my children now, without delay,
and flee this land…

…[Exit MEDEA into the house]

….CHILD [from inside the house]
Help me . . .

CHORUS
Did you hear that?
Did you hear the children cry?
That wretched, evil woman!…

CHILD [from within]
What do I do? How can I escape
my mother’s hands?

SECOND CHILD
I don’t know, dear brother.
It’s over for us . .

CHORUS [shouting in response]
Should I go in the house?
I’m sure I must prevent this murder.

CHILD
Yes—for the love of gods, stop this! And hurry!

SECOND CHILD
The sword has almost got us—like a snare!

…CHORUS [to JASON]
Open the doors and you will see them,
your slaughtered children.

…[JASON shakes the doors of the house, which remain closed. MEDEA appears in a winged chariot, rising above the house. The bodies of the two CHILDREN are visible in the chariot]

-Euripides, Medea, selections from lines 1456-1625

This psychotic lady butchers her two children, puts them in a chariot, and flies the chariot past her husband to show him what she did to his children. That’s a sick case of extreme violence. Interestingly, the act is far more heinous than the eye-gouging carried out by Odysseus, and yet Euripides does not provide the reader with even a hint of gruesome detail regarding what transpired inside. We presume the children were slain by knife, but Euripides does not describe the killing or the state of the corpses as bloody or otherwise maimed. Does this lack of detail minimize the implication of violence in this context?Absolutely not. The violent action spoke for itself, whether it was detailed or not.

The same tactic is flawlessly executed in Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner. Hosseini describes the violation of Hassan in the most minimal of details, yet the reader feels no lack of sympathy or horror.

Evidently, there are clear instances where writers have included violence within their stories and simultaneously succeeded in communicating the consequences of such violence while avoiding graphic detail. In other words, graphic detail is not essential to communicate the weight of violence. However, as is displayed through the passage from Homer’s Odyssey, graphic detail can work wonders to supplement action and paint a vivid picture. Thus, in my view, there is no single correct way to go about violence so much as there is an incorrect way.

My standard for violence in writing is this: So long as consequences are conveyed in wake of the violence, any and all violence is fair game. This doesn’t mean I need to see the perpetrator locked up for his or her transgressions, but violence needs to instigate some kind of effect. Somebody has to mourn. Somebody has to be worse off, whether it be the victim, the perpetrator, or a bystander. Violence should not just be.

Whether or not you write violence in a detailed manner is irrelevant. So long as you give me a consequence, I’m sold.

Robert Jordan expertly meets this standard in Lord of Chaos. At the climax of the story, Jordan describes a series of cataclysmic, violent acts with extreme, graphic detail. Once the carnage ceases, however, he focuses on the tremendous emotional impact the event has on all characters present. The repercussions carry over to the next book, even. Jordan did not treat violence lightly. Neither should you or I.

My final thoughts are as follows: Fellow writers, describe all of the blood and guts you want, but don’t treat the details as fireworks intended to please the eye. Instead, treat them as casualties to rattle the mind. Your work will be better for it. After all, channeling reality often makes for better fiction.

(This post was inspired by Dave Astor’s “Novels are Read. Violence, It Grew” and A.Z. Anthony’s “Fight Scenes: How and Why?”)

How do you feel about this topic? Whether you’re a reader or a writer: is there a line? How should violence be handled by writers?

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

Explosion of Soul with a Title

Happy Friday, lovely ladies and classy gents! I hope everyone had a fantastic Thanksgiving. I personally broke my pants, so my holiday was a success (I go hard). If you didn’t catch the post on my Facebook page, know that I am incredibly thankful for you. Whether you’re a follower, a frequent reader, or somebody just stopping by, I am grateful for your support. Y’all are the best!

I wrote something up that I suppose could be considered poetry. I don’t know, really. I typically deal in prose. Whatever it may be, here it is. If you have any thoughts about the piece, please share them! I do the macarena every time I get a comment.

____

Quill in hand.

Paper on desk.

Empty room.

All quiet save for a ticking clock.

I turn the nib of the quill to my chest.

I eye the thing, the sword, knowing where it must go.

I plunge the thing into my sternum.

The incision is but an avenue. Now for the surgical slice.

I drag the nib from left to write, tearing at tendons, opening my chest enough

That I may reach inside and retrieve my heart.

I seize the throbbing organ and hold it over the page on the desk before me.

I squeeze

That its tales and fancies may gush onto the page.

I squeeze

Until the blank sheet is stained red with blood and soaked wet with tears indicative of joys and sorrows.

Now quill is in hand, nib is on paper.

With an emboldened hand I trace words into the human substance drenching the page before me

And spilling out over my desk.

There is no trick, here.

There is only explosion of soul, here.

An explosion of soul with a title.

____

Today, millions will be assaulting the malls and department stores in droves like walkers from the Walking Dead. I’ll leave you with some food for thought: Isn’t it interesting how Black Friday comes directly after the day when we celebrate what we have?

~J.J. Azar

Readers, What Ruins Your Reading Experience?

Happy Friday, folks!

I would like to begin by extending a sincere thank you to new subscribers. Your support never goes unnoticed. I danced a jig this morning in celebration!

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My dancing is closer to this than you might imagine.

I love reading good stuff. So do you. After all, good stuff is…well…good!

But readers are intuitive creatures. Sometimes we pick up a book, read a couple of pages, and instantly determine that it isn’t for us. The range of reasons as for why we are sometimes quick to abandon a book is broad. Did we detect something off about the author’s writing style? Was the beginning of the story too confusing to grasp? Did the blatant vulgarity rub us the wrong way? Allow me to share what turns me off when it comes to books. Then, I’d love to hear what ruins your reading experience.

Poor Dialogue

For me, poor dialogue is a deal-breaker. Take a gander at some of my favorite movies…

  • In Bruges
  • Django Unchained
  • The Road to El Dorado (yes, the animated movie. I say that proudly).
  • The Boondock Saints
  • Good Will Hunting
  • Casino Royale
  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Whiplash

Throw in House M.D. and Freaks and Geeks on the TV side of things and you can probably guess that I love when characters talk. But more importantly, I love when characters talk well. I appreciate wit. I appreciate chemistry in conversation. I appreciate natural speech.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no issue with dialogue that isn’t flashy. Neither Man of Steel nor Avatar, two films I have watched many times over, boast dialogue that is particularly profound or clever.

*cue transition to books*

But I cannot stomach dialogue that is wrong. If I read something and think, people don’t talk like that, I won’t bother reading on. Sorry. Flow in dialogue is essential for me. Directly addressing somebody by name in every line is a no-no. Shoehorning exposition into conversations where exposition does not belong is a no-no. Forced banter is a no-no. If I read a passage of dialogue aloud and it does not sound human, I can’t go on.

Fellow writers: Let’s be mindful of the words we put in our characters’ mouths. We owe it to the readers.

Ridiculous Character Names in Fantasy and Sci-Fi

After I publish my novel, somebody somewhere is going to find this post and call me out for being a hypocrite. Ladies and gents, you could hardly imagine what names I have given to some of my characters. And you could hardly imagine what names I have on a list waiting to be given to characters. I would give you a glimpse, but you would scoff. Scoff! *read as Josh Peck.*

If somebody were to find this post and call me out for attributing preposterous names to my characters, I would point them to the header, which reads “Ridiculous Character Names in Fantasy and Sci-Fi.

“J.J., how could you discriminate against my genre?!”

Fear not, troubled voice. Fantasy is magnificent and sci-fi provides for great storytelling. But this particular qualm lies exclusively with these two types of story. Often times the names of the characters in these invented worlds are absurd, octo-syllabic derivatives of Latin inspired by Yiddish and rooted in Tolkien’s Elvish. I can’t bear it. My ability to connect with the world is diminished immediately. How could I possibly get on board with a story if every character has a name that hardly sounds human? If an antagonist’s name is riddled with ‘x’s and ‘q’s, I won’t be able to take the guy seriously.

Fantasy and sci-fi genres give a whole lot of mobility to the author. World-building is often involved. However, if the author goes overboard and abuses the mobility of crafting a world via absurd character names, there’s a good chance I won’t get into the story. If I can’t pronounce most names in a novel, the book has lost its shot with me.

A drill sergeant assigning stereotypical or otherwise demeaning nicknames to new recruits? That’s to be expected. A school bully deeming a nerd, “Booger Face?” No surprise there. The head of an elite shadowy rogue spec-ops team referring to his squad-members by cutthroat names such as “Grouch,” “Blitz,” and “Frosty?” It comes with the territory. But fantasy names that seem to come straight from the blender are just too cheesy for me to stomach.

Granted, my own western-novel-in-the-works contains a handful of monikers that will make you think twice. A man named Parsley? That is strange, no doubt about it. But it’s better than Paerzsleiyy, I think.

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A Confusing Introduction

Discombobulating a reader is okay. I recall frantically flipping from page to page at a certain point during Robert Jordan’s Great Hunt when I caught myself reading a passage I had just read. I was so confused. I thought the repetition was a misprint! But then I read the thing through and, alas…it turns out that Rand was suffering from a recurring vision (Surprise!). Jordan literally copy-pasted an entire passage a couple times over. By the end of the sequence, I was highly intrigued.

Beginning a story with a stunt like that, however, would be unacceptable. I don’t mind if the first pages I read are laced with mystery or full of unanswered questions. I don’t think the beginning of a story should necessarily “be” any type of way. But I know that the start of a novel should not confuse me to the point where I can’t grasp anything.

I recall Incarceron by Catherine Fisher having a scrambled introduction. I put the book down for a year because I was lost from the start. Eventually, because the book was gifted to me, I returned to it, powered through the beginning, and found favor with the thing. Still, had that introduction been clearer, I wouldn’t have waited a year to pick it up again.

Confusion and intrigue are two very different things. Intrigue me first, confuse me later, if you fancy.

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Those are just a handful of personal deal-breakers when it comes to reading. I’d like to hear your take. Do any of the offenses above pain you? What are some things that ruin your reading experience? Sound off in the comments below. I am genuinely interested in hearing what you brilliant people have to say.

As always, stay classy.

~J.J. Azar

For Writers: 5 Reasons Why Consuming While Creating is Dangerous

Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents! I hope everyone is having a fine November. To commemorate the month, I donned Ugg boots, strapped a pack of caribou to my sled, and navigated them to my local coffee shop for a pumpkin spice latte. I’m only kidding, of course. I live in Jersey, and snow has yet to fall where I am. Also, I find pumpkin spice lattes to be overrated and tolerable at best. I’m not joking about the Ugg boots though. I rock those things on the beach.

(Here is where I would have inserted a picture of me wearing Ugg boots and swimtrunks, which I actually did attempt to take for the sake of this post. The image did not come out properly. Think ‘newborn deer with hairy legs stumbling around with what looks like two broken feet.’ My sister’s Ugg boots are now five sizes too large. Sorry about that, Tal).

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Regardless, I’d like to talk to fellow writers for a moment about a dynamic that has been on my mind of late: Creation vs. Consumption.

Back in 6th grade English class (*cringe*), I used to write stories in a composition book. While my teacher was going on about what a pronoun was, I tuned her out so I could write. Why? Because I enjoyed reading stories, so I wanted to write one.

Over the course of my high school years, I directed two films, one a short and one a full-length production. Why? Because I enjoyed watching movies, so I wanted to make one.

I made a sandwich once. Why? Because my mother makes incredible sandwiches, so I wanted to make one. And I tried to, and it was a pathetic excuse for a sandwich (I apparently have a biological inability to spread peanut butter, cream cheese, or any other conventional spread using a knife).

And so, while I have learned in the classroom, watched movies, and eaten sandwiches (consumed), I have also written stories, made movies, and prepared sandwiches (created).

All while I’ve consumed things, I’ve used the calories I’ve taken from consumption and run miles with the energy provided to me. Because I simply can’t sit on all of the magnificent things I’ve watched and read. I’m inspired. I need to create. And I know that that is a feeling common amongst writers and artists alike.

Now, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with indulging. Consuming is learning. Consuming is inspiration. There is nothing wrong with watching Netflix or reading books or spending copious hours on YouTube watching car crashes captured by Russian dashcams. Let me reiterate. There is nothing wrong with consumption.

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But consuming while creating is, in my view, dangerous.

As my followers know, I am working to complete the first draft of my novel by January 1st, 2017. Right now, I’m in creation mode. As a result, I’ve decided to restrict my consumption. Not entirely, of course. I’ll be seeing a movie this weekend. I fire up Call of Duty World at War Zombies on occasion (shoutout to JTrain, my go-to Zombie partner). Needless to say, enjoyment is reasonable and healthy.

But I’ve abstained from Netflix excepting the rare Anthony Bourdain episode when I’m eating a meal, and I’ve mostly halted my extensive movies-to-watch and books-to-read lists. Why? Because there is true danger in consuming while creating. Here’s why.

5. Simply put, time spent binge-watching Netflix could be time spent writing.

I fired up the first episode of Sons of Anarchy the other day. I got through precisely one minute of it before I shut it off. I’ve been wanting to watch the show for months, now, but I felt obligated to put it on hold. I know myself. I know that if I take a liking to the show, it will leech my time. And time is valuable, especially when I am working toward a fast-approaching deadline.

When free time bestows its beautiful self upon me, I am faced with a choice. Should I write, or should I do something other than write? The correct answer should be the former. Sons of Anarchy and its friends cannot be an option right now.

Now, I understand that leisurely consumption is crucial for clearing headspace, and clear headspace is essential for writing. For me, however, a quality television show provokes thought rather than dispels it. Perhaps if I want to unwind I’ll watch the Eric Andre show or something completely mindless. Otherwise, forty minutes of television isn’t going to provide for a mind cleansing.

Sorry, Sons. You’ll have to wait.

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This show makes me cry with laughter. Quite literally.

4. What we watch and read often colors our writing.

Reading is the key to writing, but doing the two simultaneously doesn’t work for me personally. I understand that this view is unconventional, and, for some, completely contrary to their lifestyle, but hear me out.

What we read influences what we write. It’s kind of cool how it works, actually. The authors we read will leave a ghostly mark on our works, whether we like it or not. But when I’m working on something of my own, the freshest works I am reading tend to leave a bit more than a ghostly mark. I do not want to accidentally rip off a style or, even worse, content, because I just had to read the next book in the series and something there pressed an inspirational button. That is a risk that isn’t worth taking. I am obligated to write my story my way. There is no room for external meddling.

3. Consuming a complete work in all of its glory can be discouraging when put up against our measly drafts.

Masterfully-told stories are inspiring. They are fuel. Braveheart and Breaking Bad and the Great Gatsby have displayed the power of the story to an expert degree. Stories such as those are the reasons why writers work up the nerve to try our hands at creating something equally as compelling.

But when I’ve been struggling for days to get a proper word written and I stumble upon the film canon of Quentin Tarantino or the beautiful row of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series on the bookshelf not far from my desk, it’s hard to feel anything but defeated. “Tarantino and Jordan have created grand works that are beloved everywhere. And here I am unable to write a word.”

That kind of attitude, however uncommon it may be, is a threat to productivity. Self-defeating attitude is not helpful to writers. Avoid it. Focus on you and your work. Remember: Comparing a rock to a diamond before you polish the rock isn’t fair. Forget about the diamonds.

2. Indulging can lead to guilt.

For some, having a slice of pie is sinful. Why? Because some have established expectations for themselves. In reality, though, a slice of pie is alright. A slice of pie won’t send someone to the E.R. But nonetheless, when that person who is intent on dieting eats the pie to its last crumb, he or she feels guilty.

Much the same, I can absolutely allow myself some slack in the consumption department…except I won’t allow myself to. Otherwise I feel guilty. For real. ‘I should be writing. I want to write. Why aren’t I writing?’ Those are the thoughts I have when I spend my free time doing something less productive than working on my novel. Feeling guilty is no good. So I’m just going to keep writing.

1. Potential motivation is stifled by consuming that which we can restrict until our goals are met.

The joy of having a finished product is reason enough for celebration and treating ourselves, but might we work a little harder if we knew our favorite book series was waiting for us at the finish line? If the end of the tunnel was filled with the next season of that show or the sequel of that movie?

Assuming a mentality of “writing mode” in which consumption is essentially barred by prohibition and “not-writing mode” in which consumption is given the green-light would help to differentiate between what needs to be done and what is waiting for us after the storm. The rapture to be gleaned by switching from writing mode to leisure mode would be liberating. That liberation could serve as motivation itself.

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I realize that these ideas are cutthroat. The one-through-five list reads almost pessimistically. But I have always placed value in hard work. While writing itself may not be such a “serious” thing (we do it in our pajamas), the craft hinges upon discipline. And discipline is certainly a serious matter. I’ve never fallen into things lightly. Writing is no exception. If the thing isn’t kicking my ass, there isn’t a point in doing it.

To read somebody else’s take on abstaining from hobbies in the interest of writing, check out this excellent post from Roderick Wills, one of WordPress’ finest bloggers.

I’m interested in hearing what you have to say. Feel free to drop a comment!

And as always, stay classy.

~J.J Azar