Soundless in Seattle

Got sensory processing issues? Dying for a moment of silence while you’re trying to write your novel? Suffering from every possible distraction the outside world throws at you? Have I got a solution for you!

Well, maybe.

I don’t know. But I have a solution for me, and everyone knows that blogs are people talking to themselves and pretending like their advice applies to everyone, anyways. So here’s my deal, and if it’s your deal too, then congrats, you can benefit from my discoveries.

Sound is my number one distraction when I’m trying to focus. Whether it’s writing or studying or reading, if there’s conversation or television, there’s a good chance I’m not going to be getting anything done. Even music is often too much, especially music with words. Trying to write words and listen to them at the same time is the ultimate maddening experience. Instrumental music is okay sometimes, but even that can be a gamble. So, what is an auditory-sensitive kiddo like myself supposed to do? Who will save me from this plight?

Enter the sound of rain.        

Growing up in Florida, rain pattering on the roof was a staple of living, and for me, one of the most soothing sounds to have ever been invented. It’s the child of white noise and a monotone musician, the heir of the uniform/unique throne. Whenever we got a good rain, I would sit out on the porch with my laptop and write, and it would calm my brain right down.

You say, well that’s great, Herb, but what if I want to write when it’s not raining?

Hmmm. Yeah, too bad, huh? I guess you’ll have to move to Seattle if you ever want to finish that novel. If only there were lots and lots of rain soundtracks that you could stick in your ears at any time, available from anywhere, instantly creating a soft, un-distracting barrier between you and the outside world.

PSYCH of course I’ve got those resources queued up for you. Have fun writing in peace, fellow auditory angst pals.

A website that is nothing but a fifteen minute loop of nature rain.

A website that lets you control the ratio of rain sound to background cafe sound.

A Spotify playlist of different rains. (Some of these are too loud or quiet for me, but you can pick and choose from them and put one on repeat if you find one you really like).

White noise Spotify playlist. (I don’t use this because it makes me feel like I’m stuck in a liminal space between life and death where my mentor will appear out of nowhere, probably wearing white, and ask me if I wish to live and finish the fight I definitely didn’t start, or if I want to pass on in peace. But maybe that’s what gets your writing brain going.)

Adverbs and Mood Ring Robots

I recently re-watched Dead Poets Society. As always, it was tragic yet uplifting, unique yet cliche. I watched the credits roll by, thinking about the dangers of oppressive systems and the devaluation of art, mulling over the impact of literature and those who teach it.

I also found myself thinking about adverbs. There’s a line in the film, spoken by the English teacher John Keating, “A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. And don’t use very sad. Use… morose!” He’s right, of course. Saying someone is exhausted is far more evocative than saying they’re very tired. Not only that, but it’s a syntactically tighter description. So why are adverbs so frequently banned when they can save you loads of lengthy description? I remember learning to avoid them in my creative writing classes—professors told me that they’re lazy—but what about them is lazier than describing someone as exhausted?

man in white shirt using macbook pro

Let’s say you’re trying to describe a student during finals week. You could tell me they’re exhausted. That’s succinct, accurate, and yet it’s not as immersive as saying they are, for example, drowning in the waters of a deep and endless night where sleep evades their every move and a single moment stretches on and on towards an endless horizon of rusty minute hands. Is one worse than the other?

The truth is, adverbs aren’t an unequivocal poison to good writing. The trouble arises from—and here’s the plot twist that you wanted to be interesting but instead is a poor usage of deus ex machina—showing versus telling.

One thing you can do is replace the adverb with specific actions or movements. If you want your reader to know that Jemima was walking slowly, you could just as easily say that Jemima dragged her feet. If Joaquin giggles nervously, he might as well giggle and try to take a sip from his drink, but end up spilling it down his shirt. Like “very tired” versus “exhausted,” the second brings vibrancy to the scene.

But maybe you are correctly thinking that you can’t do that every single time. That’s okay, because there are plenty of other options. Similes can be great for specific description: Jemima walked like she had boulders glued to her feet. Joaquin giggled like he had just told a bad joke in front of his crush. Similes are useful if you want to evoke a niche emotion that the reader is familiar with, but perhaps has not thought of in those terms before.

You can also use dialogue to convey these sentiments:

“Jemima, keep up!” Jimothy shouted from the opposite side of the intersection.  

“Joaquin, man, relax. You’re going to ace this interview.”

Now, I’m going to go ahead and put a warning tag on this method, because while you shouldn’t be afraid to use your surrounding characters to tell the audience what’s going on, you also don’t want to go crazy with it. There’s nothing more annoying than a character who is there for the sole purpose of telling the reader information that the author wants you to know but can’t figure out how to tell you, often because the main character doesn’t know or wouldn’t express the sentiment out loud.

Joaquin being told that he looks nervous works well once or twice, but imagine he’s being followed around by someone who’s constantly shouting, “Joaquin, you look tired!” “You seem upset!” “You are elated due to the fact that you just conquered your mental block stemming from a hinted-at childhood trauma that was keeping you from using your pottery-making super powers!” Unless Joaquin has a trusty little robot friend whose main function is to act as a high-tech mood ring—which, now that I’m writing it, sounds dope—then that dialogue would be ridiculous.

Anyways, there are two important things I’m trying to say here: 1) Joaquin the pottery superhero and his mood ring robot are the most interesting duo I’ve ever come up with and I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from stealing them. And 2) Most of the time adverbs are bad, but sometimes their simplicity is just the thing you need. As John Keating said, “Sometimes the most beautiful poetry can be about simple things… just don’t let your poems be ordinary.” Writing is all about knowing every tool you have at your disposal and learning to choose the one that will help bring the most clarity to your work.

“Do You Hear What I Smell?”

I was staring at one of the parts of one of the sentences in one of the drafts of one of the books I’m working on. If you write, you’re familiar with the situation; that one part has your arm bent backward and your bone is groaning, and you’re sweating acridly as your work hisses, “Screw youuu.” But you can’t back down, because you gave birth to this, and unless you’re some kind of Oedipal loser you can’t admit that you’re weaker than it.

There are only so many ways to describe a thing, right? And I don’t mean in the equally-frustrating “if I say the word ‘box’ again I will sound like a broken robot, but if I find other ways to describe it I will sound like a literal alien with a thesaurus.” I mean that some descriptive tropes have been around for so long that they don’t even register anymore when we read them.

Let me give an example for clarity: how would you describe the smell of an old book? Musky, earthy, perhaps even woody. But it’s a cloying scent, almost dusty.

And there it is. If you’re a reader, even a casual one, you’re probably familiar with all of the adjectives I just used. Ones like earthy. Cloying.

But I want to be striking. I want to stand out. Surprise!—this is the exact scenario with which I was struggling. I was trying to describe the smell of old books and failing fantastically. There’s something to be said about trying to tango around the trite so desperately, that you plant your foot into a big pile of ‘what drug was the author on,’ and not in the good Shel Silverstein kind of way. In a ‘this is disconcerting and my fear compounds’ kind of way, which is not necessarily what you’re aiming for when you write for young kids, as I do.

Fearing for my hair follicles, I huffed a deep sigh and tried to calm myself, casually voicing my problem to my boyfriend. Without missing a beat, he shrugged and said, “Why don’t you just cross senses?”

Aside from the fact that the flippant response said through a mouthful of PB & banana sandwich made me scowl, I also had no idea what that meant.

“It means like…using a sight to describe a smell, but directly. It can be either a metaphor or a simile. The idea you want to convey will still land. The old book smelled yellow. You instinctively know what I mean by that, right?”

The death-grip on me seemed to relax. I could breathe again.

The notion of crossing senses to renew descriptions resonates with me, and it’s not because I suspect I have the least powerful synesthesia ever. It’s because it adds another layer to what’s possible when you’re stumped creatively in a world full of tropes. To turn a noise into a mental image that evokes the same visceral response is kind of amazing, y’all. When used sparingly, it can resuscitate sentiments and become a point of pride where exhaustion reigned prior.

So, whether you knew about this already or you’re eager to try it out for the first time soon, that’s great! I just wanted to pass this along, from someone who didn’t go to college for creative writing, but whose partner did, in the hopes that someone else might find it useful.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to use this as my practice sheet.

“Her hair was summery,” turns into “Her hair looked like the tang of citrus.”

“His laugh was high-pitched,” turns into “His laugh like a knife on ceramic.”

“The flavors were very strong,” turns into “A freight train of flavor.”

“The cold was biting,” turns into “The cold was a sharp tinnitus.”

“The ending was abrupt,” turns into “A hiccup of an ending.”