Does your writing smell?

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jfw
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Does your writing smell?

Post by jfw » July 17th, 2010, 12:41 pm

I was telling someone recently about the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind. I had read it back in the '90s, enjoyed it immensely, and always figured they could never make a decent film version because so much of the novel focused on the sense of smell. But they did make a movie of it in 2006 and it's very good but not quite the same as the book.
The conversation got me to thinking about whether I employed any descriptions of the sense of smell in my WIP. There are numerous visual descriptions of course, as well as a decent amount of aural and tactile, and a few tastes, but nothing olfactory. As I revise I'll keep a lookout for areas where describing a smell might be needed to make the scene more immediate and memorable for the reader. I think it's a difficult sense to write about but the impact on the reader may be worth the effort. For example, though I never finished Ulysses, the odor of those kidneys cooking still haunts my imagination.
So does your writing smell and do you know any other published works that employ that sense well?

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AnimaDictio
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by AnimaDictio » July 17th, 2010, 1:48 pm

I recently finished The Song is You by Arthur Phillips, which I read because some lady on NPR said that it described sound so well, you could actually hear the music. That excited me because I'm a musician. It's a well written book but the plot irritated me (as did some of the characters) and I don't agree with the NPR lady about the music either.

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Mira
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by Mira » July 17th, 2010, 4:58 pm

This is really interesting. Taste too. One of the reasons why the book Charlie and the Chocolate factory, as good as the (original) movie is, adds a missing element.

Engaging the senses may be one of the reasons why books always seem to be better than the movie. (With one exception, imho, The Wizard of Oz - the movie is much better than the book.)

Although, with technology, maybe one day, they'll connect smell, touch, etc. to movies. I'm not sure if I'd want that or not!

But in the meantime, books have a very special and intimate connection to the writers' imagination.

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cheekychook
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by cheekychook » July 17th, 2010, 5:12 pm

Yes, my writing smells quite a bit. One of my characters cooks a lot and the aromas involved in that are described often. I also have a character who is pregnant during the book and her sense of smell is heightened by that, which gets frequent mention. The characters who are attracted to one another are also keenly aware of each others scents. I never really thought about it before---my novel stinks.
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Bohemienne
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by Bohemienne » July 17th, 2010, 10:55 pm

I always appreciate it when writers focus on senses beyond sight and sound, but on multiple occasions I've read some horrendously misguided attempts to throw in smells. One I recently read described a romantic interest as smelling like leather, cherries, soap, and mint all at the same time. Yuk! Try to find just that one perfect scent (or feel, or taste) and sharpen it.

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sarahdee
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by sarahdee » July 17th, 2010, 11:50 pm

Hmm, good question. There are parts of mine that smell, but after a quick glance through, there are more parts that taste....

I have no idea why either, I am actually vegetarian and have avidly described the taste and sensations of a dinner scene including Moules (which I have never eaten)...I just pretended I was Lloyd Grossman (UK presenter of Masterchef). I was probably just hungry when I wrote that scene...

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cheekychook
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by cheekychook » July 18th, 2010, 12:24 am

I agree, Bohemienne. When descriptions get overly tedious and specific I feel like it takes me out of the story while I try to imagine precisely what the author is trying to portray. I can't automatically conjure the smell of a combination of four scents in my head. For aromas I find it best to stick with something familiar (cookies, or caramel, or rain--- something that brings an immediate scent to mind). Often I think it's enough to keep it even simpler and say "sweet smell" or "scent so strong she cringed"---that way the reader gets an idea of what your character is smelling or their reaction without having to come up with a specific predetermined aroma. Too much specificity makes me feel like I am reading a pretentious wine review "a fruity, heady bouquet with hints of lavender, coriander and mulch"---what? I just want to know if I can serve it with chicken. (My apologies to any eonophiles reading this---I know wine is a very nuanced beverage, I just have a hard time with some of the descriptions. And the fact that I'm allergic to sulfites and can't drink wine doesn't help, but I digress...)

I think this applies to other sensations too. It's important to describe them, but it's also important to leave some of the experience of the sensation up to the reader's imagination. There was a recent discussion about this in another thread---describing colors either in a cliched way (chocolate brown, piercing blue, etc.) or by comparing it to something that makes the reader stop to think about what it would look like. Both of those are distracting to the reader and pull them out of the story rather than drawing them into the experience. I prefer to "feel it" myself. Was it such a striking color the character couldn't look away? Did the spicy food tingle its way through their sinuses? Was the smooth surface cool to the touch?Those are the kind of things I want to know---it will make me see a color in my mind that I wouldn't be able to take my eyes off, or feel the wasabi singing the back of my nose, or imagine the chill against my skin.

Obviously these are just my preferences. Plenty of people do like to have things described to the last detail. I also think genre and story dictate how precise the description should be and how much should be left to the reader's imagination. If you're creating a new world filled with unfamiliar creatures/flora/etc then describing them in great detail will help the reader get a sense of the place you've imagined. If, however, the place or circumstance is familiar (sitting in the kitchen while a friend cooks dinner, or your nose grazing your lover's hair during an embrace) then I think a description that allows the reader to bring in their own memory will enhance the experience.
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PaulWoodlin
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by PaulWoodlin » July 18th, 2010, 8:26 am

I enjoyed "Perfume" too, and another novel called "Chocolate" which was obviously more about taste.

I don't think people should feel bad about not understanding wine. I read an article about a critic who had a nose almost as accurate as a dog's and he made a lot of enemies saying the differences between wines were largely imaginary.

Down the well
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by Down the well » July 18th, 2010, 9:37 am

This is an interesting question, and yes, yes it does. Some days it smells like melon rinds rotting in the summer heat.

I do think that the sense of smell, unlike the other senses, has the ability to transport. What I mean is that certain smells evoke certain emotional responses. I know that whenever I smell freshly cut grass I am immediately pulled back into the happy days of my childhood. The scent of it reminds me of eating popsicles, riding my bike, and running through the sprinklers, etc. Every time.

I try to pay close attention to other scents that do this for me. The smell of cinnamon. The smell of Vick's vapor rub. Certain perfumes. My sister always put WAY too much perfume on and now every time I catch a whiff of White Linen perfume I want to gag -- even if the person wearing it was discreet in their application. Coincidentally, this is the same sister who wasn't always that nice to tag-along-me.

No question smell is an important sense to take advantage of in writing, but I think I like it best when it has that emotional tie to it.

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Robin
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by Robin » July 18th, 2010, 7:50 pm

Great post. I just finished reading "Word Painting" by Rebecca McClanahan and it addresses the importance of using senses other than sight. I went through my MS and tried to incorporate more senses into the scenes, which made it stronger.

Highly recommend it.
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AnimaDictio
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Re: Does your writing smell?

Post by AnimaDictio » July 18th, 2010, 8:20 pm

The smell of gunpowder always takes me back to my Army days. Alaga syrup and molasses are the smells of my grandmother's house.

I agree that one or two well chosen words can do more description work than a whole list of specific attributes. I think the key is to find that one element which, alone, reveals all the other elements to the reader. Some phrases come with their own schema. For example, a "goose stepping man" probably has square shoulders, a tight frame, maybe a bushy mustache. Or the "free-spirited barista girl" probably has dread locks and a few facial piercings.

I think that's why some smells work, like rain or rotten meat or cigarette smoke and others don't. "He smelled like a well-oiled saddle" wouldn't go over so well with my friends.

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