Box, Wheel, and Book

I’m going to lose my cool the next time someone in a meeting tells me, “We need more out of the box thinking.”

Look, that phrase was innovative once upon a time. It was a new way of saying that you should strive to be original, go against the flow, look at things a different way.

Now? It’s about the laziest phrase you can possibly use — and you’re saying it to try to demand originality from someone else? Please!

While we’re at it, there are a few other phrases we’d all improve ourselves by forgetting:

  • You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Of course you can! There’s an entire industry devoted to book marketing. The entire point of modern book jackets is to give you the basic plot, tone, and target audience of any given book while you hold it in your hand unopened.
  • Stop trying to reinvent the wheel.” Why? We invent new versions of wheels all the time, and they are almost always an improvement — just ask Goodyear. Are you saying we should have stopped at the first wheel ever made, presumably chiseled out of rock or wood into a not-quite-circular shape?
  • We need to all get on the same page.” I’ll give you a pass on this one if, and only if, you are in a meeting that requires everyone to read along. (Because I’ve never yet attended such a meeting without at least two people trying to start reading a few pages in, no matter what the leader of the meeting tells them to do. Sigh.)

Sorry, I just had to rant.

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Smells Like Synonyms

If you read how-to books on improving your writing, one trendy idea you’ll encounter again and again is to “engage all 5 senses,” meaning that you should include details in your descriptions for: looks, sounds, touch, taste, and smell.

Smell is the killer. It’s so hard to work in descriptions of smells. Jasper Fforde, in his Thursday Next series, pokes fun at this by insisting that most of the items inside the world of books do not, in fact, have a smell. On the other end of the spectrum is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the protagonist of which sniffs more objects than a bloodhound (Claire often stops to analyze scents of things even when someone is holding a gun on her.).

Here’s the problem: we think of scents as something precise, which in turn makes them hard to describe in ways other than mentioning the thing they smell like. So if you’re describing a banana, it smells like … a banana and nothing else.

This is a theory I’ve been working on for a while. Stay with me here.

Anything that you see can be described in a number of ways, by selecting which elements to focus on. A person is comprised of so many blended features that you can’t take it all in at once. When you are introducing a character, you pick the things that mark them as different – hair is common, eyes, stature, build, how they hold themselves, perhaps an odd mannerism. There is a lot to work with. And describing how that person smells can involve a mixture of things they’ve been into .. but often it isn’t appropriate to the image you’re setting up to mention the smell of sweat/body odor that modern society tries to mask.

But when you’re talking about something simpler like an apple, it smells like a dang apple. Nothing else. And the smell has no components to break apart, because we take it in all at once.

And metaphors are a mess.

Let’s say you’re describing the color of a tomato. It’s red, sure, but you want to take it further. There are a million things in the red spectrum that you can compare it to: a rotten apple, the blush of a young maiden, the sunset, Rudolph’s nose. These things all work to not only evoke the color but also set the tone of how you want the reader to view the object.

Now let’s try that with the scent. Try saying that a tomato smells like “apples pickled in vinegar.” Well, first of all, they don’t. But just reading that sentence is apt to jumble your brain a bit because you’re asking people to summon two distinct smells and then try to merge them. That’s not something we do naturally. The mind rejects it and it crashes the story.

No, the only good way to describe a smell is simply to say what the smell is and let the reader take it from there. For example, go ahead and say it smells like a tomato. It gets right to the point and there’s nothing in the world that smells like a ripe tomato.

My point here is not that you should ignore the advice of using the “5 senses” in your writing. I just wish more people would take the next step in dispensing advice and warn against trying to handle scents the way you do other descriptions. All you really need to do to pull the reader in is mention the ambient aromas in the scene.

Why cats?

To me, writing is like throwing cats at trees – you send a lot of random thoughts flying through the air to see what sticks.

And, to be honest, most of it is pretty pointless.

I think that’s what holds so many of us back, in writing and in life. We try to find that line between what we think will entertain others and what we really enjoy doing ourselves. I only recently made the discovery that the best writing comes from doing something you don’t think anyone but yourself will enjoy. When you feel like you’re doing it for yourself, you can really loosen up and enjoy what you are doing. That excitement in the message carries through to the reader.

However, I firmly believe that proper research is essential, no matter what genre of fiction (or non-fiction) you are engaged in. And that is my downfall – I love research! Far too much. I will spend weeks, months, years researching concepts that may only involve a passing reference in a novel. Now it’s true, most of the areas I immerse myself in are because they are things I’ve taken an interest in myself, completely apart from the story, but they nevertheless have little use in my daily life.

I started this blog to share some of the most interesting tidbits I’ve uncovered. It isn’t my original research that I  am presenting, but the rants encasing them are all mine.

No writers that I know ever suffer from a shortage of opinions.