Tuesday, November 24, 2015


post by Mary Gillgannon

I’ve often heard the relationship between a writer and an agent compared to a marriage. For the relationship to work, you and your agent have to have similar goals, be able to communicate well and ideally, have that little something extra called chemistry.

But if the author/agent relationship is like a marriage, then finding the right agent is like getting a date to the prom back in high school. You may yearn for the hunky star quarterback or the gorgeous head cheerleader, but ultimately have to settle for the nerdy but cute guy in your chemistry class, or the pretty, quiet girl who sits next to you in English. For a beginning author, the top-tier agents are probably out of your league. Although it doesn’t hurt to query them (if they accept queries; a lot of the big names don’t). But realistically, established, well-known agents usually have all the clients they want. Even if they have the time and resources to take on more clients, they’re interested in authors who are already published and moving up in their careers.

For the beginning author, the key to the writer/agent dating game is finding someone who is willing to take a chance on an unknown writer. And that’s probably going to be someone starting out, either a “junior” agent at an established agency, or someone who has recently started their own agency. But going with someone new has risks. They may have been a successful editor or have other publishing experience, but that doesn’t mean they will be a good agent. Or, more importantly, a good agent for you. And one of the other axioms of the agency business is: A bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

How is that possible? I had two agents who were wonderfully supportive and who said everything I wanted to hear. They were willing to talk about my career and my future at length, but they never sent out my manuscripts. I’ve had numerous friends with similar experiences. Why would an agent do that? Well, some people love books and authors and think being an agent is a perfect fit for them, but they don’t like to sell. And ultimately, that’s what being an agent is. It’s selling. And it takes a certain kind of person who is willing to do that. Selling means risking rejection, which is something almost everyone dislikes. I had another agent who was willing to try to sell my books and face rejection up to a point. But when she got rejected too many times, she dumped me.

There are other really bad things an agent can do. Like steal from you. In the typical publishing contract, all monies paid by your publisher go through your agent. They get your advance and royalty checks, deduct their commission and send the balance on to you. Or not. Although uncommon, there have been cases where authors had to go to court to get the money owned to them.

More common are agents who charge hundreds of dollars for editorial services as a requirement of representation, but who have no expectation of selling your work. They will tell you they need to fix your manuscript before they submit it. In this day of self-publishing, paying for editorial services is perfectly legitimate. But it gets tricky when those services are connected to the agent relationship. You need to investigate whether the so-called agent makes most of their income from editorial fees, or from commissions on selling books. Hiring a “book doctor” is one thing. Finding an agent to represent you in the marketplace is another.

I’ve made finding an agent sound like a veritable minefield of potential problems. But a lot of things in life are like that. Consider it like buying a car. If you can afford to go to a top dealer and buy the latest brand-new model, your risk that you will be dissatisfied goes down substantially. But in the writing world, often the only people who have that option are authors who are already published and successful. The rest of us have to go to the used car dealer and take our chances.

Even then there’s a lot we can do to ensure we will be happy with our purchase. We can do research and find out what other consumers have experienced with that particular dealer, as well as that make and model of car. There are a lot of sites on-line that provide information on agents and give authors’ experiences. On the whole, writers are a very generous bunch and natural communicators. So if we have a bad experience, we eagerly share it.

Mary Gillgannon, 2015
NOVEL WRITING UNIVERSITY--Free learning opportunity!

For more tips and pointers on finding the perfect agent, join Mary and fellow authors Amanda Cabot and Joanne Kennedy for the second Novel Writing University program on January 30th at the Laramie County Library in Cheyenne.

This day-long session will also cover query letters and contract negotiation. For more information on the program, contact: mgillgannon1@hotmail.com

Mary Gillgannon is the author of sixteen novels, including a Celtic historical fantasy and historical romances set in the dark age, medieval and English Regency time periods. Foreign editions of her books have been published in China, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands. She is married and has two children. Now that they’re grown, she indulges her nurturing tendencies on three very spoiled cats and a moderately spoiled dog. When not writing or working—she’s been employed at Cheyenne's public library for over twenty-five years—she enjoys gardening, reading and travel.

Recent Releases:
Call Down the Moon, a reincarnation/time travel romance
Wicked Wager, a Regency romance

You can also connect with Mary at:
Website: http://marygillgannon.com
Blog: http://marygillgannon.blogspot.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MaryGillgannonAuthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MaryGillgannon

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's an Editor, Not the Voice of God

by Susan

A good editor can help pull the weeds from your writing.
But they shouldn't replant your entire garden.
A good editor can pull the weeds that are choking your writing. They can find the places where it doesn't flow and suggest relevant additions, places where you may need to go deeper.

They are also human. They're not always right.

I've done my share of overzealous editing and had to apologize afterward. As they say, the greatest drive is not to love nor hate, but to edit ...change ... revise ...alter ... modify ... rewrite another's copy. I am not the only person who's taken it a smidge too far.

The trick as a writer is knowing when to listen, when to push back, and when to walk away.

Not long ago, I shared my decision to withdraw an essay from an anthology due to an excessive demand for rights. That, however, was not the only issue. Heavy-handed editing was the other.

It's OK to push back sometimes.
As the revisions went back and forth, and the conversations took place by email, I felt I was pushed into an agenda that was not mine. I wanted to focus on the personal experience while they had a political bent. I had the feeling they had an ax to grind, and they wanted me to at least whet the stone for them. I found my words making a point I did not want to make.

I was frankly relieved I had another reason to walk away and didn't have to fight that fight. I do not regret it.

On the other hand, I had an editor contact me wanting to publish a poem, provided I agreed to some revisions. My first reaction was, "No, no, no! Mine, mine, MINE!!" Mercifully, I didn't respond in that state. On second review, they were right. I accepted their guidance, and they published the poem.

So how do you know what to do? The first step is to do what's recommended between drafts: let it rest. Set it aside for a day. Read it with fresh eyes when you're not smarting from the implication that your writing is less than perfect.

Then ask yourself a few questions. Are you simply resisting for the sake of resisting? Many of us have encountered the writer in a group who asks for a critique, then rejects every suggestion on the spot. Don't be that person.

But are they merely pulling the weeds, or replanting the garden completely? Does it no longer sound like you? (Ideally, it should sound like a better version of you.) Are they pushing you to a conclusion that's not yours?

When an editor suggests revisions, give their suggestions thoughtful consideration. They have greater experience shaping words into a finished, publishable piece. You won't lose your identity as a writer if you accept some changes.

Editors are also human. They're not always right. It's OK to push back. It's OK to walk away. It's your decision.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


post by Lynn

There’s nothing like being on the receiving end of a good critique. I also relish the job of critiquing the work of my writing buddies.

I’m currently in Week 9 of a 10-week online writing course: Writing the Personal Essay, offered through Creative Nonfiction. I am learning lots and working hard—so much so my creative muscles are starting to burn. I love it.

And my fellow students are amazing:

A Pakistani-born physician mining her experiences as a breast cancer survivor;

A mechanical engineer trying to build his shards of memory into something solid;

A British mother living with her Syrian husband in the Gulf who struggles to fit writing in between cleaning bottles and “sucking mash potato from the inside of the high-chair belt lock.”

And many others. A lot of good essays are being developed and bandied about.


This class has reminded me of how much you can learn from critiquing the work of other writers. Our instructor, Barrett Swanson, calls them “peer reviews.”

But answer me this: why is it that when we read somebody else’s writing, we can spot the bumps, wrinkles and glitches, yet they are invisible to us in our own works? Why, why, why?

Here are some things I have run into while reading the essay drafts of my classmates. Each “mistake” I discover is a blessing as it reminds me what to do/not do in my own essays:

“A question often lurks at the heart of a personal essay. What don’t you understand? What can’t you do?...”
 - Adair Lara 
The hardest part of writing an essay seems to be finding the center.

In each of my peer reviews, I usually have a list of “what this essay is about” because it seems early drafts have a tendency to wobble off in many directions.

For example, in an essay by a woman who moved from Scotland to the U.S. as a child, the list of “what this essay might be about” included:

  • Your emotions about the ocean 
  • Your emotions about your ex-husband 
  • The ways that becoming American changed your family 
  • Your brother’s rise and fall 
  • How your brother’s death estranged you from your adopted country 

While you don’t have to zoom in on one single theme, four or more possible themes—each with a centrifugal force of its own—bounces the reader off a lot of walls. Ka-thunk—the brother; ka-thunk—the ocean. Ka-thunk—the ex-husband. You get what I’m saying?

I always point out that each item on the list could probably be the center of its own essay. One draft equals many opportunities!

Dinty Moore, in a Writer’s Digest article about writing reader-friendly essays, uses a streetcar analogy to discuss the importance of being clear about your destination:
“An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.” 
Clear destination—smooth ride—enjoyable reading experience.

“Words have been used too often; touched and turned, and left exposed to the dust of the street. The words we seek hang close to the tree, we come at dawn and find them sweet beneath the leaf.”
- Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room 
“Cut to the chase” and “ace in the hole” and language of that ilk really does water down the story. I know this in theory, but when I encounter stale phrases in these essays from my class, I am re-inspired to avoid them—not like the plague, but like a car ride with a diarrhea-prone Pomeranian.

Here's a resource for us all: The ClichéSite. It lists hundreds of clichés to avoid, organized A to Z.

Note: clichés are allowed in dialogue, since we can’t control what our characters have said or will say.

Finding fresh language takes effort, but we owe it to our readers. After all, they are taking time out of their busy lives to consume our words. Let’s give them something fresh-picked instead of words that have sat on the counter way too long.

“When you lose simplicity, you lose drama.” - Andrew Wyath 
Many of the early drafts of essays tend to go on too long and over-explain things that the reader “got” a long time ago.

I am reminded that every scene, description and scrap of dialogue must be vetted. If it doesn’t add to the targeted theme, it should be subtracted from the essay.


I appreciate all the missteps that my classmates have made, because critiquing their essays helps me to be a better editor of my own writing.

Fortunately, a couple of people in my class (and the instructor, of course) have worked really hard on reviews for my essay drafts, and that is a very cool thing.

I have committed all of the afore-mentioned mistakes and more. My peer reviewers gently point them out to me, which allows me to approach the next draft with a much clearer vision of what needs to be fixed.

Lest you think I am too harsh on my classmates, I always start my peer reviews with what I liked best about the essay (in great detail, quoting from their work), and end with a call to push on to the next draft.

Writers need all the encouragement we can get!

What about you? Do you think that critiquing the work of other writers has made you a better writer?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Wheel of the Year: A Writer's Workbook

by Susan

Having attended her workshops and retreats, when I heard Linda M. Hasselstrom had a book on writing out, I knew I needed it.

The Wheel of the Year: A Writer's Workbook provides 16 seasonal essays on writing with accompanying suggestions and exercises. Linda divides the year into eight seasons, not four, so the book covers a span of two years:
Eight seasons, instead of 12 or only four, seem to correspond much more closely with the way the natural world arranges itself around us, creating the rhythms of our lives. Eight seasons more fully describe the subtle ways that the natural world changes throughout the year no matter where one lives. Organizing my writing life around the seasons that influence my body seems practical to me. On these eight occasions, I am reminded to particularly notice the natural world and its works and study how my writing is part of that world.
I consider Linda a mentor, and have benefited many times from her wise advice and from the copious handouts she gives to retreat-goers. Like many writers, I struggle to to balance my life commitments with my creative side. In the preface, I was particularly struck with her thoughts that our tasks and obligations are part of our writing, not a detraction from it:
I define the mundane world as the one most of us inhabit, with floors that must be vacuumed, toilets to be scrubbed, and the same dishes and clothes to be washed over and over and over again. These are the tasks writers often cite as the cause that they do not write, but I believe we can find rejuvenation for our writing in them. 
My friend and fellow writer Kathleen Norris has written several times, most notably in The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work," of the meditation that can be accomplished while doing these chores. She says that the "rejection of the sanctity of daily tasks was self-defeating in the long run," serving to alienate a woman not only from the wisdom of her mother and grandmothers, "but from the pleasure of cooking, serving and eating some very good food." Caring for a household is caring for those within it, respecting their lives and your own. Certainly this labor is a worthy subject of poetry or any other kind of writing.
In the seasons of the book, we just entered Samhain on October 31, considered to be the beginning of the Wiccan year in some circles. It's a beginning of sorts for me: I was born just before the end of October. "Women's work" takes on added weight when you think of the significance of the harvest:
Linda with her pumpkin harvest
In mid-October, when I seized any excuse to go outside on warm days, I gathered the last of the tomatoes and pulled the vines. I stored the pumpkins, onions and potatoes and added their leaves to the compost bin. Pulled the pea and bean vines and stuffed them under the berry bushes for mulch, to catch snow this winter. 
In days gone by, my prehistoric country ancestors spent these same days in harvesting their garden and bringing cattle and sheep down from their summer hillside pastures to sheltered stables. Just like the ranchers around me, they were harvesting hay to feed the animals during the winter. Some of the creatures were slaughtered for winter sustenance; in pagan times each death was dedicated with thanks to the gods of harvest. Fields were gleaned of barley, oats, wheat, turnips and apples because the ancients believed that on November 1, fairies would blast the growing plants with their cold breath. Peat and wood for winter fires were stacked high beside the hearth and in sheltered locations outside. Everyone in the family worked together baking, salting meat and making preserves, storing enough food so that the so the tribe could survive the winter.
Today, we don't generally worry that if we don't prepare adequately for the coming darkness that we won't eat. Yet, there is something to be said for preparing ourselves as writers for the dark, knowing it will again turn to light:
Every ending, though, is a beginning. The gates of life and death open together. A writer's observations at the ending of this season may grow into new work, a new writing life. To fend off the darkness of spirit that may descend on you in winter, make notes now and create a writing schedule to pursue each week, each month until the light returns. 
I look forward to delving into Samhain with Linda and experiencing the coming seasons with her through this book. I anticipate it will become one of the favorites on my writing shelf.


With 15 books in print, Linda M. Hasselstrom writes and conducts writing retreats in person and by email from her South Dakota ranch. Her most recent nonfiction title is The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, 16 essays with writing suggestions and resources. Her latest poetry book is: Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, poems with Twyla M. Hansen, Nebraska state poet. Find her at www.windbreakhouse.com/, and follow her on her blog and on Facebook

Excerpts from The Wheel of the Year used by permission of Linda M. Hasselstrom.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Guest post by Kurt Caswell 
Kurt Caswell, 2015

Kurt Caswell is a writer and wanderer. Originally from Alaska, he grew up in Oregon, has lived in Idaho and taught in places as varied as Japan, Arizona, California, the Navajo Reservation and even right here in Wyoming at Laramie County Community College (2002 – 2005).

He is currently associate professor of creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech in Lubbock.

Kurt is author of three nonfiction books:

Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents 

In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation

An Inside Passage (winner of the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize)

Kurt is an avid walker, and much of his new book, Getting to Grey Owl, is about walking. He makes a good case for the way walking can realign a person with the places they walk, with nature, and with themselves: their heart, mind, and body.

In today’s post, Kurt muses about the role that walking can play in the writing life.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Walking and “Purposiveness Without Purpose” 

You likely know this story about Wordsworth. In Grasmere one afternoon, an acquaintance came calling. Dorothy, Wordsworth’s sister, answered the door.
“Is Mr. Wordsworth within?” the fellow asked.
“Mr. Wordsworth is composing,” Dorothy answered.  
“Then I shall wait for him,” the fellow said. “I would like to speak with him when he comes out of his study.”  
“It might be some hours,” Dorothy said. “Mr. Wordsworth is not in his study. He always composes afoot.” 
To talk about walking and writing, there is no better example than William Wordsworth. Though if we were to compile a comprehensive list of writers who walk, it would be long indeed: to speak of a few masters let’s include: Kierkegaard, Rousseau, Basho, Thoreau, Coleridge, and William Hazlitt, Max Beerbohm, Virginia Woolf; then let’s add Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen, Robert MacFarlane, Sven Birkerts, Rory Stewart, Rebecca Solnit.

And yet, Wordsworth is the original walker, the walker’s walker, the poet who, as Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “made walking central to his life and art to a degree almost unparalleled before or since.”

Kurt Caswell, 2015
Wordsworth, writes Solnit, “seems to have gone walking nearly every day of his very long life, and walking was both how he encountered the world and how he composed his poetry.” It was, for him, not only a means of traveling, but also a way of being. He was apparently able to compose while walking, and then write the results out later. His sister Dorothy recorded in her journal many of her walks with her brother, and of July 12, 1800, she writes, “walked along the Cockermouth road—he [Wordsworth] was altering his poems.”

Though Wordsworth did a fair amount of pacing, particularly in his garden at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where he could see out onto the lakes and the mountains beyond, he is best known for taking the walk out of the garden and into the countryside. Gardens are for the wealthy to walk in; poor people walk the public roads, and Wordsworth wanted to be a poet of the people.

If Wordsworth worked as he walked, then this seems to fly in the face of what contemplative practice is, and that is, rather, to not work while walking. You meditate or practice yoga or go out on a walk to take a break from your writing, and somehow by not thinking of your writing, you return to it all-the-better prepared to write. So it sounds counterproductive to say that Wordsworth composed while walking.

In his lecture “William Wordsworth Walking,” scholar Malcolm Hayward makes sense of this conundrum. He writes, “To put the problem in simple terms, in the poems, the experiences that happen to the walker, have to happen in the context of non-directed, non-purposeful walking, in contra-distinction to, for example, what Dorothy termed ‘walking industriously’ . . . For the idea of the poetry to work, in [Wordsworth’s] walking, the poet has to work at not working.” Somehow by not thinking, or not working while walking, the work is served.

In his essay, Hayward references Kant who explored “‘purposiveness without purpose,’ and “note[s] that it is ‘the mere form of purposiveness in the representation by which an object is given to us, so far as we are conscious of it.’” I think this means that on a walk, the universe offers us objects of meaning, and though we are conscious of these objects, their purpose is not yet clear—we do not think too hard on them while walking. Purpose will arise later in the writing, but so long as the writer walks, the object is present without being troubling. “In walking as work,” Hayward writes, “Wordsworth must retain the ‘form of purposiveness’ without falling into the abyss of actual purposefulness.” Once the walk becomes utilitarian, its benefits vanish. If you go out walking to fix your poem, you will fail. If you go out walking to go out walking, you will fix your poem. Wordsworth walks without a purpose and with a purpose at the same time.

Kurt Caswell, 2015
This is true also of Sven Birkerts, who writes in his book, The Other Walk, “Walking—thinking by way of the body, the feet and legs, filtering the immediate world with senses on high—I’m so much more open to the whims of association than I am when I’m at my desk with my lineup of plans in front of me. I also feel it—though not always—as a movement toward writing, for at a certain point in my circuit, I can’t say how this happens, a different kind of sifting of words begins. . . . for these words and phrases are quickly taken up into the body’s rhythm.”

Walking is a contemplative practice, a practice that offers a reprieve from, and an ignition for, art. Going out for a walk each morning or afternoon to make a space for the work is a contemplative practice suitable to most anyone.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Lynn chimes in… 

I met Kurt Caswell when he presented at LCCC’s 2014 Literary Connection. My husband, Mike, and I were struck by Kurt’s improbable combination of gentleness and intensity. He read from his work and we were so enticed by Kurt’s sensory, insightful writing that we picked up a couple of his books.

His most recent book, Getting to Grey Owl: Journeys on Four Continents, chronicles over twenty years of Caswell’s travels as he buys a rug in Morocco, rides a riverboat in China, attends a bullfight in Spain, climbs four mountains in the United Kingdom, and backpacks a challenging route through Iceland’s wild Hornstrandir Peninsula.

Learn more about Kurt and his writing at www.kurtcaswell.com.

If you are a fan of traveling, culture, landscapes, walking and wildlife, you’ll find anything Kurt writes to be pleasurable reading. If you are simply a fan of good, thoughtful and thought-provoking writing, I suggest you put Kurt Caswell on your reading list.

Now--time for my morning walk!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How Much to Reveal? How Much to Conceal?

by Susan

1992 selfie. Would you let your daughter run off with this guy? Seriously?
In 1992, I was 24, just back from a four-month job working at a hotel near Denali National Park in Alaska. I announced to my family that I was moving to Utah with a man I met over the summer to be a ski bum, and no, we didn't have any marriage plans.

You can only imagine my mother's joy...

When Mom died in 2013, I asked for and received her diaries. One day I sat on the floor going through the notebook from 1992, looking for bits of my life filtered through my mother's words. I finally found the entry from the day she met this man:

"Sue's friend Brian came by. He seems nice."

That was it. End of story.

Ah, Willa, we hardly knew ye.
I wanted to know what my mother had been thinking about it all, but, as my siblings told me, she was so afraid someone would be offended by something she wrote that she wrote very little, other than noting the weather and what they had for dinner.

Mom was not writing memoir, but the question of how much to reveal is a big one for those of us who are. We might need to protect ourselves from repercussions. We face ethical issues when writing about others.

Sometimes we need to tread lightly, but not risking exposure actually carries a risk. If we cut out everything that might distress or offend, we can be left with nothing that will move the reader, nothing that will connect with them. Intimacy with the reader requires vulnerability on our part.

I thought I'd offer a few quotes:
Linda Joy Myers on her blog:
"Each of us decides how much to expose our private self. Ask yourself: does the piece show a side of yourself that no one else knows? Are you writing about events you’ve never told anyone about before, exposing secrets? Are you afraid of being judged by who you were or who you are now? Do these questions make you move away from the computer? Remember, in a first draft no one will see the writing but you. Take a risk and write, whether in a class, workshop, or at your private computer, moments that you’ve been afraid to encounter, give yourself permission to discover layers of your truths, and keep writing to explore and expose yourself."

Ted Kooser in Writing Brave and Free on writing about others in our memoirs:
"In writing as in life, there seem to be many ways of looking at the matter of tact and candor. Some writers act as if candor were the same thing as courage, others as if it were pure folly. Some writers act as if tact were simple common courtesy, others as if it were cowardice."
Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird:"We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you've already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer's job is to see what's behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words..."
I often struggle with how much to expose in my writing. What I've learned is that the one person I cannot conceal things from is myself. If you have something you are writing around, write it for yourself only. Get it on paper in your personal journals. Write it fully and truthfully. You can decide later if it's worth sharing.

(For the record, 23 years later, Brian and I are happily married. Not every seemingly impulsive decision is a bad one.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


guest post by Sheila Bender

Lynn here:

Let me introduce you to the author of today's guest post...

Sheila Bender is founder of WritingItReal.com, a community and resource for those who write from personal experience. A poet, memoirist and personal essayist, she offers online classes and often teaches at writers’ conferences.

Sheila's two newest books are now available on line under the Writing it Real banner: Writing In A Convertible with the Top Down and Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief.

After my stepdaughter died in 2012 my writing life seemed frozen. I decided I needed something to warm me up, so I registered for an online class with Sheila. The class, Writing Healthy Starts, did the trick. The writing exercises that Sheila shared with my online classmates and me were sparks that got the writing fire going again, and for that I am forever grateful. 

Let’s see what Sheila has to say that will kindle the fire today… 


When we talk about not having enough time to write, it's time to spend a few minutes on some exercises. In small bits of time, we can sharpen our skill in evoking experience as well as our trust in associations. 

This helps us not only want to arrange longer stretches of time for writing but also to enjoy our writing time and its results much, much more. 


First and foremost, creative writing is a re-creation of experience--experience we had or are having in the world. Experience is lived through the five senses--it is what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch that add up to form our attitudes, help us take actions and create dreams. If your writing does not include details and images that appeal to the five senses, you will not be immersed in your experience when you are writing about it. Without the necessary immersion, you will become disinterested in your own efforts because your words will seem shallow and dull and ultimately short-circuit your ability to mine your experience for insight and deeper knowledge. 

Imagine you think a philodendron in your living room is “beautiful.” As a writer you need to evoke an experience of beautiful, not sum it up with that intangible word. If you say, "The leaves on the philodendron in my living room had variegations that reminded me of tributaries on the maps I loved to read when I was in grade school," you are setting up experience that can not be gotten to by labeling the leaves beautiful. 

A way to learn how to create sensory images that will lead to useful and surprising writing is to practice using comparisons (similes) in your writing. A facility with similes (and ultimately metaphor) will enliven your writing and your view of what you are writing about. It will allow you to access more and more of your experience. You can practice this simply by saying one thing looks like, smells like, tastes like, sounds like or feels like another thing: 

A mirror looks like a lake. 

A cornflake in a bowl of milk looks like a dolphin swimming in the ocean. 

A shoe with its lace untied looks like a toaster with its electric cord unplugged. 

Working with the like construction, you encourage your simile-making mind to tell you what you might want to be writing about: 

I sit at my desk like a marionette with no one holding the strings. 

The 30 student papers on poetry in my briefcase are a thick sandwich. 

Dressed up in the front seat of my husband's convertible without a scarf on my head, I see my hair in the visor mirror as the madly waving fronds of a stately palm tree. 

It may seem a little harder with sound than when evoking feelings and visual images, but try it: 

The sound of a train going by in the distance is like the sigh of a ghost. 

The ocean crashing against the shore sounds like the blood in my veins heard through a stethoscope.

The tones and tunes of cell phones ringing in the purses and pockets of Los Angeles restaurant diners at lunchtime make even the most sedate and refined establishments sound like carnivals. 

Now do it with smell: 

The smell of clothes fresh from a dryer is like the smell of bread baking. 

The smell of the charcoal grill after the fire's died down is like my girlfriend's clothes after the fire in her apartment. 

Smell of Jasmine flowers as I walk by is the smell of my grandmother's dress as I clung to the folds.

Write what you taste in this way, too. Instead of the usual bitter, sweet, salty or bland use this exercise to more fully describe the tastes of things in your experience. 

Oxtail soup tastes like already chewed gum. 

That freeze dried vegetable patty tasted like dirty socks. 

Think of something you are very familiar with touching--an article of clothing, soapy dishwater, a pot scrubber, your cat, a garden rake, the driver's wheel of your car, for instance. Write about the feel of it in detail, using simile: 

I plunge my hands into the soapy dishwater in the white Rubbermaid tub in my sink. It is warm as the morning coffee I sip and swallow. It slides over my skin like my cat's moist tongue when she is licking me. It feels buoyant around my hands like risen dough. I keep my hands in the soapy water before I pull the first dish out because I like feeling like a goldfish must in a bowl by the sunlight from a nearby window. 

I am surprised by how much I like washing dishes! Perhaps if I chose something else, I would be surprised by dislike: 

When I put my hands inside my pantyhose gathering it so I can slip my toe inside, my fingers snag the fiber like rough little emery boards. I pull the hose up along my ankle, calf, and thigh and feel its pressure grip my skin. At first I like the way the hose seems to hold my skin together like the bread of an orange under the peel. But when my two hose-covered legs brush against each other, I feel each leg begin to itch. I want to take the hose off then and when it is at my ankles, I feel the downward pull, a sensation like I have in my stomach when the elevator goes up. 

In addition to practice creating similes, try this exercise for gathering sensory information: 

Write down three smells you are aware of right now--i.e. your soap, something cooking, burning oil from a car going by, the smell of water from a hose, charcoal in the grill, baby powder on a toddler after bath time, sunlight on a cat's fur, the new plastic smell of casings on electronic components. Choose one and think of what the smell reminds you of. 

Write about your memory starting out by saying, "I sit here and smell _________. This smell brings me back to ______________. That's when I_________. 

Here's my outcome: 

I sit here and I smell the pages and binding glue on my new book. This smell brings me back to flour paste and paper mache days in my Brownie troop and grade school. That's when I made maracas by coating burned out light bulbs with strips of newsprint soaked in non-toxic paste made of flour and water. Strip by strip we covered the bulbs, layer upon layer of newsprint, until none of the glass we'd started with shown through. I think we must have waited for layers to dry before we added more wet newsprint over them, smell of a wet dog, I think. Somehow our teachers knew when it was time for us declare the musical instruments done. Somehow the glass got smashed without our damaging the paper mache casing we'd painstakingly created. Then we painted our instruments bright colors. They began to smell like new patent leather shoes. I think we must have used them, broken glass both hitting and missing the beat, the sound of multi-vitamins in a jar when I lift them from the breakfast table. 

Keep writing for 10 or 15 minutes remembering to include more smells from that remembered time.

Because taste is an underused sense in our writing, here's another way to practice using it: Put something edible in your mouth. Keep it there awhile before you chew it. What does it taste like so far? Then bite into it and write what it tastes like a little more dispersed in your mouth. Now chew it and describe the taste. Now swallow it and describe the taste left in your mouth. 

An example: Soybean 

I roll you around with my tongue and you are wet from the rinsing I gave you and you are cold from the refrigerator so you taste a little like a glass of water. I bite into you and I taste the smallest flavor of salt, as if there were a single tear on my tongue. When I chew you up good, I am surprised by the taste of something just a bit like the smell in the stagnant puddle the gardener's hoses leave at the foot of my apartment's driveway. It is so vague, though, that it is not at all unpleasant. I swallow and you leave the taste of grass when I was a child, sucking on a blade in summer

You can also practice using the sense of taste when you are trying to define intangible emotions: 

My anger is cayenne pepper in my mouth. 

When I make my college students laugh, it's as if I have seltzer bubbles in my mouth. 

My children's hopes and dreams taste like vanilla and honey in gently warmed milk. 

Then work with using other senses to evoke what you might have only used intangible words to name. You'll find that your descriptions of experience seem accurate and often also surprising.

Lynn here again

Thanks Sheila! I’m fanning some flames as we speak. 

I'd like to offer a challenge to our blog readers: 

If you are so inclined, post something in the comments section that came to you as a result of Sheila's encouragement to tiptoe through the senses.

I will if you will!