Details, Descriptions, & Imagery

Undoing Clichés & The Ant Who Wanted to See the Moon

By Your Salonniere

The first exercise borrowed from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Penguin’s Academic Series. We called this exercise, “Undoing a Cliché” where we listed as many clichés and over-used trite sayings as we could think of. Then we switched up the beginnings and endings, so we could take risks in our voice and startle our readers.

The students came up with startling images such as:

my feet are sicker than a dog

busy as a dog

busy as cats and dogs

Finally we ended with the an original prompt:

The Ant Who Wants to See the Moon Exercise #2

If you were a <FILL IN THE BLANK FROM THE BELOW> what kind would you be? cream flavor: ____________________________________________
2. furniture: ____________________________________________
3. time of day: ____________________________________________
4. animal: ____________________________________________
5. sea creature: ____________________________________________
6. article of clothing: ____________________________________________
7. plant or tree: ____________________________________________
8. kitchen item: ____________________________________________
9. body of water: ____________________________________________
10. architectural structure: ____________________________________________
11. fruit or vegetable: ____________________________________________
12. book: ____________________________________________
13. game: ____________________________________________

Now choose one, circle it, and anthropomorphize or personify it. For example, if you chose a book, think of your book title as a real paperback copy and write from the point of view of that book: where has it been? Where did it come from, library, bookstore, or Amazon, etc? Who’s hands has it been in? What kind of reader does the book like? What kind of reader is the book afraid of and why? Describe a day in the life of that paperback book? Where does it live? Who does it see? What would it like to do that it can’t? What is the book’s one heart’s desire? What is the book’s greatest fear and why? Put your book in a scenario where the greatest fear or desire is at stake. Be sure to use all seven senses (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound, balance, time) and to depict time, place, setting, other characters, appearance, weather, year, day of the week, hour, etc. In essence, tell a story about your chosen subject!


Writing Exercise: Using the template of “The History of the Moleskine notebook”

By Your Salonniere

You may be familiar with the history of the Moleskine notebook since enclosed within each bound journal is a crisply folded, thin leaflet that adds personality to these specially crafted artist’s and writer’s tools. In accordion folds, the leaflet outlines the history translated in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese.

Here’s an excerpt from the “The history of the Moleskine notebook” which you can use as a template for your own biography or the biography of one of your characters, your novel, your chapbook, your luggage, your character’s beloved food processor, or dog, and the list goes on.

The Legendary Notebook
It all started many years ago, with a pocket-sized black object, the product of a great tradition. The Moleskine notebook is, in fact, the heir and successor to the legendary notebook used by artists and thinkers over the past two centuries: among them Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and Bruce Chatwin. A simple black rectangle with rounded corners, an elastic page-holder, and an internal expandable pocket: a nameless object with a spare perfection all its own, produced for over a century by a small French bookbinder that supplied the stationery shops of Paris, where the artistic and literary avant-gardes of the world browsed and bought them. A trusted and handy travel companion, the notebook held invaluable sketches, notes, stories, and ideas that would one day become famous paintings or the pages of beloved books.

Read the rest here.

Your salonniere has drafted the history of Ruelle Electrique based on above:

It all started in two years ago at the start of January 2009 after reading an article in Poets and Writers on sustaining a literary community post-MFA. Ruelle Electrique is heir and successor to Enlightenment-era French salons run by salonnieres such as Madame d’Épinay, Sophie de Condorcet and Madame Roland. Frequented by writers and artists including luminary figures like Roz Ito, Virginia Jones, Roz Foster, Rio Liang and others, this electric salon offers a small digital corner to explore literary ideas and share in writerly dialogue. A trusted source for writers and artists. The salon hopes to inspire conversation that will generate stories and ideas, which, one day might become well known and shared among larger communities and greater audiences.

Today, the salon is synonymous with imagination, vision, and collaboration in both the real and virtual world. It is a refuge for writers, readers, and artists alike. With the diverse array of topics and interests, the salon is a place for creative souls to gather. With Ruelle Electrique, the age-old practice of conversation allows for sustained dialogue on passing and pressing fancies for literary communities.

Now you try! Send us your histories of fill-in-the-blank, here at the salon and let us know how this exercise worked for you.


“You Only Have to Play One Note”

In Little Debauches, Other Bohemian Activities on January 13, 2011 at 8:52 am from Stanford Opera

By Your Salonniere

Borrowing a note or two, pun intended, from the world of music, in Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times video “Musicial Motifs in Tosca” he demonstrates to audiences how the opera composer Puccini developed unforgettable characters through themes, mini-themes, and motifs in his score for Tosca. Puccini employed specific themes to “enhance the emotional power of the work and to trigger responses from listeners.” He demonstrates the most famous leit motif of the opera, which is at the beginning, Scarpia’s theme. Tommasini explains, Puccini uses “three chords a flat, b flat, and e” which “are not harmonically related, which makes Scarpia seem like an out-of-control guy.” Scarpia is the antagonist, who thwarts the romance between Tosca and her lover.

Any reference to Scarpia later in the opera will incite the same chords, and the rest of the characters react to the theme. Puccini later develops these chords subtly in Act II, where they become truncated and repeated, as if they were stuck in a rut to show a shift in character and reveal conflict for Scarpia. Later the chords are borrowed by other characters to reveal Scarpia’s influence. The same three chords are intricately woven and tucked into the main themes of the heroine, Tosca. These motifs are manipulated into different variations to build on emotion and transform meaning and character throughout the opera’s story. Tommasini concludes by explaining, “Characters can borrow, steal from, and adapt from each others’ themes.”

On the same note, on October 10, 2010, KCRW’s Tom Schnabel interviewed Herbie Hancock, who spoke of Miles Davis. Miles once said, “You only have to play one note.” Hancock explains that he realized Davis meant you only have to play the right note. “You don’t have to fill up a solo with a lot of notes, just find the right one.” Hancock says he didn’t just want to play the piano, he wanted to play music. “When you hear Wayne Shorter play, you don’t hear him playing the trumpet, you hear Wayne Shorter. In the deep of my heart it became very clear to me that I had to play music, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Gustave Flaubert spoke of le mot juste, which is the same idea that Davis speaks of and practices. There is one perfect word, an essential note to hit for each character that reveals the moment. Each character has their singular note, and music is made when these notes oppose one another. Point and counterpoint. To create a compelling story, a writer need only to find the right notes and play them against each other.

Here’s some means of hitting those singular notes:

  • How do other other characters generally respond to one another?
  • How would strangers react upon first meeting each of your characters?
  • What color would each character represent?
  • What kind of pacing does each character embody? Is one fast? Another languid? Another stammering?
  • What are the general moods of each character? Think of the four humors and play with them in combination. Or refer to astrological signs. This can help build distinct characters.


Chapter Openings

In Little Debauches on July 29, 2010 at 8:48 am

Objects + Conflicts = Story

Think of chapters as a chain reaction. The first mover doesn’t have to be revealed until the very last paragraph of the book, but writers should know who or what set the initial action in motion. Each chapter is a response to a preceding quake, which sets off more tremors in the chapters that follow. Pinpoint the epicenter, understand the magnitude of the shaking that ensues, follow the internal and external reactions, staying mindful of the ripple effects that rock each character and subplot. Make use  of key object(s), which reveal characters. Highlight setting to drive narrative and make meaning. Know the instigators of each storyline, and exploit them as elemental building blocks to further the narrative.

Be sure to determine the following as you begin each chapter:

1. OBJECTS- What artifacts are key in the scene?
2. IMMEDIATE AND PHYSICAL NEED- What are the urgent needs of each character: a glass of water, a one-way ticket out of town, or a phone call to a loved one?
4. PLOT CONFLICT- What is the over-arching need of each character?

As you plot each chapter, determine how many scenes and settings you need to cover in each section. Be aware of other characters who may not appear in a particular chapter but who will be affected by the actions and developments that take place. Be sure to distinctly decide on imagery for the beginning and ending of each chapter, which will can pin the skeletal frame of each scene in your chapter.

To keep your story-telling fresh, paint the first scene of each chapter with a new stroke each time:

  • Historical fact
  • Color
  • Action by Stranger, supporting/main character
  • Flashback of main/supporting character, or passerby
  • Personality Trait, Tic, or Habit of main/supporting character or passerby
  • Physical Trait, Mannerism, Gesture of main/supporting character or passerby
  • Mishap or Accident
  • Weather
  • Time
  • Place
  • History of Setting
  • Food
  • Preparation of Food
  • Daily Ablution
  • Object/Article, hated or loved by main/supporting character or passersby
  • Animals
  • Painting or Sculpture
  • Music
  • Nature
  • Scientific Tidbit
  • Sound
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Balance
  • Touch
  • Psychic Connection
  • Technology
  • Agriculture
  • Botany
  • Chemistry
  • Political Fact
  • Cultural Background
  • Feminist Perspective
  • Classical Allusion
  • Pop Culture Allusion
  • Epistle
  • Folktale
  • Myth
  • Lie
  • Joke or Anecdote
  • Snippet of Dialogue
  • Radio, Television, Newspaper, or Magazine Ad
  • Obituary
  • Editorial Column
  • Newspaper Article
  • Tweet
  • Instant Message
  • Voicemail Message
  • Label on Cereal Box, Pill Bottle, Cleaning Product, or another grocery item
  • Poem
  • Novel or Book Excerpt
  • Song Lyric
  • Billboard
  • Recipe
  • Directions and Instructions
  • Street Sign
  • Store Front or Store Sign
  • Bus Ad
  • Photo
  • Photo Album
  • On the Road
  • On the Sidewalk


Getting Reacquainted With Your Own Marvelousness

In Little Debauches, Writer’s Rituals on October 12, 2009 at 5:03 am

Trees, red dwarf stars, books about pirates and elves, giant wooden spoons and forks that hang on the dining room walls, these childhood sources of wonder inspired flights of fantasy and ignited life long fancies that have sustained the spirit in the most trying times, reminded sad souls how to smile, and lit paths for journeys well traveled and still yet to be taken. In her article about genre narratives, “Stranger Things” by Debra Spark, published in The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 42 Number 1, September 2009, Spark speaks of childhood awe:

[M]y inquiry has made me think about a writer’s “source of wonder.” If your “source of wonder” as a child (or perhaps even as an adult) comes from genre narratives, is there a way to recombine those narratives into the fiction you are writing now? If, like me, you aren’t drawn into such narratives, what is your “source of wonder”? Can you locate it–not find it on a map but haul it up our of your unconscious–and incorporate its pleasures into your own fiction?…Why not remember what it was that so charmed you about the stories of your youth and incorporate that delight into your fiction?

Why not indeed? Urging us to dust off our innocence, Spark asks us to rekindle what may be a long spent fire of optimism and curiosity. Our task now is to create a list of twenty items, including objects, memories, images, songs, movies, dances, books, characters, and art pieces that conjured wonder when we were young. Just list, for the moment. Don’t edit or over-think the list or any one item but try to keep memories of your childhood and adolescence.

Then chose one or two a day, and, as a regular writing exercise consider the what, when, where, why and how that bore this source of wonder in your earliest days. Examine each carefully as if it were a precious stone or a relic from your past, which it is. That blanket you couldn’t sleep without, the song your mother sang when doing the dishes, as she reminisced when she thought no one else was watching her, or the strange portrait your grandfather nailed to the living room wall that was never explained to you perhaps because you never bothered to ask, these are the stuff of marvel, the magic talismans that can unlock characters you’re struggling with, resurrect seemingly dead-ended plot lines, and jump start essays or provide a missing thread to a braided narrative. Keep this list close at hand and you should be able to draw from it as a source of inspiration and wonder, allowing you to reaffirm your roots, and, at the same time usher you into the marvelous.


A simple and essential exercise, from NY Times “The Storyteller Begat the Teacher who Begat the Writer” by Eric Konisberg, Tuesday, July 20, 2009 on Frank McCourt:

A common exercise was asking students to describe what they had done when they got home the night before. “He would coax it out of us, showing us how to pay attention to mundane but telling details,” Mr. Silver said. “I remember a dialogue with a shy student. The kid said, ‘I did my homework.’ McCourt said: ‘No, no, no. What did you do when you walked in? You went through a door, didn’t you? Did you have anything in your hands? A book bag? You didn’t carry it with you all night, did you? Did you hang it on a hook? Did you throw it across the room and your mom yelled at you for it?’ ”

Read more

We Are Each of Us Satellites

At this moment, we are, each of us, bombarded by fifty trillion elementary particles. Charging at the speed of light from the center of our planetary system, the source, the brilliant behemoth, our sun. Neutrinos, or muons, infinitesimal space matter, too tiny to detect, assail us as we brush our teeth, walk our dog, and dream in our sleep. Every day, at every moment, we are struck by life, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Stop what you’re doing and simply receive. How are the voices bouncing off the walls around you? Listen to the newspapers crinkling. Hear the wheels rolling on the tile. Laughter breaks out in the room next door. Drink in the details around you, whether as microscopic as the crack in your coffee cup or as ginormous as the gap in your dentist’s teeth. If you’re in your kitchen, what are the different scents that hit you? What’s cracked, tattered, frayed, stained, or soiled? What gleams or shines back at you? What noises do you hear outside or downstairs? How hard are the surfaces? How sticky the tiles? What can you taste from the last meal cooked? Neutrinos pass through each of us, from one body to the next. Follow their path.


Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vintage, 2006

“The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow”

Even in the pauses of between love they remained, naked and kept the windows open, breathing the air of ships’ garbage wafting in the bay. Its smell of shit, and listening in the silence of the saxophone to the daily sounds from the courtyard, the single note of the frog beneath the banana plants, the drop of water falling on nobody’s grave, the natural movements of life that they had not the opportunity to learn before.

Marquez weaves his details, using all six senses to paint a vivid scene that catches a specific moment in time, and, yet, this moment is timeless. We have a still life that breathes, and sings, and stinks. How Marquez knew to stitch the frog note to a silent saxophone with a ship’s garbage–all of these muons encapsulate a lovers’ interlude. Marquez honed his senses, knowing exactly what would strike. His details sustain life. They pulse.


Inspiration can strike anywhere at any time but you have to be open to receive them. Try, once a day, to stop what you’re doing and simply receive. Walking to the post office, waiting in line at the grocery store, trying to fall asleep late at night, take note of everything you can. We are each satellites catching muons.

Post your details below. What surprised you? What hadn’t you noticed before? Stitch your details into a scene. Explain your process? How do you know which details to leave out? Why did you include certain ones? The salon invites you to the table. Give us your mouns.


Five Fingers in a Slap to the Face

In Little Debauches on January 16, 2009 at 4:44 am

Begin at the beginning. Every short story and novel needs to establish in the first few sentences, or first paragraph, five specific essentials. Character, conflict, tone, theme, and leit motif, should slap the readers in the face upon first read.


Where the Long Grass Bends by Neela Vaswani, Sarabande Books, 2004. (Short story collection)

“Five Objects in Queens”

White Nova. Circa 1979. Astoria, Queens.
They used the backseat for misdemeanors. The eldest, Rita, smoked cigarettes there and hid lipstick under the floor mat. Rita’s little sister, Priyanka, rolled up the windows, stretched out on the cushy, red leather (smelling of rotten French Fries and incense), and attempted to sing like Aretha Franklin. Their grandmother, Dado, surreptitously chucked her insulin in the neighbor’s trashcan and hunkered to eat half a Ring Ding and Ayuervedic tablets.


The first sentence opens with indiscriminate subjects, our main characters, plural, trio in crime and piques interest with straightforward reference to minor infractions. We dive deeper with specificity, five objects, and get more details than the title bargained for: cigarettes, lipstick, Rita, Priyanka, red leather, Aretha Franklin, French fries, Dado, insulin, Ring Ding and Ayuervedic tablets. Each detail gives us specific insight into character. They’re carefully chosen and paint a vivid scene. Each detail contrasts against the next one, so we have cultures and ideals clashing and clanging against each other. All five senses are evoked. We smell incense and fries, taste Ring Dings, see red, twice, hear Aretha, feel cushy leather and sense three people crammed into the back of the car. The conflict is direct. They’re each doing something forbidden, on a joyride of sin–and this is just the beginning of the story! Vaswani’s  five, strong fingers certainly smack readers in the face, proving, as most brilliant writing affirms, how good it feels to be so bad.

Pick five (or more) concrete details and create a scene where each detail scaffolds to build character, shapes meaning, and leads to direct conflict. Use active verbs. Be as concrete and specific as possible.  If you have an introduction to a novel or short story you’re working on, check to ensure you fully immerse your readers in scene. The beginning of a short story is no time for flowery or abstract ideas. The reader should be able to put their finger on hard, specific objects. Make every word, phrase, and image tactile by evoking all six senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, sound, and, yes, psychic travel. The sixth sense is where you and your reader can have a little fun. Try forecasting to the future, what’s about to happen that will heighten conflict? Or what just happened before, in the distant, or not so distant past, that lends tension to this introductory moment. If you can tie the sixth sense to a concrete detail that leads to the central conflict of the story that’s more mileage for your writing. Vaswani’s tell tale clues of the cigarettes and lipstick lets us in on racy, past violations and complicate Priyanka, deliciously. Grandma’s Ayurvedic tablets and insulin build the tension of sickness and give heft to what could otherwise be a wickedly casual day out.

The Salonniere  invites you to post your exercise below. Be sure to include a short paragraph afterward that summarizes and explains your process, what you’re trying to achieve, what you struggled with, what was successful, and, of course,  any questions you may have. The parlour is open!


Verbs and Nouns Only: avoiding the traps of trope

In Little Debauches on June 12, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Barbara Jane Reyes raises a timely and timeless inquiry on a complicated and frustrating issue in her post: “Luis Alberto Urrea, and telling story” on Poeta y Diwata | June 12, 2009. She questions her own critique of Asian American authors when tropes come to play in text.

Reyes writes:
One theme running throughout Urrea’s work is the border, the imposed physical border between the USA and Mexico, the lives of real people and real communities as a result/in spite of this border, its spiritual manifestations which people impose upon one another. Urrea, who is biracial, describes his parents’ home as having a border down the middle, as the two grew more estranged from one another. And rather than rehash his stories here, I wanted to say that I’ve been thinking since then about our telling community stories, how a writer can avoid cliche or spin a commonly used theme such as the border, into stories that are fresh, enjoyable, and engaging, which I think Urrea accomplished yesterday. Read more here

Its difficult enough to be concrete and specific with every painstaking word, image, scene, and story. The art of subtlety feels next to impossible. Compound this with writing about specific ethnic communities and the task to stay true is magnified. Its so easy to generalize with pen and paper. The medium is essentially two-dimensional. How does one go about recreating a three-dimensional world with a paper thin canvas?

If mama is preparing tortillas on the metate, how do we make this act come alive without stumbling into a cliched scene we’ve seen before hundreds if not thousands of times both in real life and on the page? How do we “make it new”? Avoiding cliche is a matter of treading the blade of a knife. Writers try to make a story, an issue, a moment personal for readers, but in order for us to do this we have to be objective with the words we use. The objective makes for the personal. The more we stray from the abstract, avoid generalizations and over-simplifications, and shun sentimentality, the less our work will fall into the traps of Trope.

Every appellation, all attempts for locution must be executed with meticulous care of language. Each word we choose must be measured and weighted against stereotype. We cannot be lazy. We must be vigilant with every stroke of our pen. Cement characters in action. Verbs and nouns only. No adjectives or adverbs allowed. Post this over your writing space. Tattoo it on your hand. Words should invoke flesh and movement. Leave the rest to your reader.

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