My short story collection White Zion is coming out with Cervena Barva Press.
White Zion migrates between 19 century Yemen, preState Israel, modern Israel and modern Canada. Stories explore racism, alienation within the family unit and the fall-out after generations of war. Voices in the collection include a Assaf, Yemenite boy growing up in pre-State Israel, Miriam, a young Canadian girl growing up in Ottawa, and the haunting voice of the girl's uncle, Yoel. A rich vein of family mistrust runs throughout the collection.
White Zion was nominated for the Doris Bakwin Literary Award, (Carolina Wren Press) and two of the stories were nominated for the Best New Writing Award and the Walrus Literary Award.
Stories from the collection have been published in Akashic Books Mondays are Murder Series, Fiction Magazine, Many Mountains Moving, The Dalhousie Review, Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, Jewish Fiction and other literary magazines.
Writers must write emotion. That's a given. But many writers lean too heavily on stock emotional body language when they describe their characters: the wink, the nod, the yawn, the shrug and that American favorite, the smile.
North Americans smile more than people from other cultures. And we don't just smile (way) more, we smile bigger and brighter. Scroll through a brief comparison of photos of American vs. Chinese leaders and you'll see it, too.
As an editor, I don't go more than five pages without spotting it in first drafts for longer pieces and there's a rare Flash piece without at least someone smiling by line four. From the first grin in a draft, it's everywhere, way too much of it. For many writers it is a crutch whose sell-by-date has expired.
So short of moving to Russia or Japan and imbuing a whole new body language vocabulary, what's a writer to do? The fact is that human beings do convey genuine emotions and it's our job to get them down on the page in such a compelling manner that our readers won't want to put down our writing.
One solution is to ramp up our use of internal description. If your first instinct is to write that your character smiles, ask yourself how the character feels at this moment. Did her heart speed up? Does she have to stop herself from flinging her arms into the air, jumping up and down, singing, cheering, or strutting around the room?
A second solution is to combine your smiles with other powerful literary devices such as pace and imagery. Is it a quick smile? A slow burst of delight? A smile so cold that it might as well be frozen onto her face? What about the shape? Is it such a big symmetrical smile the reader can only conclude that it's fake?
A third solution is to take your smiles a lot more seriously. Some researchers say there are as many as fifty different types of smiles and a wide variety of cultural interpretations (A smiling face might appear confident to an American, idiotic to a Russian and embarrassed to a Chinese person).
Fifty options require weighty consideration. The superficial, "she smiled at him" is well, superficial. As a reader there's not a lot of connection to your character—a big mistake. Readers will likely skim those words, so why write them?
Consider the smug, tight-lipped, open mouthed, flirtatious, and half smile. Open-mouthed smiles, by the way, are almost always fake, at least in adults. Few adults are really feeling that carefree, so take note of what signals you wish to give the reader when you use those.
Stop writing for a moment and physically smile in these various ways yourself and tune into the emotion you're feeling at the same time. When you keep your lips together and smile, are you feeling tense? Arrogant? Flirty? What about pressing the lips together? Do your neck muscles tighten? Do your shoulders meet your ears? Channel all of that genuine description into your writing.
Then there's the classic "liar's smile." Smiling can be an automatic and very much unwanted response to internal tension for many people. One reason for internal tension is that the person is lying or embarrassed. How does your character feel now? Dry mouth? A return of that childhood twitch? Does she desperately need to scratch her nose, stick her head in her purse, or run her hands through her hair?
So don't ditch the smile altogether (although seriously consider cutting them down if you're a serial smile writer). Instead, broaden, stretch, and shrink how your portray smiles, to breathe true life into your characters, and anchor them in genuine emotion.
Writers must think about description. A lot. We're told to paint an unforgettable picture in words, then we're told not to overdo it and bore the reader. We're told to write vivid prose, then we're reminded to remember pacing. It's drilled into us that three pages of scenery description worked in Victorian novels, but not today. But there's one piece of description-writing advice we hear above all: Remember the Five Senses.
What many writing instructors really mean by this is to get out of our knee-jerkism regarding visual descriptions and dip into those other big four: sound, smell, taste and touch. Many of us are diligent about it. Every meal in a novel becomes a sensual, olfactory, mouth watering experience or the opposite, the heroines are so down, even melted chocolate and fresh Turkish coffee cannot cheer them.
Turns out your high school science textbook and writing workshop advice needs a reboot and this is great news for your writing. There may be as many as seven or twenty-one human senses. There are whole worlds of senses to integrate into our descriptions, and no reason to recycle the same old five on every page.
Why harp on touch when you can go for itch? This is a completely distinct sensor system from touch. We read hundreds of pages in which characters
might be itching to get out of a room, but are they so itchy, they can't think ?
What about incorporating equilibrioception (our sense of balance) into one of your characters? Magnetoception anyone? This is the ability to detect magnetic fields, which is truly handy when you don't know where you are. There are a myriad of ways these senses can be used in sci-fi, fantasy, horror or realism.
Is your character oblivious to time? Many of us have an unbelievably accurate sense of time passing. Something to consider in character description. Short and long passing of time probably come from two different parts of our brain. So who in your novel has which one? And what are the stakes? I remember one participant in my class writing an entire story based on this. The couple felt they had to leave their time-conscious American culture for Mexico because they just couldn't fit in. Ouch! Speaking of pain, pain receptors are separate from our overall sense of touch. How about a character with a very high or very low sense of pain?
Proprioception is the ability to distinguish our body parts from the rest of the world and move them. Consider a character who lacks this sense. She can't scratch her back because she can't find it.
This doesn't mean you should ditch our old description companions, the five senses, but do expand your ways of thinking about them.
Many of us were taught that humans have a relatively weak sense of smell (compared to dogs or elephants, for example). That's a myth and humans can smell over one trillion scents.
So, break out of the "my character can only pick up on overpowering smells like coffee and baked bread" and explore subtle scents your character can notice, without worrying that it's unrealistic or some sort of super power, if that's not
where you want to go.
As for taste, ditch the incorrect notion that there's sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
We have savory to add (cheese, meat) and maybe even fat and calcium. Scientists are split on that, but we don't have to be.
Go ahead. Make your heroine bite into that sandwich and be disgusted or charmed by the fatty taste. It will make your story that much more fresh and delicious to read.