Hello from 2021! It’s been almost seven months since my last blog post, a craft series on writing Lower Middle Grade fiction you can check out HERE. I really enjoyed sharing that series, and it’s been lovely hearing from fellow writers who have found the posts helpful as they embark on their own lower middle grade projects.
The Derby Daredevils were my masterclass in writing lower middle grade fiction. But the roller derby series gave me other firsts as a writer, too. They were my first projects on deadline. First time working with a major publishing team. First experience collaborating with an illustrator (shout out to Sophie Escabasse, the absolute best!). And perhaps most importantly, the Daredevils introduced me to writing about sports.
Before embarking on the Daredevils series, I wrote about loner kids who pined for friends while hiding behind self-cast shadows from large books. I still remember the day in 2017 when I looked around my vibrant circle in Austin, TX and realized I wanted to be writing about a world filled with movement and energy. But writing about roller derby was (and is!) a tricky process, and in many ways I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Because the Daredevils first went on submission as a chapter book series called the Flannels, the only roller derby featured in Book 1 was a bout that my characters watched together at the end. Several editors loved this quirky group of kids in Austin, but they wanted older kids, and crucially: more derby. Kids playing derby. Allllll the derby.
When I sold the Daredevils project to Abrams, I had submitted a proposal for aging up the series, a synopsis for Book 1, and the first four sample chapters. But those sample chapters did NOT include any scenes on the derby track. Fast forward to two months later as I fervently worked to get the rest of the book done, when I ran face first into writing actual derby scenes. I looked over my synopsis and suddenly understood that I needed to turn roughly six minutes of action into over four chapters. MAJOR GULP.
If you’ve ever watched a roller derby bout, it’s amazing how quickly each jam unfolds. I had no idea how to stretch those jams into whole chapters while still making the action feel fast and exciting. I remember sitting in my office one night, pulling the image of the scene open like taffy. I saw the jam how a slow-motion camera might see it. As an author, I didn’t have a slow-motion camera or cool music to play in the background. I only had words. But it’s a poor craftsperson who blames their tools… or lack of tools. I had words. We could make that work.
Through a lot of research, beta readers, and trial and error, I wrote a single roller derby scrimmage that spanned over the last third of the Derby Daredevils Book 1. Then I wrote a roller derby tournament that spanned nearly the second half of Book 2. In order to write these scenes, as well as sports and action scenes from other projects, I use three main techniques to keep the words flowing. This month I’m going to cover the first technique.
Technique #1: Use as many senses as possible.
Incorporating the five senses is advice all writers will probably receive at some point in their respective storytelling journeys. It’s good advice in general. Using multiple senses allows the reader to wade deeper into a scene. Instead of picturing the narrative, they jump in ala Burt’s sidewalk chalk drawings in Mary Poppins. They can smell the freshly cut grass, hear the geese honking, taste the raspberry ice… you get the idea.
But using the five senses is particularly important in action and sports scenes because each sense is a tool the writer can enable to slow events down without writing in s—l—o—w m—o—t—i—o--n.
Let’s go through each sense, as well as some examples, below:
Sight is usually the go-to sense for description in narrative. But in fast-paced scenes, it’s important to sculpt sight into a lens that feels fast. I like to use a specific and narrow focus—the eyes of a single person—when writing visual descriptions in derby scenes. Think hand-held camera.
Examples: A runner sees the bottom of the shoes of the competitor in front of them. The flash of a camera pops from a blur of spectators. A dancer picks a smudge of paint along the wings of the stage to focus on as they twirl.
Like sight, sound featured in action scenes allows the reader deeper into the main character’s headspace. We notice what sounds fade into the background and which sounds come to the forefront. Moments of sound in these scenes can include both descriptions of noises as well as direct onomatopoeias.
Examples: The pop of a gun to start a race. Cheers from crowds, maybe peppered with a specific word or phrase. Hot breath in one’s ears. The clack clack clack of roller skates bounding behind you.
Also known as “feel,” touch can arise in narrative as either a sensation inside the body such as in muscles or joints, or something that connects with skin, clothing, or hair. Touch offers moments of unique interiority—describing an emotional sensation made physical—as well as exterior experiences.
Examples: A stomach dropping into one’s butt, or a heart leaping into a throat. Goose pimples rising along arms. A shoe tied too tight. Hands slipping from sweat as they grip a bat or baton.
Smells aren’t used as often in narrative, and offer the writer a lot of creativity. But it’s important to choose smells that heighten the overall tone and tension of a scene, rather than detract from the focus. Smells can come from direct sources around the characters. Smells can also stand in for direct emotions.
Examples: A character smelling someone else’s fear. The smell of heat rising off asphalt. The smell of dirt, or grass, or popcorn in the stands.
Like touch/feel, taste arises both from exterior sensation such as on the tongue or lips, and from the interior depths of the body. A character can taste smoke in the air. They can taste the remnants of a burp, or even bile rising in their throat (you’re welcome.) Taste can be from sources of food, and often from sources that are not food.
Examples: A nervous character tastes their morning breakfast at the start of a match/game. A character tastes sweat on their upper lip. The taste of mint toothpaste, or vanilla lip balm, or chlorine.
And there you have it! Writers, the next time you finish a chapter—sports scene or not—and realize you rushed through the sequence of events way too fast, consider going back and pumping in more sensory descriptions to expand moments of the scene and heighten tension. Readers, you might want to pay specific attention to how the author pulls out multiple senses in the next book you pick up.
But we’re not done talking about writing sports and action! Oh, no. This is but one technique of three I use. And here’s the kicker: All three techniques work together. Check back here next month for my post on using multiple lens and character perspectives in fast-paced scenes. Better yet, subscribe to my newsletter to get the next post in your inbox! I promise I only send occasional publishing updates and baby photos.