Once upon a time, I handed in a few chapters, and my editor really liked them. But then I rewrote them a bit, handed them in again, and she loved them. "This is much more 'grounded,' than the first version," she told me. "What did you do to it?"
I had done only one thing: added all five senses.
Before the rewrite, my character was just driving her truck and seeing things. After the rewrite, she was still driving her truck, but in addition to seeing things around her, she also smelled coffee that sloshed out of a cup, she tasted fruit she'd had for breakfast, she heard a voice on her cell phone, and when her rear tires left the pavement and rolled over gravel, she felt that change through her butt.
Here's a rewrite tip that will seem obvious to some of you, but isn't to the rest of us: Check every single scene to see if it has all five senses in it: sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell. I don't mean check a few scenes, I mean check them all. Now it may be that you can't get all five senses into every scene without pushing too hard, and you don't want to push so hard that it seems overdone. It's tricky to get taste into most scenes, for example, and smell's not easy, either. There will be many scenes in which you just can't add them without being absurd. But if you can and it works, you will be amazed at how much more "grounded," in my editor's word, your story feels. Even the most imaginative flight of fantasy needs grounding, in the sense of making the world you are creating feel as real to your reader as this world feels to you.
When you check each scene, you'll probably find that you're naturally stronger in some senses than in others. I don't have any problem getting sight into scenes, for instance. But for the rest of the senses, you'd think I had a cold that clogged up my ears and my nose so I couldn't hear, taste, or smell anything. And touch? Forget it. Those senses don't always pop up naturally in my writing; I have to work on them consciously.
Checking for the 5 senses is one of the most enjoyable parts of rewriting, in my opinion. It's not hard, it doesn't take much work to improve what you already have, it allows you to get imaginative, and the rewards far outweigh the effort.
And one last tip about the senses: if you don't do anything else, at least make sure your opening scene is rich and ripe with seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling (touch). It will pull your readers deep into your story and hook them before they turn to page two.
Here is a lovely example of the use of two senses in the very first paragraph of a novel. It's from The Sultan's Seal, by a new writer, Jenny White.
A dozen lamps flicker across the water, moving up the strait in silence, the oarsmen invisible. A dry scuffling noise drifts from shore, the breeze too indolent to carry it very far. Wild dogs bark and crash through the bushes. There are snarls, a short yelp, then silence again.
flicker. . .silence. . .invisible. . .dry scuffling. . .bark. . .crash. . .snarls. . .yelp. . .silence.
We are there, on the water, in the boat. And we wonder. . .what made the dog yelp, and why did it go so suddenly silent? In four sensory-laden sentences, she's got us. Even with such a brief passage, you can see why this book was named by Booklist as one of the top 10 first novels of last year.
Hook editors, agents, and readers by baiting your scenes with provocative, believable, and imaginative sensory images. If you can do that, you've got them, and they'll follow you anywhere.