Welcome back to Tuesdays with Ana! It’s wonderful to hear from new, aspiring, and established authors (and the “quite established”!) who enjoy this conversation each Tuesday. I’d like to emphasize that this is a collaborative conversation and that my voice is only one of many. If my thoughts and advice are helpful to you, I’m thrilled. If you have additional advice and wisdom to share, please do so in the comments!
The title for today’s post comes from a conversation I had with an aspiring writer about detail. “How do you add detail to your stories?” she asked. “Does it come naturally?” I told her that a small amount of daily practice will sharpen her ability to write with description. The example that I gave was when I spent thirty minutes on an observation exercise describing a single slice of plastic-wrapped Velveeta cheese. I discovered all kinds of symbolism, metaphors, and emotional connection to that silly piece of cheese. A while later when writing a story, the image of that cheese slice popped into my head. I recalled the full page of closely written observation notes, took out a few of the most poignant details, and wrote a one-sentence metaphor that earned me praise.
Today, the agenda is three-fold:
- If you’re getting started writing, or if you are looking to improve your writing (at any level), what is a good first basic skill to practice?
- What is a way to practice this first skill?
- What are other resources for writers at all stages of their careers (from newbie, to scribbler for fun, to professional author)?
I’ll tell you about some of my favorites at the end of this post, but first I’d like to chat about the beginning step that all writing classes teach and no writer ever should forget: observation.
Yup! Observation! If you have ever taken a writing class, i bet that you had to practice doing an observation exercise. An observation exercise is a writer’s daily centering exercise, just as a musician will practice daily scales and etudes, a ballet dancer will do a daily barre routine, and a golfer will practice the golf swing.
It goes something like this:
- Set your timer for five, ten, twenty, or thirty minutes (choose an amount of time that will be long enough for you to become absorbed, but short enough so that you don’t lose your focus).
- Choose an object (randomly choosing an item often works well because you want to see this object from a fresh perspective). Ideally, this should be an object that is small enough for you to hold. An example might be an eraser, a lotion bottle, or your cell phone.
- Choose your method of writing. It’s up to you whether you write by hand or with a computer. Each kind of writing is a different experience. It may be helpful to use a pen or pencil if you usually type (because writing with a different method forces you to think in a different way), but typing is also fine.
- Clear off your desk, set the object in front of you, and begin observing. While there is no “rule”, a good way to start is to divide your observing and writing time in half. If you set your timer for ten minutes, observe for the first five. If you set your timer for thirty minutes, observe for the first fifteen.
- Clear your mind of other thoughts (What will you have for lunch? Did you remember to pay the internet bill? When is your partner going to meet you at the concert tonight? Etc.) and focus only on the object. If you prefer to write from the beginning, that’s fine as long as it doesn’t distract you from observing.
What do we mean by observing? A good grounding is to use your five senses.
- Sight: How would you describe its appearance? What color is it? How would you describe these colors, patterns, shapes, shadows, design…?
- Smell: Sniff it. Even unscented lotion, for example, has a smell. If it’s your cell phone, does it have a metallic smell? Rubber or leathery from its case? Close your eyes and concentrate on smell only.
- Touch: Run your fingers over the object, hold it in your hand, test its weight, and imagine yourself as an eight-month-old baby who has discovered an object for the first time. Is it smooth? Rough? Waxy?
- Sound: Does the object have any loose parts that jingle, clank, swish, flutter, or rustle? Does it make a sound when you drop it (if you can do so without breaking it)? When you drop it, if you can drop it, what happens? Does it make a sound when you rub a finger over it? What if you rub it against your desk? What if you tap it?
- Taste: Not just for food. For those of you who write romance, surely you have written about the various tastes associated with a kiss (and other acts that will remain nameless). If you’re writing about a facial tissue, remember when you blew your nose and accidentally got a bit of fluff on your tongue? Or if it’s your cell phone, have you ever picked up your cell phone, forgotten that you picked it up, and licked your finger for some reason? Could you taste any of the metallic, chemical-y residue left by the cell phone?
This is the standard advice given for observation writing exercises, but a good observation doesn’t stop there. Once you have absorbed yourself in the concrete, physical observation, take it one step further.
- Association: When you see/smell/taste/hear/touch the object, what else does it bring to mind? On my desk, I have a ceramic mug with a photo of my two dearest friends and me. Looking at the mug makes me think of my friends, the times we spent together, and how our friendship has changed over the years as we have moved to locations far away from each other.
- Emotion: How does this object make you feel? A photograph of a loved one who has passed away will have a different emotional effect on you than a front-row ticket to your favorite entertainment event. Any object with sentimental value is a good example of this emotional power, but even ordinary objects can become infused with emotion-invoking qualities. When our characters suffer (and all good writers will make our characters suffer at least once), one way to to show their suffering is to show how ordinary objects have become emotion-invoking objects.
Kat, for example, associates cooking and food with Natalie and having a family. When she leaves Natalie, the memories of those family dinners are so sad for her that she switches to low-maintenance meals like macaroni and cheese. Interacting with objects becomes a visceral experience, not just physically but emotionally as well.
- Love: Yes, love. All experiences are connected to love (more on that in future posts). Whether it’s anger at spurned love, despair at missing love, or jealousy at not getting enough or exclusive love, all emotions are rooted in love of something or someone. Transforming the ordinary, mundane observation writing exercise into a powerful writing tool (Remember the first one? Yep! Shifting POV!) becomes possible when you tap into love.
Give it a try. Even if you think you are too proficient for a basic writing exercise, set aside some time for an observation exercise. Let yourself feel it, physically and emotionally. I’m excited to hear about your results.
What object will you use for your exercise? Let us know how it went!
Join us next week for discussion on how to handle conflicting perspectives in a story.
For more information about writing:
One great resource, updated weekly, is Anne R. Allen’s blog on writing. Her topic this week is how to write memorable fiction. She’s eloquent, lucid, and eminently practical. Reading her blog is like getting to take a writing class free of charge. I can’t recommend her site highly enough.
*Correction: This week’s article was written by Ruth Harris, Anne Allen’s blog partner. Many apologies for the error! Thank you for the correction, Anne!*
Another great resource is Alexandria Constantinova Szeman‘s (formerly writing as Sherri Szeman) handbook on POV, Mastering Point of View. Her background is literary fiction and poetry, and this is a good starting point for questions about POV.
Finally (for today), one of my favorite writing books is the classic Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This book is not for everyone, and it has both a cult following and its naysayers. I received it as a high school graduation gift from one of my English teachers, and I have treasured it over the years. What I love about the book is that it helps me to center myself, focus inward, and draw on my inner self in order to write. Again, it’s not for everyone. If you are more intent on decoding a bestselling formula and writing a story that will replicate that, this is not the book for you.
Other people enjoy Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It has a folksy, conversational tone that can be reassuring for anxious writers. I always quote Anne Lamott’s exhortation that we write our “sh*tty first draft” whenever I talk with a writer who is struggling with anxiety, too-high expectations, or fear of writing. Just getting down that first draft is a huge step.
What are you waiting for? Go and write!