Tuesdays with Ana: 30 Minutes on Velveeta

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:

  1. 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).
    .
  2. 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.
    .
  3. 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.
    .
  4. 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.
    .
  5. 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 distractย  you from observing.
    .
  6. Write.

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?
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  • 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!

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27 thoughts on “Tuesdays with Ana: 30 Minutes on Velveeta

  1. alexandriaconstantinova says:

    I used to do an exercise with creative writing students when they wore blindfolds and I gave them an object they never seen. Had to describe it using all senses. Since they couldn’t see it, they had to rely on other senses. Since they didn’t know what it was, the exercise really forced them to throw away any preconceived notions about object. Forced to use simile, metaphor, analogy since they didn’t even know what they were holding. Really sharpened up their description skills.

    Glad you mentioned all the senses rather than just limiting it to sight. So many authors describe what things look like in nauseating detail, but forget other senses. Also, they forget to use simile, metaphor, analogy for things readers may not be familiar with: like smell of a dead body. Very few have had that rather dubious experience, yet so many crime/thriller/suspense writers have characters “recognize it immediately” even when characters are not law enforcement (and most of them have never even smelled it). I think only way to “describe” that smell, for example, is to show people’s reactions, like involuntary gagging that it produces.

    Also, so many new writers (and experienced ones, unfortunately) tend to go for the first thing that comes to their heads, not realizing that it’s a clichรฉ. So snow falls as “quietly as a whisper,” is as “white as clouds or cotton”, etc. So predictable and dull. One of these days I’ll put my “Egg Exercise” on my blog. It used to drive my students crazy; they always claimed it couldn’t be done. But they wrote some brilliant descriptions out of it. They surprised even themselves.

    Thanks for the great blog.

    (Can I get out of the corner now?)

    Love,

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      LOL You can get out of the corner if you aren’t enjoying yourself there. I LOVE your advice. What is your egg exercise? Be sure to let me know if you put it up on your blog, so I can point to it. You’re right about the cliches and assumptions that people know things they might not. What does first love feel like, for example? It’s different for everyone. For a child, it might be the taste of the candy she is given by her grandmother.

      Can’t wait for the new edition of your handbook.

      Like

  2. alexandriaconstantinova says:

    p.s. Natalie is a friend of mine. She tends to write books on Buddhism now (a natural progression), but many still find her first, WRITING DOWN THE BONES, a classic to start with (if they’re willing to meditate first)

    p.p.s. Sis, love your description of tipping your desk to clear it. Into a bin. You’re such a good writer.

    p.p.p.s. Ana, thanks for getting my name right. The new edition of POV will probably be out later this year, including all the deletions on other aspects of creative writing that original editor made me take out, as well as Indie & ebook authors, who did not exist when book first published (2001).

    Again, nice blog. Thanks.

    xxx

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Oh, a friend of yours? How cool! I love her book. I did notice she’s transitioned more to the Buddhist writing, but of course what I know and love her for is the book on writing.

      And yes, naughty Sophie has a way with words. As do you, my dear. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

  3. Sophie Sansregret says:

    It’s a bad gene in our family. Sis, I was about to call then heck broke loose. Don’t talk to Ana. She’s supposed to be doing WORKY things but she’s trainspotting here. GET TO IT MISSY.

    Alexandria and I are sending the Elf. Be afraid.

    Like

  4. Celeste Jones says:

    Great post Ana. I’m a fan of Bird by Bird, though I am a bit more folksy. I’m going to incorporate some observation time into my day.

    On the other side of not enough description is adjective overload…either too many adjectives per item or superlatives for everything. Makes me crazy and I’m likely to not give a book much of my time if I have to wade through too many adjectives. I’d rather have a simple, well done description than a thesaurus dump. I’ve seen this in a couple books lately, so I think that’s why it’s on my mind.

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      I hope your observation goes well. I’ll love to hear about it. ๐Ÿ™‚

      It’s true that description for its own sake can be a turn-off. Understatement can be more powerful than, as you say so perfectly, a thesaurus dump.

      Like

  5. Joseph McNamara says:

    “Sight” – Yes she looks so fine today always appealing to my Dominant eyes. Focused submissive yearning and desire envisioned.

    “Smell” – The intoxicating scent of her perfume and that human musky breeze of eros when we are together.

    “Touch” – I love the feel of her soft, warm and tingling at times skin – a delicacy and appeal to my probing fingers.

    “Sound” – The low moans as I trace my fingers over her, sensing her yearns for the upcoming frolic. The sounds of mutual coveted attraction.

    “Taste” – That human intertwined flavored connectedness that we share, always compelling and quenching my eros. Not an acquired taste but a desired taste.

    And the “Association, Emotion, and Love” have now fallen into place too.

    Now, I have savored your ideas here and I forgot what I wanted to write today Ana, did I miss something ? *smiles* and btw, *contented and grounded for now too*

    And seriously, I truly loved your ideas here. Another added post to a resource for writers that I keep for reference and ideas. Thank you for your creative ideas and suggestions again today…

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Oh, I love this. Thank you for sharing how you went through the various senses. Your writing always has such a poignant and descriptive quality. I like the unique twist that you used for the “taste”.

      Thank you for stopping by and for being so willing to try out something new. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Like

  6. annerallen says:

    Thanks so much for the warm endorsement of our blog. I do need to clarify that this week’s post on how to make fiction memorable was written by my blog partner, Ruth Harris.

    Ruth posts on the last Sunday of every month and gives us the benefit of her years as a Big 6 editor as well as a NYT bestselling author. We share a desire to help new writers become the best writers they can be without becoming cookie-cutter trend-chasers or getting crushed by the system.

    BTW, if you’d rather get the info all in one place, I’ve also written a book of writing tips with Catherine Ryan Hyde, the author of the iconic novel Pay it Forward, Our book is called HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY!

    Thanks!

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Oh, goodness! Please excuse the sloppiness in not citing correctly. I will change that information right away. Thank you so much for stopping by and even adding your thoughts. I’m honored to have you here. Your blog is such a wonderful and welcoming place. I will be sure to give due credit to Ruth Harris from now on.

      I salute your and Ruth’s efforts, and your desire to help new writers is admirable. A model of civility and warmth that is much needed here in blogland as well in the publishing world at large.

      I will be sure to recommend your book, as well.

      Like

  7. Minelle says:

    I thought about an exercise we have for learning to observe and SEE in art. We use blind contour drawing to slow us down and focus on creating a connection between eye and pencil. The exercise forces us to compare lines, space, shape form…etc. Artists need to move away from symbols and draw what they see without using cliches as well. I am so excited to try this exercise and maybe get better as a scribbler newbie for fun!

    Like

    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      What do you mean by blind contour? Is that when you draw an object not knowing what it is? I remember having to draw an object upside down, a long time ago when everyone had to take art classes regardless of lack of talent. The idea was that we would draw better taking time to actually notice, as you say, but the drawing only looked weird to me.

      We were all scribbler newbies at one point! The difference between a scribbler newbie and an accomplished writer is millions of hours of writing. That’s all. ๐Ÿ˜€

      Like

      • Minelle says:

        Did I hear you talk about talent?? Everyone can learn how to see and therefore learn to draw. Do not get me started.
        The exercise you experienced is similar. The focus is not to concentrate on drawing a person, but to see- therefore relying on your perception of lines, space- shape and their relation to each other…etc. When you do a blind contour drawing you do not look at the paper. Your hand and pencil becomes an extension of the eye. We actually concentrate and begin to study the object in minute detail. It is very close to the purpose you outlined above.

        Like

        • Anastasia Vitsky says:

          Maybe after millions of hours drawing! I am afraid I don’t want to draw that much. I prefer to leave drawing to the people who want to do it and are good at it.

          That is really interesting to draw without seeing what you draw. What a neat idea.

          Like

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