Observational stretching

Writers create worlds for an audience to slip into.  Through craft alone, they can take us on a flight to Mars, on an elevator to the other side of the world, or convince us that trees can talk.

It is the finer details that convince; the ability to show the world clearly through description. Here are some exercises that help you to heighten your perception. They are designed to adjust your perspective so you can see things… differently.

At some point over the next day, when you’re stuck in traffic, riding an elevator or waiting in a line, stop the DJ in your head and notice where you are. Don’t think about that power struggle at work, or what you need to do tomorrow or what you should have done yesterday. While you’re at it, toss out judgement. Try to see what is, not what should or could be.

This kind of exercise is called noticing. When you notice the world around you in detail, you’re seeing with fresh eyes. The more you work at seeing in this way, the more accurately you’ll be able to capture it in your writing.

Start by just noticing aspects of your own experience:

  • As you’re getting ready for your day, stop for a moment and look around you. Notice the room, the light, the taste of your coffee (or tea or whatever).
  • Feel the water of the shower, your hands on your scalp as you apply shampoo. Smell the fragrance of the soaps you use. Hear the sound of the water.
  • As you walk, notice how the light falls on the buildings, hear the traffic flow.
  • If you’re racing somewhere or your thoughts are running wild, stop them. Step back. Take a breath. Look where you are. Notice your breath. What’s going on? What is that like?

Here are suggestions to broaden your noticing:

  • You’re waiting in line. Look at the other people standing there with you.
    • Ask yourself, what’s the primary emotion of each person I notice?
    • What is it about their expression, stance or activities that send an emotional message?
    • What one aspect reveals their character?
  • You’re on a bus. Move your attention from one person to another. For each:
    • What is their dominant emotion?
    • What do you think they do for a living?
    • Where are they going? Where are they coming from?
    • What are the thoughts spinning through their brains?
    • Imagine what they were like as a 5-year-old child. What about as a baby?
    • What did their mother love about them? What was the secret fear she had about their life but never told them?
    • What is the one thing they hunger for more than anything else?

And last, suggestions for fine-tuning your noticing:

  • Focus on what you see around you. The faces, colours, light, shadows. When something pings at you, try to describe it in words. What emotion does each visual evoke?
  • Focus on sound. Can you differentiate sounds? Is one sound irritating? How is it irritating? Is another sound soothing? What makes it soothing?
  • Focus on smell. Can you connect a smell to an emotion?
  • Focus on relationship. When you look at a table of people talking over coffee, or a couple walking down the street, can you tell the nature of the relationship? The quality of that relationship? Can you imagine what they’re saying?
  • Focus on conversations. Can you hear what people around you are saying to each other?

Noticing is like a muscle. The more you develop the ability, the stronger it becomes. And since it is a form of meditation, it will also help you to find calm and distance in your day-to-day life.

How do you use this in your writing?

If you’re asking this question, you probably haven’t tried it yet. So go ahead!

When you do try, even if just for a moment, you’ll create a sense memory that you can call on when you need it.

10 books every writer needs to read

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The nature of every craft is that it is never static. As you grow and shift, so should your writer’s resources.

The 10 books every writer needs to read are not dictated by someone like me. They’re dictated by you and where you are as a writer.

I use my go-to resources by:

  • Underlining poignant bits. If a sentence sings to me, I highlight it.
  • Writing key words in margins so I can find themes or plot points later. This is useful for connecting story lines, timelines or characters.
  • Creating my own index on the inside back pages.
  • For my current fave book, creating a cheat sheet with the structure, plot points, and more. Some of this I do in the book itself. I write notes on transitions between chapters, highlight key plot points, the mechanics of the craft so I can learn from it. But I also will write a one or two page plot structure outline which I staple in the back page of the book.

What are your go-to writing resources? List them in the comments.


Colleen’s current top ten

Gone GirlRight now the book I’m a bit geeky about is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

The craftsmanship in this book is impeccable. Flynn establishes her antagonist as the good guy, the protagonist as the bad guy, which keeps you guessing and turning pages. Adept at using all senses, she places us in the world of the characters, and has readers loving (and hating) each and every one of them. In addition to being a thriller, this novel is an exploration of love and marriage. Should we just let love ‘happen’ or should boundaries be set? What should those be? Where do the lumps in a relationship begin to form, how do they stretch into gaping holes we can’t jump across? Is there any transgression that cannot be forgiven? Flynn plays with time, and through Amy’s journals, turns back story into an involving and eerie ride. There’s lots to think about in this book.


Steven King On WritingOn Writing by Stephen King. For King, the stories don’t come from within him. They are not things he created. They are more like fossils he uncovers by listening in the right way. What I like about this philosophy is it takes writing out of egomania and makes the writer beholden to the story. As writer you are a vessel for the story, not a god.

In no-bullshit prose, King puts down, “briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job; it’s about the language.” Incredibly readable, at times difficult (what would a Stephen King book be without some weirdly challenging passages?), and chock full of great advice.


Birb by BirdBird by Bird by Anne Lamott. My huge take-aways from this book:

  1. Write shitty first drafts. Get it down, do it fast, don’t care about making sense. Just follow your muse, have as much fun as you can, and knock the critic off your shoulder.
  2. When writing, you only need to think of the words that will fit in a 2″ picture frame. That is, concentrate on the now, not then or when.
  3. Every climax is either a killing, a healing or domination.

A down-to-earth and fun to read.


Comic ToolboxThe Comic Toolbox, by John Vorhaus. Vorhaus explains comic principles extremely well. He also explains story structure in a simple, easy-to-understand way.

Vorhaus walks you through a series of processes, tools and rules that simplify rather than complicate writing tasks. From the rule of nine (out of every ten ideas you write, 9 will be useless, so take risks, keep going and don’t judge yourself) to the hill climbing problem (when revising your work, merely good is the enemy of great, so get that editing pen dirty). As he puts it, “That’s the trouble with re-writing. You have to commit to sacrifice with no certain expectation of reward. Yet even absent that guarantee, there’s one thing we know for sure: If we don’t come down off the hill, we’ll never reach the mountain.”

Although the emphasis in this book is comedic, the application of his lessons go so much wider. From his advice on why you need to re-write, how to re-write, how to kill your inner editor and resuscitate them when you need them, this book isn’t just about how to be funny, it’s about how to write. Given this, I’d re-title the book, The Writer’s Toolbox: From a funny perspective. 


writing toolsWriting Tools byRoy Peter Clark. Have trouble editing your work and punching up your prose? Here’s a book for you. Roy Peter Clarke’s focus is on providing a writer a box of tools. From copy editing to point of view and project management of writing projects, his insights and common sense approach make this the most useful writing book I’ve seen in years. His background is in journalism, but the lessons can be applied to all writing styles. My personal favourite is the chapter on generating a story question. Here, he talks about the “story engine” — a concept I first learned about from Sol Stein. Mr. Clarke refines this concept and shows how a question can help a writer to tame those sub-plots.


Sol SteinStein on Writing by Sol Stein. Looking for an editorial process for your work? Here’s the best one I’ve found in any advice book on writing. Sol Stein is a master editor and a writer himself, so he gets it.

From cutting the flab from your prose, to substantive editing of your book as a whole so you DON’T get sick of it from reading it over and over and over, Stein has some great advice. My fave: While reading your paper manuscript, write a V at the top of each page that has a visual. When done, go back and for every page that does not paint an image for the reader in words, create a visual or tap another sense.


7 basic plotsThe Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. This book is so big and thick you could use it as a murder weapon. But it also has some thought-provoking thinking on the reason for storytelling and story types.

According to Booker there are seven basic plots: 1) Overcoming the Monster; 2) Rags to riches; 3) The quest; 4) Voyage & return; 5) Comedy; 6) Tragedy; 7) Rebirth.

Each story type has its own requirements. If your story does not contain what that type of story needs, then it won’t resonate with your audience.

In addition to discussing story types, he proposes that all stories are about how to overcome our egos and become better humans.


Books on Art and Life

To till the soil of my craft I need more than books about how to write. I need art to experience other senses, philosophy to consider what it means to be deep, and psychology to learn how humans work. These are my current go-to books for inspiration.

How Music WorksHow Music Works by David Byrne. This most readable book on the creative process, it considers the medium of music from multiple angles and asks a whack of intriguing questions. In conversational style that makes you feel like you’re sitting together sharing a coffee, Byrne discusses the academic research — medical, artistic, psychological — and personal experience as a lover of music, a maker of music, and an observer of music. He then twists this object we know as music upside down, backwards and forwards again. This book is about art, about who has the ‘right’ to create it (in his view, everyone.) That music making or art making are useful to us all, as a release, as an exploration, as a means to making us all better people. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in music, art, or music making.


Going SaneGoing Sane by Adam Phillips. What an intoxicating marvel! Poetry mixed with psychology and language, explore the world of madness and sanity. Phillips argues that there are more definitions for madness in our culture than there are for sanity. We both love and fear those ‘eccentrics’ in our midst, fearing that we are heading down the same slope, while also somewhat jealous of their freedom. He begins with a dive into literature, with Hamlet a central figure. This is followed by a look at our relationship to our sanity from a range of views. Sane sex, sane greed. He ends with an attempt at a definition for sanity.

Critics have assailed him for his lacklustre exploration of the literature. I personally found his insights and the poetry of his language… well, as I said, intoxicating. He does, on occasion write in a very dense style, where his love for spinning ideas seems to outweigh his desire to communicate. (Was his editor intimidated by this man’s ability?) But overall the book is a must for anyone interested in exploring the human psyche and most definitely, writers.


FamiliesFamilies & How to Survive Them by John Cleese & Robin Skynner. This is an oldie but a goodie. And yes, this is the John Cleese of Monty Python fame, but the book is written as a serious study with humourous overtones. With the help of the Skynner, an eminent psychotherapist, they delve into human development, relationships and all things fascinating about human behaviour. In ordinary language, they go through day-to-day interactions and challenges, from change and depression, the terrible twos and many other aspects of humanity.

There is one area where this book is somewhat dated and I disagree with: How people “become” gay. I suggest you just skip past those pages, because it… well… let’s just say these two straight guys reveal a bit of fear in this area.

Is all feedback useful?

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In my last post, Showing some skin, I discussed a letter I received in response to one of my plays way back in the early 90s. In this blog, I’ll point out the problems with that letter and how I might direct my younger self.

REVIEWING THE GATE KEEPERS

Us writers, we get all kinds of feedback. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the feedback isn’t about our work, it’s about the person dishing it.

The letter I posted last week gave some positive feedback (I was drawn in) and negative feedback (and then I got lost). He kinda liked some parts of it, other parts he was just confused. But what was it he liked? There are no clues. What did he dislike? Again, no clues. Where he got lost, he gave questions (which all point to the character’s motivation and situation, so are legitimate). Yet, without specific references, half the feedback is a frustrating guessing game. He was giving his two cents and returning the script.

Of course gate keepers have the right to say pass/fail, yes/no. Many editors have learned to reject writing with the oblique phrase, “This is not for us.” Each time a writer receives feedback, one coping strategy is to recognize what type you’re receiving:

  • Star rating or Pass/fail: We want you to know we don’t want you.
  • Porridge: I kinda liked it, but I’m not going to tell you what I liked. I kinda didn’t like it, but not gonna share that either.
  • Smarty pants review: The reviewer is sooooo clever and they want you to know! The response is looooong, extremely critical, very directive. The editor is trying to turn your work into their own, because they don’t have the guts to write, so they’ll tell you how you’ve failed. It will feel like an attack. Disregard them.
  • Supportive feedback: Specific comments tied to character, plot development, style, tone, story type that help you to consider the work from a new perspective. May provide process options for you to try.
  • Am I missing any types? Add a comment.

My response to my younger self

When I conceived of this post, I thought it a great opportunity to demonstrate a typical review I provide writers. You see, I can’t post any real ones as those writers are trying for publication. They can’t have the dirty laundry of their initials drafts sitting up here on my blog, right? So this post seemed a great idea until I started writing it. Since you blog readers have not read the play, it was challenging to keep it brief and representative. So, here is my succinct version using my clinical / analytical voice.

Conflict déjà vu?

The central problem with the script is that the conflict is one-dimensional. This happens when the writer (me) walks around the story from only one or two points of view. A key symptom of this problem: The same type of conflict occurs over and over.

Here’s an over-simplified demo to make it obvious:

Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: No!
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: I gotta go to the washroom first.
Mom: Go to bed, John.
John: Can you read me a story?

Note how there’s variety in John’s responses, but the mother says the same thing over and over again. In my play, the captors repeatedly ask Tamara to use the technology and she tries to convince them why she shouldn’t. Luckily, it was only 90 minutes long and I did use some creativity in how I repeated the conflict. Still… an audience wants more.

Another symptom of this problem is flat characters. I’d created one fully realized character who lives in an interesting time and community, but that was only a part of the spadework I needed to do as a writer. I also needed to consider the perspectives of the antagonist, Tamara’s family and the society as a whole.

Were I the dramaturge on this play I’d ask the writer these questions:

  • How does she really love and miss her family and former life? What made it hard to leave the world she knew?
  • What does the captor need from her? Why go to these lengths to get Tamara back? What ammunition does the captor have to tempt her? Hint: Look at your answers to questions about her family and life.
  • Is her captor who s/he seems to be? Perhaps they’re a robot who appears as a person? Or a robot with her mother’s (father’s, brother’s) mind installed on its hard drive?
  • What has happened in the world she left behind over the past year while she’s been away? Has all humanity been accidentally wiped out by robots or some artificial intelligence? Disease? Or are things the same? Select the dramatic intensity that relates to your theme.
  • What are the audience’s expectations for this story type? How do you not meet them? (I typically provide a list of requirements for each story type). How can you play with audience expectations? The play shows us a 1984 style interrogation. As a quick exercise, imagine the captor as a nurturing earth mother or as someone who looks like they’re from her tribe. Bring the character on stage in your imagination and get to know them. This will feed into the writing style you use, even if you don’t keep the character on stage.

Writing is a process. Each writer, like each actor, finds the processes that work for them. As a reviewer, I try to point out the symptoms I’m seeing and, based on my experience, give the writer a few ways to tune the work. And I always start each review with the same statement:  All feedback is an attempt of the reviewer to re-write the story in their own image. That’s good, because it means they’re engaged. Your reviewer is trying to figure out how they would relate to the story. But that’s also why a writer should never respond to feedback immediately. Go out on a rock and sit on it for a few days. Feel out what pings as true, then act on it.

Would you date your bad guy?

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Writers are usually quite diligent in developing their protagonist, the settings, the concept. All great stuff.

But there’s one area where I typically need to nudge and prod. That is, in developing the bad guy.

The thing is, the bad guy is where you’ll find your story meat. In thinking through what he wants and why, you’ll discover solid plot points that can fill out the narrative. Without this thinking, the story is half formed.

So let’s take a short walk in your bad guy’s shoes and see what we find. For simplicity, I use He for antagonist, She for protagonist.

Relationship sussing

  • What does your bad guy (he) want from the protagonist (her)?
    He wants her to be his [insert roles such as: cheerleader, seducer, mother]. More on roles.
  • What is his dream ending for the near and distant future of this relationship?
    When he imagines the best, best, best, possible outcome for this story what is it? How does your protagonist get in his way? What about his long term plans?

What’s his perspective?

  • According to him, what’s going on?
    Does he think something’s wrong, if so what? If not, why not? Like, if he’s the boss who considers his employees mere minions, then treating them as slaves is natural. No problem here. Your protagonist’s job is to help him see the problem or get out from under him.
  • If he loses, what does he lose? If he wins, what does he win?
    Why does it matter? How can you make this more dramatic to increase the stakes?
  • At each point in the story, how does he change his strategies?
    Does he need to adjust his tactics as the protagonist changes hers?

What is his character?

  • How is he egotistical, self-centered or judgemental?
    This is where you will find his blind spot. If yours is a supernatural or magical antagonist, this is where to find that human blind spot she can take advantage of. Consider what he hasn’t thought through all the way. How does he see himself as “above the line” while others are “below the line”?
  • What’s his dastardly plan to destroy the world?
    Develop that plan! Consider where it’s flawed. Did he focus on one aspect of the plan over another? What are the challenges he could face in seeing it through? Does he know the weak spots and try to hide them?
  • When he was five, what did his mother love about him?
    Even a nasty villain had a mother and she probably loved him. Was he fastidious? Curious? Demanding?
  • What does he do when he’s happy?
    Look at your answers to what his mother loved about him. Showing your bad guy as happy can be fun, interesting, round him out. Didn’t you just love Richmond Valentine’s love of films and McDonald’s in Kingsman?
  • What does he do when he’s sad, angry, frustrated?
    Is he a whiner? A pouter? A slam the door kinda guy? Vengeful? Hurt? More important, how do his reactions make him change his strategies?
  • What does he care about?
    What comforts him? Movies, a nice suit, a fine wine, great food. Or is there a person or animal he would do anything for?
  • What is his bad habit?
    Smoker, drinker, nail biter? Obsessive compulsive, worrier, anxiety prone, procrastinator? Whatever you choose, this will get in his way toward achieving his plan.
  • What is he most afraid of and why?
    This is his kryptonite, use it.
  • What is he running toward/away from and why?
    If she knows what he wants / doesn’t want in life, maybe she can thwart his desired path.
  • What’s he trying to hide and why?
    Failure, shame, regrets, embarrassments? The best characters always have something they’re hiding, maybe even from themselves.

Phew! That’s a lot of questions. Some will apply, others won’t. After one pass go through them again and fine tune your answers.

What’s the tree?

A simplified synopsis of story structure goes like this:

  • Get your character up a tree.
  • Throw rocks at her.
  • Get your character out of the tree.

So, by looking at your antagonist you’re asking yourself, “What kind of tree am I putting her in?” The answers will give you ideas for the rocks you throw at your protagonist and how to get her out of that tree.

There’s another bonus to looking at your story from your antagonist’s perspective; you’ll see your protagonist as the bad guy. Like looking at her in the mirror, you’ll see her flaws more keenly. Be sure to burnish those flaws, they’ll make your protagonist more relatable, more believable, more real.

Back to the antag for one last note: He has to be at all three climaxes in your story. If he’s not, you’ve got the wrong antagonist. See my primer on plot structure for more.

Roles

Digging into relationships

If the relationships in your story are flat or confusing you, these acting analysis techniques can help to heighten the dynamics and unravel the tangles. They’re also great idea generators.

A 3-PART SERIES
Part 1: Roles    |    Part 2: Goals     |     Part 3: Emotional bank accounts

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Roles

Relationships have labels like friend, wife, mother, sister. But since labels are factual, they tell us nothing about the health of the relationship. Is a marriage amazingly romantic or painfully toxic? The plain old label married doesn’t tell us.

To clarify, we need to look at what’s going on at an emotional level. That is, what they want from each other, expect from one another, and whether these wants and expectations are satisfied. Roles provide a short hand for doing that.

Roles come out of stories and our culture. They are icons as lofty as knight in shining armour or ordinary as helpdesk customer service rep.

If I want my boyfriend to be my knight in shining armour, I want him to come to my rescue. If he wants me to be his princess, he wants me to be a girly girl who sits there looking pretty and swoons at his manliness. This relationship has a chance of working out because what we want from each other is complimentary. But it isn’t very interesting, is it?

But if I want him to be my cheerleader and root for my legal career while he wants me to be his doting mother, who packs his lunch for him every day and tucks him in at night, we might have problems.

Finding a single, strong role allows the actor or writer to clarify what the character wants and expects from the other person.

In preparing a scene, an actor will complete the phrase: “I want Johnny to be my….”

  • Seducer
  • Play mate
  • Mentor
  • Love of my life
  • Equal…

The more descriptive and specific the role, the more useful it is in figuring out the relationship for that situation. Which brings me to another point.

As situations change, so do our wants and expectations.

At home in the kitchen I want my boyfriend to be my sous chef. When I have an appointment I expect him to be my chauffeur. Out at dinner I want him to be my entertainer.

Each character in a scene wants something from every other character in that scene, which can get complicated if taken too far. If I’m working on a scene with more than two people, I’ll focus on the important relationships and only consider the others if I have to. My aim is to understand the relationship I’m writing about, not to fill out a bureaucratic form, right?

When you’ve got some options figured out, you’re ready to put them into a scene to see how the sparks fly. That’s where goals come in.


Roles come from my fantabulous scene study instructor, Ron Singer. Goals courtesy of Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. Emotional bank accounts, business guru, Stephen Covey.

Do you suffer from performance anxiety?

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Shh! Don’t tell our computer overlords you’re reading this.


Many actors will hand write their lines to learn them. The physical act of setting pen to paper, forming each word and punctuation mark, uses both sides of the brain allowing actors to tap a deeper, more thoughtful place. The words burn visually, physically into their memory. If you’ve ever sat in an exam and remembered the answer to a question because you also recall the doodle on that same page of your notebook, you’ve done the same thing.

Just reading the lines over wouldn’t reach so deeply. Tapping them out on a keyboard wouldn’t either.

Actors use other tools: Creating specific visuals for each sentence, connecting the words they speak with physical actions or developing a rhythm to the words that becomes like a song they sing.

Notice how not one of these methods involves a computer? Actors recognize that their craft is an organic, fluid process. Just because we can do so many things on the computer, doesn’t mean we should do everything there.

Each stage of the writing process requires a different kind of fluidity, just like acting. The idea is to match the method that works for you to each writing task.

I’m so old, my first play was written on a type writer. (Yes, ouch). I felt so bohemian, sitting on the floor of my apartment, the typewriter between my legs, tap, tap, tapping away for over a year. For a review / edit session I’d take the pieces of paper and go through them. When edits were needed I’d physically cut and tape bits of paper together, labelling pages 4A, 4B, etc. If I wanted another draft, the entire thing had to be re-typed from beginning to end. A pain in the buttinsky, sure (in more ways than one). But typing up each draft also gave me another perspective on the story I was building, which proved useful.

When I shifted to computer I noticed how writing a first draft felt different.

The screen was more like a stage than a blank page. I’d type a few words and my inner editor would jump all over them, slashing at ideas. It was like I was trying to set everything in concrete from paragraph one. My first drafts were studies in performance anxiety, because I’d edit the line until it was perfect. When I had something of a draft, I’d print out the whole expecting genius and find a scrambled mess. Oh, each sentence was lovingly crafted. But each was an island.

I learned that a first draft works better if I allow myself to sketch, to throw ideas around and let them live. To write by hand, doodle, circle, arrows and shapes.

Each writer is different, of course. For some the computer screen doesn’t induce anxiety, it’s a pool to throw words into and swim. I guess each of us needs to find the method to match stage and style.

How do you interface with your words and drafts? Leave a comment.

If interested, take a look at Colleen’s draft prescriptions.