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.

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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.

Do you know how your character really feels?

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The more I write, the more I realize that recognizing emotional granularity is a skill. Learning to differentiate emotions has a nifty benefit: It’s something you can also use in your personal life.

There are truck loads of research defining the benefits of this skill. Here’s a great New York Times article that explains it really well: Are you in Despair? That’s good.

As the article says:

According to a collection of studies, finely grained, unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.

A useful tool is an emotion list, such as Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel, but there are others. Refer to such lists to consider the subtleties and differences. Such small differences can make a big difference in what you write.

Anticipation or joy? Amazement or surprise?

In describing emotional states, I ask:

  • Is John merely annoyed or swept up in uncontrolled rage?
  • Is Michelle apprehensive, terrified, or someplace in between?
  • Is Catherine feeling admiration or love?

When you recognize the difference between frustration and fury, you react to situations with more skill and self-awareness. Those who haven’t developed this skill (aka, many characters), react in broader emotional strokes. It’s like they only have one note to react to all obstacles: a car horn. They may not even realize that they’re over-reacting. And gosh, it’s exhausting.

There are two levels to an emotion in a scene. First, there’s the character’s emotional reaction to the circumstances. But in addition to that, there’s the primary emotion where they live their life. Some people react to everything with anger. Others, fear. A person whose primary emotion is joy, will react to stress with one set of coping strategies. A person coloured by boredom will react to stress using other strategies.

Emotion Wheel

Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel

Not all characters are lost emotionally.

Emotionally stable characters (aka, wise characters such as wizards, monks or philosophers) inhabit a place beneath the turbulent emotions of life. It is like they are sitting on the bottom of the ocean. They see the emotional waves of the surface, but they recognize them as distractions and don’t pay them any mind. They know that if they go up there, they’ll be caught up in the turbulence. Only when a wise character is the protagonist is she thrown into the waves and just like all characters, works to find her way out of them, back to the serenity of the ocean floor.

The task of “working to find a way out” involves showing how your character develops emotional awareness. As a character grows, they learn how to handle at least one emotion.

STRETCHING EXERCISES

  • When out in public, look at the people around you. Can you tell what they are feeling? What about them is communicating that emotion to you?
  • Ask yourself: What makes one person look angry while another content? Is it the way they walk? What they’re looking at? The furrow in their brow? How they charge forward, full steam ahead?
  • Can you tell what their primary emotion is? The one they automatically go to? What tells you that?
  • For the people who stand out to you, see if you can write a brief description of your findings.

To help you in describing emotions without even leaving your desk, take a look at this Guide to micro expressions.

LOOK IN THE MIRROR

Another way to stretch and grow is to look at your own emotional ups and downs. Here’s a few simple exercises, taken from Zen Buddhist traditions, to help you develop self-awareness:

  • At times throughout your day, try to identify the emotion you’re feeling. If you can, jot them down on a list.
  • Google “emotion list” or visit Wikipedia’s entry, List of Emotions, and see if you can identify where you hang out on the scale.
  • What primary emotion do you think you communicate?
  • Try to pinpoint the emotional range of friends or family.

Goals

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

Goals = actions

Roles help you think about the relationship. Goals gets your character to think about what they want to make happen in the scenes you write.

To get there ask, “What does Amy want from Fred right now?” What do they need so badly from the other person that they’re willing to take extra steps to get it? That’s their goal for the scene.

Some examples:

  • I want my tasty tart (role) to give me big, sloppy kisses (action).
  • I want my father confessor (role) to listen without judgment and forgive me (action).
  • I want my cheerleader (role)  to slap me on the back and say I’m doing a great job (action).
  • I want my Help desk support (role) to fix all my computer, phone or login issues without getting angry, frustrated or judgmental (action+attitude).

This is what your character wants the other person in the scene to do to affirm the relationship. The trick is, how do they get them to do it? Do they bring a gift, give a massage, share a story or play a game? There are as many tactics as there are situations.

The character’s job is to use these strategies to tease what they want out of the other person.

Now, meanwhile, the other character wants something, too. As writer you need to know that so you can fine tune the conflict. Here’s a quick attempt I sketched out:

Jaime arrives at the restaurant and since his girlfriend Janet isn’t there, he finds a table. Well, guess what? His ex Amanda walks over with this guy that she’s dripping over. She introduces him as her fiance. When Janet arrives, Amanda and her fiance drift to the bar.

Janet’s had a hard drive over here and is pissed… super duper pissed about the availability of parking in this city. She wants to rant and she wants him to be her ranting partner. As soon as she sits down she pulls some paper out of her purse and starts a petition. She demands Jaime brainstorm with her.

Amanda’s sitting at the bar, looking over and smiling at Jaime from time to time. Jaime wants to show her that he’s past her (he isn’t). He wants Amanda to be his crazy ex. To get that, he needs Janet to be his tasty tart girlfriend. He wants her to kiss him, to ooze all over him, like she usually does. But Janet’s going on about a petition! All he needs is one kiss. One big, sloppy wet one.

Do you notice how this translates into character action? But not just any action, emotion-revealing action? As Janet’s pulling out paper and pen, ranting, Jaime’s trying to kiss her.

Also notice how part of finding the action involves finding motivation. Jaime is motivated to work for that kiss because his ex girlfriend is there.

Could some motivation be added for Janet’s reason to write a letter? Could she decide that the restaurant is a great place to start getting signatures and start running around. In fact, what if a city counsellor is in the restaurant, too? Maybe Jaime’s ex is a city counsellor. (Oh my!)

Okay, perhaps that’s stretching it. (bit of a shrug) But it does demonstrate how playing around with the details of a scene can heighten the dynamics.

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Watch for negative goals

Negative goals sap away dramatic potential. Examples of negative intentions include:

  • To get away from…
  • Want nothing do with…
  • To want the other person to crawl up and die…

Negative intentions (to leave, destroy) end relationships. A story is all about how relationships change and move forward. If your character wants ‘nothing’ from the other person, what’s keeping them in the story at all? Why don’t they just run?

They have to want something from the other person, and it’s your job to figure that out (or cut them).

There’s no dramatic benefit to a negative choice. And that’s what we’re interested in as writers, digging into the relationships to create dramatic scenes full of conflict.

One additional note: a character may appear negative on the surface, but you can’t settle for appearances. As Michael Shurtleff says in his most wonderful book, Audition:

The story of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" 
is not about three sisters who didn't make 
it to Moscow; it's about three sisters 
who fight like hell to get there.

Okay, last tool in this series: emotional bank accounts.


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

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.