Dont Ever Stop Observing and Making Notes

You must never stop working on your keenness of observation. Honing your ability to observe accurately-and to write down what you've noticed - must be part of your lifelong commitment to fiction.

If you've been writing any time at all, of course, I'm sure you feel that you are an accurate observer, and a skillful writer of whatever you observe. Most of us, however, need to stand back from ourselves occasionally to make sure we haven't become lazy or passive in how we relate to the real world which is our story material.

Let me suggest a couple of simple exercises you should do carefully from time to time-not only to check up on yourself for continuing keenness of observation, but to keep your skills polished.

Look at that tree in your backyard, or in the nearby park. Really look at it. What color is it? Green? What shade of green? How is its color different from the elm nearby, or that blue spruce across the way? What shape is it? Round? Tall and graceful in the breeze, like a young ballerina, or bent with age and disease, like an old crone broken by life in the streets? How does it stand out in its surroundings? Is it tall and stark black against the eye-hurting brilliance of a summer sun? Gently fuzzy and soft in the evening twilight? Dark and frightening, casting black shadows of fear from the corner street lamp? How would you describe it in a few words, to make a picture of it leap to life in your reader's mind?

Or suppose you meet a new person today, or happen to pass a stranger on the street. Instantly you form some impression of that person. Immediately you begin to draw conclusions about what kind of person he or she is. In real life, casually, you make perhaps dozens of observations in an instant; then you draw conclusions from them. For a nonwriter, such a process is automatic and unexamined. But for you the fiction writer the process must be made conscious, then examined and related to your work.

Look at that new person. Force yourself to note details actively and consciously, rather than passively and unconsciously. What details are you looking at first? Second? Only later? What details are you using as a basis for assumptions about what kind of person this is? Note body conformation, height, weight, clothing, hair, facial expression, stance, skin coloration, movement of eyes, gestures, speed of movement, age, tone of voice, loud-ness of voice, accent if any, intonation, speed of speaking, vocabulary. When the person begins speaking, note too what his topic may be; his characteristic attitude-whether happy, sad, angry, frightened, bitter, cynical, hopeful, trusting, whatever; note his speaking cadence, pitch and rhythms.

As soon as you can, make notes of everything you have observed. Do you note some "hole" in your observations, some detail you didn't pick up that you now wish you had? Do you find yourself wishing you could go back and look again? Do you find that your notes might describe some other tree or some other vague and ordinary person? If you experience any of these reactions, you probably need to observe more consciously. Just knowing that you need to do this-and remembering not to fall back into routine, passive experiencing-will make you more alert and better as an observer.

Having made your observations and notes, however, you as a writer of fiction must always take another step, that of relating your observations to the writing process.

Here is what I mean. Suppose you just met a new person, and found her interesting, striking or unusual in some way. (If you observed keenly enough, you always will find a new acquaintance to be one of the above. ) Now ask yourself: "How can I write down my description in such a way that it becomes even more vivid and striking than what I just observed?"

Then write it!

As discussed in Chapter Seven, you won't ever take a real person literally from life and put her in your fiction; real people, no matter how well portrayed, just aren't big and unusual enough for good fiction. But your work in observing and writing real people or places as vividly as possible will make you a far better writer, and even more interesting when you fictionalize your observations.

One additional point: it will be instructive for you to write down everything you notice, in as much detail as possible, in your note-taking phase. "Looking for more words" (as one of my students once put it) prods you to look broader and deeper sometimes. When you practice your final writing of this information, however, you should ask yourself what few details might stand out for the whole-how briefly you can write your description or data, and still provide the reader with a vivid picture.

In this process of distilling the impressions into final written form, you should watch out for adjectives and adverbs. Some will be necessary, but if you find yourself stringing them together like sausages, you must realize that you are no longer writing vivid copy. Good writing of this kind is lean and terse. It thrives on brevity, directness, simplicity, concreteness, contrast-precise, specific nouns and strong verbs. If you string out adjectives in an attempt to get the job done, your reader will go to sleep. Adjectives, like adverbs, are lazy words, slowpokes, tranquilizers. Watch out for them!

The more you force yourself consciously to observe and note details you can use-and the more you practice actually writing descriptions and factual passages so that they are as striking and evocative as possible - the keener you will become in picking up data, and the better you will become in learning to use it to improve your writing.

It's a multi-step process, you see:

• First, you stop being passive and actively examine your environment.

• Second, you seek out what makes this tree... this person... unique.

• Third, you go through the formal process of recording your observations so you won't lose them.

• Fourth, you practice translating your observations into deft, brief, evocative writing.

This whole process is a great deal of fun. Writers who practice it-and that includes all professionals - find that it makes them feel more alive, more in touch with everything and everyone, more excited about living. The job of recording observations, then writing them as brilliantly as possible, keeps them constantly alert and challenged - stimulated by new ideas and associations - and improving in the clarity and impact of their style.

Many fiction writers put much of this kind of work in their journals. A journal can include many kinds of writing and information. But often this sort of thing dominates such a volume.

Try working on your own skills in this way. Make it a lifetime habit. You will never be bored, you will always be challenged, and you are sure to grow.

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