Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pay Attention. Remember.

A popular post from September 2011

by Annette Lyon

One of your main jobs as a writer is to keep your eyes and ears open, all the time. You never know what random bit of information you gleaned from a newscast, documentary, conversation, novel, or something else entirely, will be just the bit you need for a story.

At various times, the following pieces of information have proven useful in my work (whether that's reading, editing, or writing), all of which I've learned from paying attention as my life moves along.
  • Portuguese doesn't sound like Italian.
  • Some houses can't have basements because of a high water table.
  • You can't shoot the lock off a door.
  • The typical length of a picture book is 32 pages.
  • Bleeding arteries don't trickle or run; they pump in spurts.
  • Many Southern California apartments don't have heating.
  • In-N-Out Burgers has a minimal menu.
  • In the Salt Lake City Airport, arriving passengers come down an escalator to meet family.
  • Bruises turn yellow when they've almost healed.
  • Almost anything can be poisonous in the right amount.
  • If you break your nose, you may become nauseated from blood draining into your stomach.
  • A canyon near my home has a great running trail, and in the fall, the trail is surrounded by gold leaves.
  • The carpet in a local ICU has a swirly blue pattern.
  • A small rock, when thrown, can cause a cut big enough to need stitches.
  • A childhood friend's father used to sing silly songs in a voice mimicking Kermit the Frog.
I could go on and on. If you're a curious writer, you probably could too. That's a good thing.

As a writer, you should be constantly paying attention. An incomplete list of what that can mean:
  • Eavesdropping on public conversations.
  • Noticing smells.
  • Paying attention to sounds, both indoors and outdoors.
  • Taking note of colors: on the mountains, paint on the walls, clothing, hair, etc.
  • Mentally cataloging quirks of speech.
  • Thinking up ways to describe things (sights, sensations, etc.)
  • Watching professionals as they work, including their behaviors, choices, and vocabulary.
And so on.

If you're the curious type, you likely run a Google search for random things at random times. You wonder "what if" and "why" and you aren't satisfied with generic answers. You look up one thing online and end up staying there for an hour, following links as you learn a bunch of new things.

Instead of apologizing for being "weird," embrace the idiosyncrasy and fill up the well of detail that's inside you.

Why? Because when you're sitting at the keyboard, getting ready write, you need a well to draw from. Of course you don't need to know everything when you sit down. Far from it. You can always leave blanks to research and fill in later. (I do that all the time.)

But if you have been actively filling up your well with vivid images, sounds, smells, and ideas, your writing will flow out of your fingers quicker and smoother than it would otherwise. You'll find yourself making connections you wouldn't have thought of otherwise. Your story will be richer.

If your well is empty, you'll have nothing to draw from.

So: Watch. Listen. Read.

Above all, pay attention and remember.

If you have heard about it yet, be sure to check out the newest writing podcast, specifically about middle-grade books. It's called Wordplay, and the three hosts are awesome: critique group member J. Scott Savage, New York Times best-selling writers James Dashner, and literary agent-turned novelist Nathan Bransford.


Rebecca McKinnon said...

Thanks for the reminder that while I might not be normal, I'm (somewhat) normal for a writer! And that it's okay to eavesdrop... (Besides, if people want to keep things secret, they shouldn't discuss them in public places.)

Amy said...

This is so funny because this is totally what I do!
Just today, in fact, I had to google what kinds of festivals happened in the Baltimore area during the month of March.
And I live in Arizona. Never even been to Baltimore.
Fun stuff!

Rebecca said...

You mean most people don't google random things they're curious about?


Great post!

Erin G. said...

Something I've been doing for the past year is carrying a commonplace book. It's just a little notebook and pen that go in my pocket wherever I go. Then any passing thoughts, cool observations, bits of dialogue, etc. get put in on the spot. Emerson had a commonplace book, Lincoln would carry bits of paper in the brim of his hat and scribble notes on them. I think it's a really great practice that can benefit every writer. Some of my best ideas came in the weirdest moments and wouldn't have been written if I didn't have my commonplace book. Just a thought.