One tip I’ve culled from most writing manuals is the art of observation.
That’s taking a notebook - going out there into the field of life and scribbling notes. No earphones! And though, it’s good tip, sometimes the would-be writer ( moi ) will find herself with notebook after notebook of endlessly vague descriptions - sexy lady in red dress, fat woman eating french fries. Guy with a spider web tattoo on elbow. Squirrel eating a nut. Smell of fresh cut grass , breeze through oak trees. Noisy kids playing on playground.
This really isn’t helpful. It’s seeing but not really observing. For instance everyone at the park will see a squirrel eating a nut. And if you write it down as that , you haven’t pushed yourself. What’s really going on? What is the squirrel doing? Is he taking the peanut in his paws turning it - ah - A squirrel cartwheeling a peanut in his paws - maybe it's overblown but heck, it's original.
Get away from labels - fat , sexy, gorgeous, ugly, plain.
What makes a Plain Jane, anyway? What makes someone gorgeous? Sit in a busy coffee shop, a cafeteria, a Mcdonalds restaurant and start observing people without summing them up in a label. Describe them. Keep clothing brief - it should only help to define the person - for instance - I watched a young mother push a baby carriage into Mcdonalds the other day, she was slim, tanned with long dark hair and a haughty sort of gaze. Not exactly pretty. Her lips were thin and unsmiling and she had a vague, still-hung-over tiredness about her. Good golly ruching. Up and down the sides of her tight, strapless dress with a zipper that ran the entire, brief length, from midback down to just below her bum. If she ever bent to touch her toes, she’d moon the entire restaurant. When her baby started fussing she told him to “can it.” This gives you so much - you don’t have to tell us this young mom was sorta pretty, sorta trashy, sorta mean - the reader can pick it all up - it’s a breadcrumb trail.
Also, try and leave your baggage at home - this isn’t a laugh riot to snark on people, even as I’m
swaying the reader to feel a certain way about her - hold back a bit. See through other peoples
eyes without dismissing them - it will help to create a world populated with characters who
don’t just echo one another. Like every’s quirky or cool, but look I’ve got the token nerd
or tramp. They’re just people, they’re real.
Getting out in the field can also help cure you of that urge to create movie-star characters. I’m hugely guilty of this - I love a goodlooking hunk. I like gorgeous heros. Unfortunately, I’m discovering hey, sometimes gorgeous people aren’t that interesting. Think about it. People are usually so ga-ga over them, that a hero need only to appear to get what he wants. Flaws help create obstacles and are more relatable to the reader. Force yourself to examine couples holding hands and especially if you’re saying what do these uglies see in each other? - look hard - find beauty in someone you’d normally find unappealing - on the flipside - find something repellant about someone you’d normally find attractive. Start to redefine beauty - it will help uproot cliches. And you can start fresh with your characters.
Conversations - ditch the ipod, put away the phone no texting - start listening in. I know it sounds rude but it’s fascinating. Plus when you target total strangers you’re going in with a clean slate. If you try this out with friends you may tend to zone out certain people, writing so-and-so off as a total spaz. If you don’t do the bar thing try - a church supper, a local fish fry, a Starbucks or Tim Horton’s, Fast Food restaurants, a bus stop - especially when kids get off - only be careful you don’t look like a total weirdo - lol! I heard Nabokov rode around on American school buses when he was writing Lolita to get an idea of how kids talked. Write the conversations down listen to what’s been said , whats not being said, facial expressions, body language. It will be like a puzzle because you don’t know these people but you’ll judge them on this moment alone - sort of like your readers will judge your characters on one scene.
Setting - the oddity about setting is our hero could walk through a forest and not know one single, friggin flower - to him it’s a field of flowers - they’re yellow, blue, purple and red. But as a writer - it’s important we know. Because the reader wants to leave the book not just having been somewhere but has been informed about this place - you’re like a tour guide. Tour guides are supposed to be a fount of knowledge and if you’re still adorning your meadows with flowers time to do some research. One is of course to get out in a field and start jotting things - but this could leave you with some surreal images; star shaped mauve flowers staggered up a stalk, little bitty flowers shaped like champagne cups. Investing in used flower guides or gardening books is actually a good idea - so is used decorating books - even old ones can serve a purpose. Visit a nursery that sells flowers. Look, touch, smell.
Jot stuff down. Ask questions -like what’s your top seller. What’s over looked. What smells the best. Look at catalogs and magazines and watch the trends in home decor. Walk through a Home depot. Walk through a used clothing store. And not that you want to be caught sniffing an old couch - but it does spark an idea of what a home could smell like. Avoid being too stiff. Unless your characters are perfectionists or industrialists a home should be a home that reflects an INTERESTING character. Mix and match old and new. Peek into a restaurant you’ve never been too. Go to open houses. Just like people don’t make snap judgements - this house is a dump - only frustrates the reader - he came to see the dump. Describe it. Feel it.
Walk through flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores sometimes an item can help kick off
a scene. You may take a dress off a hanger and laugh - who would caught dead in this monstrocity - let your imagination flow - this could be the character to add some dazzle to your story. A fondue pot could spark a humourous dinner scene. Buy an Lp with some music you normally wouldn’t listen to.
Be the artist Aristotle describes -
'The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.'
Word choices trigger emotions and they’re the rudder that will steer your story to it’s proper port. Don’t be caught adrift!
The other day - I kicked up my observations a notch.
I was sitting in the car waiting for a friend to come out of a store and watched these girls who happened to come to the strip mall - here’s the scene I could've wrote
Four girls -one fat , one wearing off shoulder top - and two skinny younger ones
meet under strip mall overhang, they're shouting loud, asking about some boy named Brian
and hating on the younger girls mother
- it's vague kinda lifeless.
But here's the final scene.
This young girl exits a Variety store, tugging along a small jack russell mix. I think the girl is eleven or so - I’m getting older - I can’t tell ages anymore, kids look like giants now! Her loose shiny hair is peculiar - looks as though she dunked a ponytail into a vat of Sun-in; the roots and three inches down are silver-brown. She’s wearing denim shorts and an off the shoulder striped top. The stripes are Popsicle green.
She comes out of a store carrying something and shouting - “Giselle! Giselle!” Screaming under the overhang of the strip mall. Three girls appear from the opening that allows the apartment dwellers behind the plaza to walk in through an alley, rather than circle around to the street.
One girl is older, heavy wearing a too tight black top that keeps rising over her belly. Her black eyeliner is thick as crayon rimming dark eyes that sizzle, her mouth barely smiles. It’s an effort to be cool. With a toss of her head she flicks the black sweep of bangs out of her eyes. The other two are younger- eleven year olds. One is thin and tiny, with an angular face n’ freckles, her hair is pulled tight into a smooth ponytail, while the other girl is just as thin and tiny, but with long dark hair. “Where were you?” The screamer continues at the top of her lungs. “I went to your place. Where did you go?”
“Looking for you stupid.” Giselle begins throwing up her arm. “We told you we’d meet you -”
“We had to stop at Cara’s.” They’re talking over top of one another. The screamer whose name could be Alice dashes over to them tugging her dog. She gives one of the girls a quick hug from the side. The girl grins. The girl with the long dark picks up the dog and cuddles him to her cheek - “Hey Jack, hey Jack, hey Jack. ohhh good doggy. I love your dog.”
“Anyone seen Brian?” Alice asks. “I’ve been looking for him everywhere.” she sounds as though she’s hunting an errant husband.
The dark haired girl stops kissing the dog to offer - “Yeah I seen him earlier - ”
“When did you guys meet up? You didn’t meet up without me did you?” Alice has forgotten Brian for the moment, now she sounds wounded. She yanks the wrapper off a push pop and tosses it wily-nily. So much for all those environmental classes the schools push.
“We met Giselle in the park. She can’t come to my place. My mother doesn’t want me to hang out with her cause she’s thirteen.” She turns to Giselle and adds with a sticky, apologetic smile. “I think she doesn’t like you.” Giselle’s eyes slit. She’s like an ogre next to this dainty, little freckled fairy. “Well I don’t like your mother.”She snaps. “If fact, I’ve never liked your mother.”
Cara shoots the dark haired girl an uh-oh look.
Dark haired girl snuzzles the dog and looks away - you’re on your own.
“It’s not like she hates you, she thinks your, like, ya know a bad influence.” Adding quickly. “I don’t know where she gets that from.”
“Well, I hate your mother.” Giselle fires off glibly and flicks her bangs. “I’ve always hated your mother. She’s such a bitch! In fact your mom is the bitchiest mom, I’ve ever met.”
Cara gets this torn wait-a-minute look. Should I defend my mom? Or... she looks around. These are the cool girls. She looks to Alice for help who shrugs and keeps licking the push-pop.
“What flavor is that?” Dark haired girl says to change the subject.
“Apple, sour apple.”
“Feed some to the dog -” She giggles, swinging the dog close.
“No. he’ll get sick- put him down.”
“Sour apple that stuff tastes like shit.”Giselle says. “No offense.”
“No one asked you to eat it.” Alice says. She’s not quite the push over the other two are. Her eyes behind her glasses are fierce. “Where the Hell is Brian?” she moans.
A man in a motorized wheelchair comes sailing into their group. He’s crumbly, old, one eye is shot and stuck in some askew glance. He smiles at the girls and begins in a halting stammer - “Ah girls - girls I won - ah oh ....um ...okay.”
The girls stare at him their eyes rounding and draw closer together, nearly stepping off the sidewalk. But edging to keep Giselle in front.
“I thought...smoke - I thought you were smoking, had a cigarette in your mouth.” His head bobbles to peer in the direction of Alice with her push pop. She doubles, hair flying up giggling madly.
Suddenly one of them blows a loud raspberry. They’re cracking up now. Some of it is nerves. Their giggles are pushed out with an edge of hysteria. To them he’s just a creepy old man. And their game is to drive him away. They're doing a good job. The old guy’s eyes water, he’s stricken and admonishes -
“You shouldn’t laugh. I’m wearing dentures...that’s why you can’t understand me.”
“Didn’t you hear that fart noise, that’s why we’re laughing.” Giselle explains but she’s got a sly look.
She looks to the others and as if on cue they laugh harder. He shakes his head and rolls on.
“Shit, that old guy was creepy.” Giselle says not looking so old or cool anymore, now, she looks faintly
“Tell me about it.” Cara puts her hand over her chest. She’s watching the old guy motor into the Variety store.
“What did the old geezer want anyway?” The dark haired one asked.
“He thought you,” Giselle flicks Alice’s protuding push pop handle. “were smoking.”
“Duh.” Alice says and they all giggle. Alice is bending and dancing around one of the cement posts, holding up the overhang.
“Hey it’s Lisa!”
“LISA! LISA!” Giselle is screaming like she hasn’t seen this friend in eons. She runs to this girl crossing the parking lot who is also thirteen, a little big, but with long dark hair, a caramel tan and a superior smile. She hugs her in a rocking sort of dance, twirling her around.
“Have you seen Brian?”Alice shouts over like she’s miles away, and their’s a hurricane making communication desperate and difficult. She’s maybe fifty yards and the sound carries in this curious little nook. It couldn’t get any louder if she used a megaphone.
“He’s like right over there.” Lisa flaps her arm pointing, standing on tip toe. Giselle is tickling her, Lisa shoves her, they laugh and hang onto one another. Black hair falls against black hair. They must be best friends they’re starting to look alike.
Alice lets out a squeal. Then turns and dashes in light springy bounds down the alley of the strip mall. The creepy old guy has wheeled out of the variety store and sees the girl running towards him, she’s all dashing glorious grin, streaky blonde hair and a peek-a-boo shoulder and suddenly he turns his chair towards her, hopeful, as though she’d come in all her radiance to apologize. She brushes past him, squealing , “Brian! Brian!” The old guy’s face falls back into it’s lonely lines and hoping no one noticed, rolls on. I’m craning to get a look at her heartthrob but their reunion is blocked by the variety store’s sidewalk curtain of hanging baskets. She tugs him along, half hugging him. He’s like a teddy bear. Maybe he’s nine or ten or eleven. I don’t know. Guys are always shrimper at that age. His skin is cinnamon colored - east Indian? with a round face and a shrub of black curly hair. He looks like a soccer player.
“Where have you been?” She scolds. She has a smudge on her glasses.
“Over at Pete’s. We were at the park too, where were you? We waited.”
“I was waiting for them.” She points accusingly at her friends who have been shouting their hellos at Brian like he’d returned from a six-month oilrig job in Alaska. She's trying to talk him into hanging out.
But he’s already got plans and breaks into a jog, casting a careless , “Talk to you later.” over
“He’s soo cute.”
“He’s alright.” Giselle shrugs. They gather into a knot away from me. Stepping out from under the overhang into the sunlight. Alice is still licking her pop and Cara is asking -
“Got any real money?”
“I got some..” Alice is wary. Then she gets it. “Enough to get what I wanted.” She really dragged out the I.
“Can I borrow some?”
“C’mon Alice...” Cara is a born wheedler.
“No!” She has a hand on her purse now, bracing for a mugging.
“Well, can I have a lick?”
“C’mon , c’mon Alice. Pleeeease pleeease...one taste. Just one little taste.”
“Shut the Hell up you two.” Giselle orders with a sneer. She looks at Lisa who shakes her head in digust. Giselle nods -a shared look of these kids! “Lets go to Buck or Two , I want something to drink. I’m dying of thirst.”
“Can I borrow some money.” Cara a few steps behind seems a permanent tag-a-long.
I watch them as they disappear around the corner.
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