They Don’t See What You See

If you aim to be an author, you must observe the world as a writer does. You’ll write better stories if you do.

When I use the word ‘observe’ I mean it in the general sense of perceiving by one or more of the five senses (or beyond those five, even). I’ve blogged before about conveying the five senses in your stories, but here I’m referring not to your characters, but to you perceiving the real world.

Writer ObservationBefore we get to writers, let’s discuss observation in general. While acknowledging there are other epistemological theories, I’ll assume there is a single, physical world out there, and each person observes it differently. Those differences are due to observations taken from different physical locations, accuracy of senses, mood, previous experiences, and many other things.

Observation, then, is a combination of a signal from one or more senses, and the mental activity resulting from the signal. We perceive with our senses and our brains.

Early in life, we discover the universe is too big and filled with too much stuff for us to see every little detail, so we learn to filter some things out. We focus on the parts we find most useful.

We recognize patterns, and form mental models of how the world is. That way we can tell at a glance if something doesn’t fit, and we can fill in the details we can’t sense but assume are there. Some people hone their senses to a fine degree of accuracy through practice, and some do not.

What does it mean to observe the world as a writer does? A good writer:

  • Considers the world as a source of story ideas, details, and descriptions;
  • Sees places as potential story scenes;
  • Notices people and incorporates aspects of them in story characters;
  • Hears all talking as potential dialogue;
  • Watches people when they’re experiencing intense emotions, so as to pick out appropriate appearance, expressions, and gestures for story characters;
  • Tastes food with the intent to describe it as a meal in a story;
  • Picks out the most telling details in real places or people, so as to better describe scenes and characters;
  • Goes ‘people-watching’ and imagines background stories for the observed people; and
  • Practices observing with all senses to improve both sensing accuracy and the ability to describe in words what is sensed.

You might doubt this advice will help in your particular case. Maybe the scenes in your stories look nothing like the world you live in, and your novel’s characters are completely unlike anyone you know or see. That’s common when writing fantasy or science fiction.

Even in such cases, it benefits you to practice and improve your powers of observation. That ability to pick out and convey the right details, in a manner that transports the reader to your fictional world, will help you no matter how unusual your scenes and characters are.

For further study, I recommend you read this WikiHow article and also this post by Maria Popova.

If you practice perceiving the world and people around you, really strive to develop that skill, one day you might achieve the acute observational prowess of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

February 28, 2016Permalink


We’ve come to the third principle in Michael J. Gelb’s remarkable book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci. In recent blog posts, I’ve been relating each principle to fiction writers, encouraging you to think like Leonardo as you write.

SensazioneThe third principle is Sensazione, which Gelb defines as “the continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to enliven experience.” Leonardo knew that we experience life through our five senses; therefore, only the person who could enhance his or her senses in perception and accuracy could experience life fully.

Da Vinci’s sight and hearing were superb, and he worked to improve all his senses. He regarded sight as the most important, following by hearing.

The exercises in the Sensazione chapter of Think Like Leonardo da Vinci are among the most fun in the book. For example, Gelb suggests you smell and taste things while blindfolded until you can identify each odor and taste, even those with only slight differences.

How does this relate to writing? The Point of View character in your story also experiences life through her or his senses, just as real people do. However, the only way you can convey these sensations to your reader is through words.

I’ve blogged about the senses before, and encouraged you to incorporate all five of them in your stories. To apply Sensazione in your writing, you must choose words that precisely convey the sensations experienced by your POV character.

I don’t necessarily mean you should pile on adjectives like beautiful, pungent, sonorous, delicious, and velvety—or adverb forms. Adjectives (and to a lesser extent, adverbs) can be useful if you’re selective and choose just the most apt one. Some adjectives, like “beautiful” and “delicious” are not distinct; they tell rather than show.

Another method is with metaphors and similes. If you can compare the sensation your character is experiencing with something to which the reader can relate, and make the comparison distinct and descriptive, that’s Sensazione.

As Leonardo knew, sight is the primary sense for humans, and so it will be for your characters most of the time. But if you appeal to the other senses, too, it can only enhance the reader’s enjoyment. Also, there are times when a character’s first sensation is through one of the other senses, such as when a sight line is blocked and the character hears or smells something before seeing it. Your character might be blind, or in darkness, and will have to rely on the other four senses.

If you work to cultivate your senses in your own life, by going through Gelb’s recommended exercises, you should also strive to become more adept at describing each feeling and sensation in words. As your skill improves, readers will be drawn into your stories and connect with your characters’ experiences.

Ah! I see, hear, and smell breakfast being prepared. I’ll have to end this post now, for soon I shall feel the fork in my hand, and a succulent repast will be tasted by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 13, 2015Permalink

Coming to Your Senses (in Your Writing)

If Poseidon’s Scribe suggests you incorporate an appeal to all five senses in your writing, that’s not exactly original advice.  But why are writers told to do this?  And how do you go about it?

The reason for using all the senses is to make your scenes more vivid, distinct, and real for the reader.  You’re trying to take your reader away from her world where she is sitting and reading a book, just sweep her away to your made-up world.  We speak of “painting a picture” in writing, but it should be more than that.  It should be a multi-sensory experience.  It’s like a Star Trek transporter machine that can move a person in an instant to a different location for a full immersion experience.

Artists, too, often bring the senses into their work.  This is “Still-life with Chessboard (the Five Senses)” by the 17th Century painter Lubin Baugin.

Each of the senses has certain properties.  Although they are obvious from lifelong experience, let’s think about each one from a writer’s point of view.


  • Our primary sense is sight, and that’s usually the first way a character perceives his surroundings.  Human sight is most especially tuned to moving objects, so characters notice them first of all. Depriving a character of sight using darkness or interfering objects can heighten tension.
  • Hearing is our secondary sense, and also has a long range.  Characters can hear things around corners and thus detect them before seeing them at times.
  • Smell has a strong link to mood and memory, and thus can provide a great opportunity for the reader to understand the point-of-view character’s temperament and background.
  • Taste is coupled to the sense of smell.  Letting a character experience food and drink in a scene can enhance the overall impression for the reader.  Remember that characters can learn things by tasting even non-food items, such as deciding whether a liquid is water or oil, for example, when gathering evidence.
  • The sense of touch is probably the most intimate.  It’s the only sense without a specific organ, and the only one we can’t block out except through numbness.

If you open up your writing to appeal to all the senses, you’ll find a wealth of new adjectives at your disposal.  There are many great descriptive words that apply to the non-sight senses.  These sensory descriptions should be used with purposeful ends in mind, though.  You’re trying to advance your plot, reveal character attitudes, or set a scene, not to demonstrate your knowledge of the senses.

Through practice you can improve the perceptiveness and sharpness of your senses as well as your ability to write better sensory descriptions.  It’s just like improving any other skill.  I’ll have more to say about that in a future blog entry.

I should caution you not to overdo it, though.  Modern readers dislike, and often skip, long paragraphs of description.  It’s best to sprinkle your sense-based descriptions in small chunks between and among character thoughts and dialogue throughout the scene.  This avoids overloading and boring the reader, and also gives the reader occasional reminders about where the characters are and the state of their surroundings.

As always, I welcome your comments on this topic.  From what I’ve seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt, this concludes another blog entry by–

                                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

In the Mood…

…for writing, I mean.  If you’re an author, how do you get in the best possible mood to write?

Face it, not every moment of the actual process of writing involves the seamless flow of ideas from brain down to fingers typing with frenzied speed on a keyboard.  There are moments (minutes, hours?) spent staring out the window, looking at a world that’s become far more interesting than the problem of figuring out what the next word should be.  At those times, you need a way to get unstuck.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the classic “writer’s block” where you can be stuck for long periods of time—months or years—and unable to get any creative ideas.  I’m talking about the lesser nephew of writer’s block—let’s call it writer’s clog—a temporary condition where your muse has already whispered the story’s basic idea and sketched out a rough plot.  She has since flitted off to Tonga, or wherever she flits to, and left you in charge of the actual writing part.  You’ve worked on the story for a few days, but all of a sudden words aren’t flowing.

Yogi Berra said of baseball, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental,” and I calculate that statement is eighty percent more true of writing.  So your writer’s clog problem is most likely a mental one.  Now, how are you going to stimulate your mind so it wants to write again?

The simplest way for me is to recall the thought process that led me to the story.  That usually conjures up pleasant memories of the initial enthusiasms, the high expectations of how good the story could be.  Back at that earlier time, my muse had just whispered the story idea and it sounded great.  At that moment, I knew the world needed to hear that story and I was excited about the notion of bringing it forth.

But let’s say that’s not working for you.  Consider using this interesting property of your mind—it can associate two things together (like putting two documents in the same file) just because they happened at the same time, no matter how unlike they are.  Let’s say the muse conveyed the story idea to you while you were in the shower, or mowing the lawn, or out for a walk.  Strangely, your mind now connects your story with that experience.  You might be able to regain your passion for the story, and relieve the writer’s clog, by recreating the experience.

Another method is to artificially create a mental association that’s easier to replicate later.  During the first day of writing the story, while the fervor is still there, the muse’s ideas fresh in your mind—you can make your own mental linkage by finding a picture that depicts something about your story (a scene or character) and staring at it.  You could burn some incense or put out some potpourri and stimulate a fragrant linkage.  Or you could play a CD where the music suggests something about the story, thus establishing an aural connection.

Now whenever you see that picture, smell that scent, or play that CD, you will think of your story and likely be in the mood to continue writing it.  Think of it as Writer’s Clog-Be-Gone (patent not exactly pending).

Do you think this technique might work for you?  Has it worked?   Let me know by clicking “Leave a comment.”  It’s down there right below where I sign this entry as…

Poseidon’s Scribe

Short Story Editing

Before I get to today’s topic, I should mention that I’ve shifted my website software and given the website a new layout.  Still a work in progress!

Sadly, writing isn’t just writing—it’s also re-writing.  Perhaps you have a mental image of yourself typing frantically long into the night, then at last typing ‘THE END,’ and attaching your short story to an e-mail and sending it to a short-story market.  That happens sometimes, but I suspect such stories are the easy rejects.

You don’t want to be rejected, so you’re not going to do that.  You’re going to look over your story in detail before you send it in.  You’re going to do some editing.

Ideally, you’ll take time to let the story sit for a time while you work on something else.  How long?  Best to give it a few weeks or even a couple of months.  The idea here is to give your ego some distance, to enable you to look at the story fresh, as your readers will, as if someone else wrote it.  You’ll view it with a more critical eye and find yourself reacting negatively to certain aspects, maybe asking “Huh?” or “So what?”

Take that first sentence, that first paragraph.  Will your readers be hooked, I mean really hooked?  As you read further, look for plot problems.  Does the action proceed in a logical manner, making the conflict more and more difficult for your main character?  Do you have tense scenes followed by more relaxing, reflective scenes?  Does every paragraph, every sentence, every word really support your plot?  Delete until that is true.  This is a short story; you don’t have the leisure to go off on tangents.

Consider the setting descriptions for each scene.  In each new scene, the reader likes to be oriented in that setting.  The reader wants to feel he or she is there, with the characters.  You’re looking to provide just enough detail, facts that trigger as many of the five senses as possible.  You can add an occasional new detail as the scene progresses, to remind the reader where the characters are, but the bulk of the description should be early in the scene.

Think about all of your characters, paying particular attention to the protagonist and other major characters.  Are they too stereotyped?  Give the stock character an interesting twist, but one that ties in to your plot or theme.  Do your characters behave and speak in a consistent manner throughout?  It’s okay to have a major character change behavior at the end (recommended, in fact) but the change must be explained by the story.  Look for “data dumps” in the story, where things are explained in narrative, or characters are just talking in dialogue to each other.  Fix that by giving the reader the point-of-view character’s reaction to new developments or significant statements by other characters.  Look for points in the story where you have significant actions without any reactions.

Next, look at your grammar.  Target weak verbs, passive sentences, adverbs, and clichés.  Check to see if your sentences vary in length.  Note I said “target” and “check.”  There are good reasons to keep some of these in your story, especially in dialogue, or in first person point of view narration.  However, you must be consistent, don’t over-use them, and ensure they enhance the story.  One trick with clichés is to give them a twist—take an old phrase and give it a new spin.  As for sentence length, try shorter sentences in fast-moving action scenes and longer sentences in the tension-releasing scenes.

One way to find grammar problems as well as plot, scene, and character problems is to read your story aloud.  I have no idea why this works but you will find yourself stumbling as you speak some words.  That’s a signal something’s amiss.  Your reader will stumble there too.

The last thing to do before sending in your story is to ensure you’ve followed the format specified by the market for which you’re aiming.  Someday we’ll live in a perfect word with a single standard for manuscript format, but we’re not there yet.  Editors will reject you for not following their instructions regarding mailing or e-mailing, attachments or text in e-mail, single or double line spacing, font sizes and types, one or two spaces between sentences, where and how to indicate page numbers, how to indicate italicized words, etc.  You want them to publish your story?  Follow their rules.

Once you’ve done all that, then you can hit send.  This all sounds difficult, but it gets to be a habit and becomes a little easier with time.  Here’s wishing you happy editing, from…

Poseidon’s Scribe