Exercises in Observation
My family used to tease me that nothing ever escaped me. If someone got new tires, I noticed. Rearranged a small piece of furniture, I saw it. I spotted every new ‘do or piece of clothing. When I was in college, I worked at the local newspaper. One of my friends was an assistant sports editor who routinely shaved his beard the first day of baseball season, when pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training, and then stopped shaving the day after the World Series. Before I became familiar with his schedule, I remember seeing him about 4 in the afternoon the day after he’d shaved and noticing his beard was gone. He told me I was the only one who’d noticed. “Several people asked me if I’ve lost weight, though,” he quipped cheerily. “And someone else told me they liked this shirt I’ve worn about a thousand times.” How could you not notice a full beard missing from the face of a man you saw nearly every day?
Observation is an essential skill for a writer. It’s also a really useful one for a book marketer. How can observation enhance your writing? Well, what are you paying attention to? Ideas, details, suggestions, comments that could become lines of dialogue, problems people are trying to solve – all of them surround us daily. If we pay attention, we can incorporate them into our work – both fiction and nonfiction.
1. The front page of the January 16, 2015 Arizona Republic had an article titled “8 amazing things from the records at Yuma prison.” The story contains interesting details about prison life in the Old West. “In the days before statehood, Yuma Territorial Prison was the official slammer, and guards there kept copious records. So we read them – tattoos, missing teeth and all.” I thought immediately of an author I know who writes Arizona-based Westerns. Maybe these details aren’t for her – but they would likely be important to some author of Westerns looking to authenticate the setting of a novel in the works.
2. A few days ago, I heard a story on NPR about Walter Brinker, a Vietnam vet who now offers free roadside assistance to stranded motorists up and down the North Carolina highway system. The report explained how, with more than 2,000 free roadside assists behind him, Walter has amassed decades of experience in quick solutions to help people get back on the road without having to call AAA. He’s even put his knowledge into a book of his own, Roadside Survival: Low-tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns. That story just conjured images for me that could make for a transformative scene in a contemporary work of fiction. It might also find its way into the next version of my own nonfiction book, Practical Philanthropy: How ‘Giving Back’ Helps You, Your Business, and the World Around You.
3. The main character of my novel in progress, Stan Finds Himself on the Other Side of the World, is on a journey of self-discovery via world travel. It was an audacious undertaking to write a book about many places I’ve never been – thank god for the Internet generally, travel blogs and YouTube specifically. One of the 28 countries Stan visits is the Philippines, where he is struck by the abject poverty in which many Filipinos live. In writing this section of the book, I recalled a Facebook post I’d seen about an amazing project called A Liter of Light. You’d better bet the details of this amazing project to bring light into millions of homes without the use of electricity made it into my novel. This also may be another useful example for Practical Philanthropy.
4. Several years ago my sister, my husband, a friend, and I embarked on a screenplay that has been put to the side for now. One of our characters, however, was modeled after a man I met at a gas station. With his carrot-orange hair, a full beard, and missing quite a few teeth, he approached me to ask if I would like an unopened bag of red licorice. “Can’t eat ‘em,” he said, motioning to the absent pearly whites. A woman had offered the candy to him, and he was now offering it to me. In the process of our conversation, I learned that he’d lost his wife about a year earlier, subsequently fell down on his luck, and was now homeless – temporarily, he assured me.
All of these observations were incorporated into my writing projects. But the need for observation is not limited to the writing aspect of the publishing process. The same is true of book marketing opportunities. If you remain vigilant, they show up everywhere.
5. The Summer Author Event (Aug. 2014) and Holiday Author Event (Dec. 2014) came out of my noticing some grumbling in the Phoenix Publishing & Book Promotion Meetup about the lack of opportunities for authors to connect with readers. Evidently, Elaine Mays had the same awareness before she began the League of Local Authors, a group that is constantly on the lookout for book signing opportunities. Currently, members participate in several Phoenix-area farmers’ markets a few times a month, and the appearances will certainly expand soon.
6. Robert Scanlan, author of Tigers Under My Bed: Life Lessons Tamed During Three Organ Transplants, put his book in front of several renowned transplant surgeons shortly after its release in May 2014. Now, it is being considered as an ancillary textbook in both the USC and UCLA medical schools.
7. Diana DeLugan wrote a book of ghost tales from the American Southwest. In her efforts to do some research for a second book, The Otero Arizona Land Grant Documentary, she went down to Tubac, Arizona. There, she connected with the proprietor of a hotel and parlayed that connection into a book signing event over Halloween weekend. Great timing for a book of ghost stories, isn’t it?
Good books are the easiest ones to market. Details make for good books. And observation – of people, situations, voids that need filling – is one of the most significant keys to successful marketing.
Open your eyes. Listen up. Get nosy about people. If you’re not great at meeting people, practice! Try Toastmasters, where you’ll hear (and occasionally have to give) speeches on myriad topics. Read everything. If you typically read only computer magazines, expand your horizons and pick up a copy of Atlantic Monthly. If your politics fall firmly on one side of the aisle, occasionally do some opposition research: read op-eds from writers with opposing views; listen to talk radio shows of people whose opinions you “hate.”
Then, have a way to capture the details as they come in. Use the digital recorder on your smartphone. Carry a notebook with you. Text yourself. Once you begin to discover the wide, wide world around you, you’ll wonder how the small things ever escaped your notice before.
Here’s to seeing with new eyes, hearing with new ears, and writing with new zest!
We welcome and encourage your thoughtful, courteous comments below.
We’re one month into 2015 — are you READY? If you haven’t yet mapped out your book marketing efforts for the New Year, it’s time to get started! Sit down with Laura – in person or via Skype – and review your book marketing plan. We’ll evaluate: what’s working, what isn’t working, and which new strategies you may want to implement for the new year (or your newest book). Regularly $150 for a 45-minute session. Marcie Brock special: $99 for the first five who respond. mktg@WriteMarketDesign.com