Posts Tagged ‘observation’

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 Open  your eyesreported 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.

liter of light

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 Mr nosypeople, 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.


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Advice-giving can be a dangerous business

If you propose to speak, always ask yourself:
Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
— Buddha

A friend used to tease that my instincts as an editor must make life challenging for me because I see the errors or problems in so many situations. While that’s not an utterly inaccurate assessment, I prefer to view it as often seeing ways to improve things.

However, since I’m neither omniscient nor infallible, my way to improve things is usually just my opinion and/or suggestion. Unless, of course, it is a case of noticing something that is just flat-out incorrect.

Such is the situation with the current Infinity commercial, in which the announcer says, “If everyone accepted the status quo, the world would still be flat.” Actually, no. The world was never flat, so it could not still be flat. Even following the analogy they seemed to be attempting to its logical conclusion, chances are, by this date in 2012, someone other than Aristotle (384-322 BC; argued in his writings that the earth was spherical) or Columbus (1451-1506; reached India by sailing west from Spain because he knew the planet was round) would have long since proven the orbed nature of the earth.

Other frequent observations I make include people’s self-talk. Things like, “I’m always so broke,” or “You just watch. I’m sure I’m going to get fired.” This also goes for our blogs, Facebook posts, and the ways we interact with people. Since we empower the thoughts we give the most attention, why do we so often focus on the things we don’t want? Want to get in shape, publish your book, or find true love? It’s probably not going to happen if you focus on how fat you are, how much you don’t know about publishing, or how all the guys out there are jerks. (For more on this, I recommend two excellent books: Mike Dooley’s Infinite Possibilities and Sandra Anne Taylor’s Secrets of Attraction.)

Perhaps the most obvious observation comes with books: I can tell within a paragraph or two whether or not an author has had his or her work professionally edited. The worst thing is when the author is someone I know, and the subject matter is good but the book itself is terrible because they didn’t bother to hire an editor.

My challenge is: What, if anything, should I do about it?

Think about a little thing like having a grain of pepper stuck in your teeth or forgetting to zip your fly. Would you prefer to have someone tell you, or would your pride make that kind of comment too embarrassing to hear? Then amplify that a hundred-fold. Having someone tell you, “Your book really isn’t very good” is probably a lot like hearing “Your baby is ugly,” except in the case of the book, things can be done to improve it.

Quite a number of years ago, I was in a lousy relationship and bought a self-help program called Light His Fire, by Ellen Kreidman. She offered a money-back guarantee if the program didn’t help salvage your relationship, no matter how bad it was. Though my relationship turned out to be unsalvageable, I didn’t request a refund because I learned so many other important things from her program. One of those was a lesson that applies to this topic of advice. Kreidman’s suggestion: Unless someone specifically asks your opinion or advice, keep your mouth shut. And by and large, I think she is correct. We don’t do people favors by going around offering unsolicited advice or making them wrong. When they want your advice, Kreidman suggests, they will ask for it.

Hmmm… That still doesn’t really address my challenge. If I hear or see something I know could be vastly improved, what, if anything, should I do about it? Should I go my merry way, knowing a blogger is self-sabotaging her success or that an author is unlikely to find the publisher they’re seeking, given the current state of their book?

One suggestion from coaching circles is to ask, “Are you open to some feedback?” I think this works in certain situations — but it also can create an awkward impasse. What if the person really isn’t open to feedback but feels pressured to say they are? And what is the motivation behind my need to give the feedback in the first place? Is it really altruistic, or is it in some way intended to build myself up? In my situation as an editor, I would never want the person to think I’m ginning for business by insulting them, which is why I will probably never tell someone who doesn’t ask that their book really needs editing.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this! Have you ever offered unsolicited advice? Do you appreciate when others tell you, “You know what you should do…”? Would you want someone who had an expert opinion to give it to you if you didn’t ask for it? Tell us what you think in the comment section below…



We welcome and encourage your thoughtful, courteous comments below.


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