Something I read recently:
Being a musician … is first and foremost about observation.
Playing an instrument well has far less to do with innate physical gifts than it does with a highly developed ear. Effective practice involves knowing what you want to produce, and then remorselessly noting the ways in which what you are actually producing differs from the goal. This may seem obvious, but it is in fact one of the most difficult things to learn: Our tendency to hear what we want to hear is a universal human trait, and for musicians, training ourselves out of this habit is as painful as it is necessary. The best players are the ones who have done this most fully: They have an almost feral alertness to their own sounds.
Biss, Jonathan. Coda (Kindle Single) (Kindle Locations 228-231 & 233-238). Kindle Edition.
Now, let’s use this analogy to examine what it means to be a Writer. With a little rephrasing, Biss’ wisdom looks like this:
Writing well has far less to do with Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar (SPAG) than it does with a highly developed ear. Effective writing practice involves knowing what you want to produce, and then remorselessly noting the ways what you’ve written differs from what you intended. It may seem obvious, but our tendency is to hear what we want to hear. For Writers, training ourselves out of this habit is as painful as it is necessary. The best Writers have an almost feral alertness to the sound of their own words.
The 1st point I’d like you to take away from this is not only the sounds in your ear, but the personal way you perceive with your sight, the memories conjured by your sense of smell, the incredible nuances of flavor in your ability to taste, the delicate precision of your touch, and the good sense God gave you to feel things with your heart. Be observant every day of your life, taking in with full measure everything your five senses and your spirit impart. Be a veritable sponge for all these inputs, because you’re going to need every bit of that intimate knowledge to write well.
Your Ears. Use them to pick up little inflections from the way people talk. Listen closely to how someone phrases what they’re saying, and you’ll begin to appreciate the subtext conveyed, attaching additional meaning. There’s as much going on with what a person leaves unspoken, as what they actually say. Can you duplicate the rhythm and the idioms of someone’s dialect? Can you translate it onto a page so a Reader hears the character the same way you heard it? Then practice…
Your Eyes. As a Writer, you should depend heavily upon images, the descriptions of things, the physical arrangement of a setting, the placement of objects, the movement of actions upon the stage of the story. Do that. But also stretch yourself to try to include glimpses of things on the sidelines, little details that don’t directly affect the story, yet bring a depth of field that makes things 3D and Real. Perhaps your story shows the same events through different characters’ eyes, and the variety of thoughts and responses each one has because of their unique mindset. Also, try to determine when too much detail is too much; if it impedes the flow of the story’s action, learn to burn away the chaff.
Your Nose. Roses vs. Sewer. And everything in-between. You’ve smelled pumpkin spice at Thanksgiving, and couldn’t wait for the dessert after the meal. You’ve hurried past the carcass of a dog lying on the side of the road, and hope to never smell the foul stench again. Practice conveying the way that one perfume always reminds you of your darling, and the way she dressed to go out with you. Don’t use this type of description gratuitously. Only for comedic effect, if you do. Farts are laughable, unless you’re trapped in an elevator at a baked bean convention.
Your Mouth. Why is it your mouth waters when you drive by a steakhouse while they’re grilling? The smell. (see above) But you also remember how tender the cut of meat, the way it seemed to infuse every taste bud as you chewed, the feeling of satisfaction at the end of the meal. There have been things you’ve spit out almost immediately, because they seemed rank. Remember that last swallow of milk in the carton…that expired WHEN? There are other things than eating and talking that a tongue can do, but you’ll need to be exceedingly judicious how you offer it up to your audience, if it’s even appropriate.
Your Touch. Can you describe the shape, the veins, the stem, the texture of a leaf? And there are different types of leaves. Broaden your repertoire. Have you ever stuck your hand into a bowl of cool wet noodles? Does it really feel like intestines, or are the other Scouts just messing with you? And don’t forget that touch and contact encompass a wide range of emotions and amount of pressure; the difference between a soft kiss and a club to the head. If your characters can convey how they feel, your Readers will consider them a touchstone, a way for them to sense the same thing vicariously, to get a better handle on what your character considers important.
Your Heart. If your writing doesn’t incorporate something to tug on the heart-strings of your Readers, you need to find a different avocation. What is it you feel passionately about? Give that to one of your characters and see how (s)he handles it. Can you write your character’s feelings, thoughts, responses any differently than what you yourself would do? There are times you, as a Writer, want to take the reins on the action; there are other times you’ll want to let your character(s) try a different tack, to see where it leads them. You might even learn something from their example.
The 2nd point from Biss‘ observation comes into play in the midst of your writing project, or at the end of it. You’ve got pages and pages of words, words, words. Now, read them aloud and test how they sound out in the real world. Let them amble out or spew forth, drifting lazily on the breeze or sparking the tinder of a great conflagration. Listen. Listen. Listen. Did they sound the way you intended? If there’s any shadow of doubt, get a trusted friend to read them. Read them aloud. Do they still come across the way you heard them in your own head? No? Time to revise and edit.
Biss‘ contention was that we have a tendency to get complacent with our own voice, hearing what we want to hear, and that’s not necessarily how we want our product to be translated, from the initial idea to book in the Reader’s hands. You’ve got to be willing to critically examine if your work is having its intended effect. Don’t bemoan the shortfalls you find; just fix them. Try again. Go look up how many times Edison tried different variations of materials before he finally fashioned a working light bulb. You’re a Writer. Rewrite the words until they work. Then, you can say you crafted a magnum opus.