When you immerse yourself in the mind of writers for a solid 280 pages, patterns begin to emerge. In this case, the predominant pattern was not one I'd been expecting. It's a takeaway so simple that if I hadn't heard it repeated at least a dozen times by a dozen different authors, I probably would have just skimmed right past it.
Simple. Elemental. And yet, it's something I don't do.
Do you want to know the one thing that most of these authors have in common?
Well, let's use a process of elimination. It's NOT any of these things you may be thinking:
- Their path to publication. Some had agents, some didn't. Some self-published first and were discovered through that avenue. Some wrote for years before breaking in; others wrote a couple of chapters and were contracted on that basis by the first publisher they submitted to (one at the age of fourteen!)
- Their chosen genres, which were varied - from crime thrillers to literary works.
- Their approach to research, which ranged from the extreme dedication of one author who learned French in order to be able to read primary sources for her novel set in France, to another author who said "the joy" of writing science fiction is that "you don't have to do any research."
- The amount of words they write per day, or even the requirement of writing a certain amount of words in a day at all. (John Marsden, author of the multi-million bestselling "Tomorrow" series for young adults, surprisingly said of his writing time, "it may only happen twice a week or it may not happen at all some weeks.")
- Their approach to platform and marketing, which varied from "out there" to "really not my thing - my publisher does it all."
- Even their love for the craft. (One award-winning and prolific author cynically remarked, "I mean, there are important things that people can do in the world. Writing more novels in a world that doesn't need any more novels is not one of them.")
So what on earth could it be?
The answer surprised me.
The one thing most of these authors had in common is this:
They use a notebook to record their observations of daily life.
|Image by Stoonn, freedigitalphotos.net|
So simple it's easily overlooked, and yet actually - the more you think about it - so fundamental.
We're not talking about a notebook where you jot ideas for your WIP - plot twists, character descriptions and the like. That probably comes more naturally to all of us, out of necessity.
By comparison, the observation notebook seems almost... trivial. Non-essential.
But when a dozen successful authors, interviewed independently of each other, all cite this one common habit as a foundational element of their work, it sure made me sit up and listen.
It also made me think. What's the big deal? Why is it so important? This is what I came up with. You could probably add more to this list.
4 Benefits of using an observation notebook:
- It will breathe life into your characters. The personality quirks, physical appearance, facial expressions, modes of dress, habits and reactions you observe in the people around you are rich fodder. If you want to create characters who seem real, instead of cardboard cutouts, observe real people everywhere you go - and record those details.
- It will enrich your settings. How often do you sketch a setting in a line or two, using the same stock-standard phrases - because you really can't visualize the setting with any certainty in your own head? Our memories are unreliable. We forget the pungent, particular details of the places we've been - unless we write them down.
- It will keep your writing brain in gear. Many of us compartmentalize our writing and non-writing time. I know I do. But this makes it harder to switch gears when you do have time to write. The habit of keeping an observation notebook has the power to change your daily mindset, so that you approach the whole of life with the curiosity and keen observation of a writer. To use another metaphor, keep your writing brain simmering away with ideas instead of turning off the heat once your writing session is over - it'll be that much quicker to bring it back to a rolling boil when you next sit at your computer.
- It's an endless source of ideas and inspiration. In an interview with novelist Louise Zaetta, she was asked whether she ever experiences writer's block. Her answer? "No, and I'll tell you why not. There's a beautiful way to avoid writer's block, and that is to have a notebook with you at all times where you endlessly record the things that happen in life. Out and about. Anywhere. At someone's place for dinner. I once interviewed Claire Astley, who said she does that. She has her little basket of bits of paper on the floor. Whenever she gets stuck she just pulls one out, and it may have something on it that she observed a year ago and she'll write about that. Somehow or other you can fit everything you have observed into your work. There's hardly anything you'll ever have observed that you can't use. So if you have a good notebook you should not have to suffer from writer's block, because you can just use something from there. Write that and it will lead you on to something else. It's a marvellous resource." (Literati: Australian Contemporary Literary Figures Discuss Fear, Frustrations and Fame, 2005)
|Image by greenphile, freedigitalphotos.net|
I don't know about you... but I'm inspired.
I've used an observation notebook in the past, but only very sporadically, and never for long. It was a habit that didn't stick, because I never fully internalized the value of what I was doing, and therefore didn't prioritize it.
From now on I'm making a commitment to carry a notebook with me everywhere I go, and take a minute here and there throughout the day to jot down the rich and colorful details of daily life, which will otherwise be forgotten.
Who'll join me?
One surprisingly simple secret of many successful authors - it's probably not what you think! Tweet
Many successful authors keep an observation notebook. Here's why you should, too: Tweet
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Karen Schravemade lives in Australia, where she juggles writing with being a SAHM to three small kids. She's had short stories published in two literary journals and is represented by Rachel Kent of Books & Such. Find her on her website, Twitter, and getting creative on her home-making blog, A house full of sunshine.