Friday, November 12, 2010

The One Thing A Writer Absolutely Must Do

Okay, who thought I was going to say READING?


That's not to say that reading isn't necessary, important, uplifting, and thoroughly spiffy for a writer's soul. Every single writer interview you read will have the writer attesting to the singular importance of reading. But, for me, the one thing a writer absolutely must do is...


My wife will attest that I am the Michael Phelps of eavesdropping. Apparently, whenever we are within earshot of anyone else in a restaurant, say, a glazed look comes over me and she can just tell that I'm being a shifty-eyed snoop.

The thing is, I'm not being snoopy for snoopy's sake. It's all done in the name of research. For the continual honing of my writerly skills, I must listen to dialogue, how it's paced, the word choices made by everyone--from glamorous socialite picking at her arugula to arrogant tycoon tooting his business-acumen horn. I must understand the topics that exercise the minds of middle-schoolers as well as society matrons. I MUST LISTEN TO EVERYTHING.

I'll finish with a story. The other day I had my youngest in tow at the grocery store. It was near lunchtime, a fatal time to shop, and the wee bairn was eager for a corndog. I acquiesced, as the corndogs are near the sushi counter and I fancied sushi. We took our seats next to a couple of grungy, unshaven types who were deep in conversation. (At least the older one was. The younger one nodded his head in the way of a giddy apprentice whenever the mentor cracked open his lips.)

It soon became apparent that Mentor was retelling the plot of his novel. Genre: Fantasy. He rambled on about "she" who, as far as I could tell, had been captured and taken to the villain ensconced in The Darklands. (I would occasionally lose the thread of things because corndog-boy-who-must-have-father's-attention-at-all-times would tell a joke and expect me to guffaw. And why is it always the Darklands in these fantasy novels? Why can't it be Lollipop Land, where everything seems benign, but lurking beneath the placid and successful exterior is a horror that would turn your bones to a foul brew?)

Mentor rambled on. What did I learn? Well, I had front-row seating on how NOT to pitch your magnum opus. I also noticed how every time Apprentice tried to get in a word, Mentor would shuffle about in a bag and look thoroughly impatient and uninterested. (That is certainly a behavior I might one day give an unsavory and self-absorbed character.)

It wasn't my finest eavesdropping hour, but it did remind me how important it is for a writer to notice everything in his or her surroundings. So, eavesdrop away, dear writers. (And let me know if you hear anything juicy.)


  1. 2 eavesdropping situations I love:

    1. people on cellphones. They seem to think they're anonymous & will carry on elaborate & often inappropriate conversations in public.

    2. public transportation. Although I find such close quarters personally uncomfortable, they are ripe opportunities for varied observation.

  2. Isn't that what we call found language
    a treasure trove for writers and its free

  3. I came for MFM but HAD to read this comment and you are so RIGHT! When I was waiting to pick up my mom at the airport I got some of the best writing prompts I'd ever heard! I was so busy writing them into my notebook that she got her luggage and walked up to me before I ever saw her!

  4. Oh you are so right! The ability to write with different voices is so important for every writer, and what better way to learn different voices? Somehow, just talking to people is not the same at all!

  5. You should get that miracle hearing aid they advertise on television so you can hear every conversation others have perfectly. Of course, that might be going to far... On the other hand, your dialogue's improvement might be worth someone you know seeing you do it.


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