Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Five-Minute Jobs for Writers — Observation, Description, Imagination, and Research

Got a minute? Or fifteen? Writers never seem to have enough time, so I’ve often recommended making good use of “interstitial time,” those moments when you’re waiting or a meeting ends early or you’ve shut off a disappointing program. While taking a break and just being present to the moment is important, wasting time is detrimental — especially when it creates anxiety.

So, below I offer some suggestions on taking advantage of these free moments to grow as a writer. These are not the same as adding to your work in progress, but they can build your craft or help you to deepen your stories. Chances are, you’ll find times like these almost every day. If you make a habit of using these opportunities, they can help you grow as a writer.


Five minutes:
  • Notice at least one thing (or a characteristic of one thing) in your environment you’ve never explicitly been aware of. If you have time, create a sentence that articulates your observation. — This will help you to pay attention to your world and create authentic details in your stories. (Note, what you notice does not have to be visual, it can be a smell, a taste, a felt texture, or anything else you experience.
  • Pick the most apt characteristic of whatever you notice first and come up with a simile or metaphor that would convey it to others. — This will build your ability to add succinct, evocative descriptions to your prose.
  • Determine how, in just a few words, immerse your reader in your locale. (In her wonderful course, Visual Writing, Max Adams recommends describing space, light, and texture of a location.)
Ten minutes:
  • Eavesdrop — Catch a snatch of conversation. Own it by imagining one of the speakers describing a fire or a birthday party. Or used the point of the conversation as a prompt for something one of your characters might say. (For instance, a complaint about wifi coverage, as communicated by Rain Man or Blanche DuBois might be a bit different from what you overheard. The same, presumably, would be true for your story’s characters.)
  • Your feelings — How would you tell people about your feelings of the moment (say, as you wait in line at the bank). If “bored out of my mind” seems to fit, see if you can present that feeling in a fresh way that will touch others. If your emotions have changed since you entered the locale or began waiting or the time opened up, describe that experience clearly.
  • Action — Find something or someone in motion. A rattling radiator. A customer blowing his nose. A butterfly sampling flowers. If nothing else, check out your own breathing. Describe the action. If emotions can be interlaced with the facts, that’s great.
Fifteen minutes:
  • Compose a poem. — A haiku to withdrawal slips. A sonnet on the boy eating an avocado.
  • Opportunity — If you had to sell something (or a task you could perform) to someone present (even if it’s only your cat) or on the phone, how would you make your case?
  • With these longer exercises, you are actively transforming experiences into words, building muscles you use every day as a writer. In some cases, you may find the words you created fit right into the stories you’re writing.

Five minutes:
  • If a threat came through one of the doors, how would you make yourself safer?
  • If you had to change the most inaccessible light bulb, how would you do it?
Ten minutes:
  • How would you apply your talents to making the next minutes better for you or others?
  •  If gravity disappeared where you are, how would everything be transformed?
  • Who in the room is most likely to have a dark secret and what might it be? (Or what thing in the room has the most interesting story attached to it and what’s that story?
Fifteen minutes:
  • Billy Joel the place. — In Piano Man Joel catalogues that people in the bar and their longings. Try to do that for the people where you are.
  • If you could ask ten questions about your experience of the moment (locale, people, situation, actions), what would they be? What would those questions be if zombies were banging at the door?
Even small forays into the less pedestrian world of imagination and fantasy helps a writer to be open to ideas and to shape concepts. Society tends to shut the door to creativity on a regular basis, so the more your allow yourself to crack it open, the easier passing into your story worlds will be.


Five minutes:
  • If you have your phone with you and it includes your Work in Progress, check spelling and grammar. Verify a fact. Clear bagels.
Ten minutes:
  • What around you is worth celebrating? A bit of technology? A service? A work of art? What don’t you know about it?
  • What around you do you think you could make with a little knowledge? Find out something you’d need to understand/master? (I did this once and ended up learning the basics of binding a book. Which has given me a deeper appreciation of that craft.)
Fifteen minutes:
  • Follow your curiosity. This might mean striking up a conversation with the person who has an unfamiliar design on his hat (that’s how I found out about a U.S. Army division and its history). Or something that’s been rattling around in your mind. (What causes a green flash in the ocean?) Or if they still sell tooth powder (yes) and why.
Dig into search engines to find the answers or use your imagination.

The first step to using interstitial time is recognizing it when it presents itself. It’s so easy to zone out or check your email. If it doesn’t come naturally, do what Stephen King recommends. Have a book at hand and read. Reach for a novel or a poem or a script instead of your smart phone. Once you see your small opportunities, pick a few exercises from above and have them ready to go. These are more likely to become habitual uses of your time if you do a little prep work and get some value out of stolen moments.

Productivity Course, NY Metro area
I'll be teaching  a two-day intensive workshop aimed at helping you get more of your stories written. Feb 23-24 in Sleepy Hollow, NY.

Online Course
My Suprises, Secrets, and Revelations - Adding Memorable Twists to  Your Stories will be presented February 4-22, hosted by the RWA Online Chapter.

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