As a writing man, a secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one was lost.
George Orwell, a man not prone to flourishes, nevertheless admitted:
So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself.
It is easy to fixate on the end result: the completed story, poem or play. But you have to pay attention to life if you want to write about it. Sitting down to write without first collecting material is like trying to make the proverbial bricks without straw. You end up with nothing or, worse, with flabby characters, stilted dialogue, and Swiss-cheese plots.
Authentic, close-to-the-bone writing requires observation, analysis and details. If you want to write better, pay more attention to “scraps of useless information” and “unexpected items of worldly… enchantment”.
Fragments are everywhere. Here are five treasure troves:
1. Social media: We are inundated with the details of each others’ lives thanks to social media. As you skim Twitter or Facebook updates pay attention to people’s diction, poses, and posting patterns. Watch the interactions between friends, lovers, strangers, and trolls. The internet is a giant social experiment – take advantage of it.
2. Email & text: Don’t just skim your messages. Look for the unique turns of phrase, the anecdotes, the flashes of wisdom buried in routine exchanges.
3. Overheard conversations: Some folks call this eavesdropping, I call it being a good student of human nature. If you want to write dialogue well, listen to how people talk. Get a feel for the way word usage, phrases, accents and speech patterns can define a character. The goal is not to reproduce speech verbatim but to identify the essence of individuality and apply that knowledge to your characters.
4. People watching: Get out and see how people behave. Wander around the supermarket, go to the bank and pick the longest queue, sit in a coffee shop with a notebook. Look for visual and emotional details: the drape of a scarf, a hairstyle, the interaction between a parent and child, what a woman in a hurry looks like, how a man stirs his drink. Ground yourself in what is real, then get back to your keyboard and let loose.
5. Reading: Sometimes in our eagerness to write we don’t make time to read. This is a mistake. Reading in your genre or area of interest can provide useful examples; reading outside of it can spark new ideas and ways of approaching your work. Above all, reading brings us back to what we’re trying to do: to win readers we have to know what it means to read.
You Write! Collect half a dozen fragments from one or more of the categories above. Share your favourite in the comments.