Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Writer’s Tip: Paying Attention by Shutting it Off

So, hey! What are you doing? Like, what are you doing right…..


Are you sitting at your desk, feeling the warmth of the mouse under your finger as you click through your morning blog posts? Or maybe you're reading this on your smartphone. In that case, is your fingertip trailing over that tacky spot from the Diet Coke you drank yesterday? And hey—what's that noise? You don't hear it? Huh. It sounds like the garbage truck is running over someone's trashcan lid again. Cruuuuuunch. And ooooh! Who popped blueberry muffins in the oven? I'd recognize that sweet, buttery smell anywhere. My mouth is already watering for the warm, crumby goodness.

What was that? You don't smell anything? Or hear anything?

Well…I guess that's not entirely surprising. See, when you're multi-tasking with work and family and writing and life, it's hard to miss out on those little things happening around you. Little things like Touch and Sound and Smell and Taste. Things you don't even think about anymore because everyone's always in some kind of huge rush to get to the next task-at-hand. I'm not blaming you. Heck! I'm guilty of this, too.

But when you're a writer, you can't dismiss these 'little things' because these are the details that add layers of authenticity to your writing. They're the extras that make a reader go, "Oh, right! I know exactly what she's talking about here."

I'm referring to SENSES. I'm referring to SENSES other than Sight. If you noticed, I didn't mention anything about Sight in my slightly cheesy intro. It's not because I have anything against it – trust me, I don't. It's a perfectly delightful sense. I love seeing my daughter's dimple when she smiles at me first thing in the morning. But the thing about Sight is that…well, sometimes we rely on it too much when we tell our stories. A frown, a wink, a shrug of a shoulder—all necessary actions to show what's going on behind the words on the page…but is that all that's going on?

To answer this question, I have an assignment for you!

No groaning. It'll be fun. Promise! <-- See the exclamation point? Fun!

When you have a moment today or tonight or sometime this week, do me a favor:

Put on a blindfold.

Once you’ve done that, I want you to pay attention for fifteen minutes.

That’s it. (Told you it was easy!)

No, really. I don't want you to do anything except soak in every sound, touch, taste, and smell during this time period. Sit outside and do it. Sit inside and do it. Go to the mall and do it (but maybe don’t blindfold yourself at the mall unless you want security called on you). Honestly, it doesn’t really matter where you complete the exercise.

The whole point is that sometimes it’s best to turn off your eyes for a little bit and pay attention to the world around you. I’ve said it before that I believe as writers, we’re creators and as creators, we’re also visual by nature. But being too visual can be harmful to your writing if you're not balancing it with the other senses.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a story where my teen protagonist was blind. In the beginning, it was complete crap. It was a NaNo novel so I didn't worry too much about anything except getting words on the page. I wasn't done with the story after November, so I did some research to salvage whatever was left. Aside from reading articles and interviewing a girl who’d been without sight her whole life, I also walked around my house for half a day with a scarf tied around my eyes. It was the Hardest. Thing. Ever. I realized I totally took my sight for granted on a day-to-day basis and when I shut it off completely, everything seemed so much louder, smelled so much stronger, felt so much deeper, than it ever had before. I also realized I couldn’t tell the difference between a peach and a nectarine when my sight was blocked and wearing a bib for lunch was non-negotiable. Also? Using the restroom is HARD when you can't see what you're doing. Anyway, the story still ended up being crap (who knew you also needed something called a PLOT?), but I had some really great details that made it worth working on for a while.

So my tip for today is to turn off your sight.

Don’t worry about having a pad of paper and a pen near you. Don’t worry about “What if nothing exciting happens during this time?” Just feel the breeze tickling the hair on your arms. Hear the car tires sliding over the gravel. Taste the bitterness of toothpaste mixing with that last sip of your morning orange juice. Smell the crumbs burning at the bottom of your toaster. (And maybe peek your eye open to make sure nothing’s on fire.)

But set the timer for fifteen minutes, turn off your eyes, pay attention to those other senses, and tell us in the comments field about something you experience. How will this help you in your WIP? What tips do you have that help you gain a better handle on the senses? Comment and fill out the entry form below to enter to win a copy of The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson – one of my ALL TIME FAVORITE YA novels that practically drips with every sense known to man! We’ll announce the winner next Tuesday. (Contest will run until next Monday at 8pm EST and entrants must live in the US.)

Here are a few links you should check out on Sensory Detail and how you can use it to make your writing pop:

Happy Sense-Discovering! (Oy, that didn't come out right, did it? You know what I mean!)


  1. Great exercise. It is often so hard to use the other sense when our lives are so busy. Nice idea and great links.

  2. Put on a blindfold? Interesting tactics.


  3. Great idea. And you're so right that we are not conscious of so much as we madly go through our day.

  4. Like the idea of this, but I'm listening to classical music which is far from restful and a certain person is waiting for his lunch! Argghhh!

  5. This is a really interesting exercise! Will have to try it more often.

  6. I bookmarked this post to come back to. Reading it makes me want to go look at my WIPs (even though they're picture books) to see if I used any other senses but sight. It's especially difficult to do that in short form, but perhaps even more critical. Great food for thought this morning!

  7. I really need to try this activity. My writing tends to lack details, especially my first drafts, so I think just closing my eyes and losing myself in the moment may inspire me. :)

  8. I have done this before and it is amazing. I especially like doing this if I am writing a scene where the setting is one I can access in real life. (I just close my eyes tho, so I don't look like a total dork in public...I'm halfway there without the blindfold anyway, lol!)

    Thanks for the mention, too! You guys are the best. And Oh My Zombies do I want to read this book--just haven't gotten around to it.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  9. It's so easy to use sight and sound but incorporating the other senses makes a work seem that much more real.

  10. This sounds amazing! I've been trying to come up with ways to make the descriptions and details of the scenes in my WIP more vivid, and this definitely sounds like the way to go. I'm going to try it right now as soon as I finish this comment.

  11. Great idea - i'm goingg to try the blindfold tip soon.

  12. I never thought to put on a blind fold, great idea!

  13. This is awesome! I love using the senses in my writing. And I'd never thought of these exercises.

  14. I'm going to try this when I write later! I studied poetry writing in college but I've been writing only prose lately. In poetry, I never needed reminding to write sensorily, but in writing prose my mind gets consumed with plot and characters and getting it all down on paper, so much so that I lose sight of the kind of writing I love to do--sensory imagery. Thanks for this post!

  15. I've found this is really true--and yep, I need to run off and check my stories to see how many of the other senses I have in my stories. Some stories/novels really do lend themselves more to taste, smell, touch, etc. though. :)

  16. Awesome idea. I'm going through my WIP right now to make sure I have enough sensory details. :D

  17. Thanks for the great advice. I'll try it.

  18. I do this activity with my students at school sometimes, although we just close our eyes. It's amazing what you can pick up especially in a classroom with 32 antsy kids! :)

  19. It's amazing how much more you experience when you close your eyes and turn off that sense. I really believe that being an avid reader helps make you a better writer. Reading so much has helped me really be able to visualize what I'm reading and then it helps me visualize what I want to write. :)

  20. Definitely worth doing. With all the time-budgeting I do, it's hard to remember to budget the time to actually smell those roses. Or listen to the noise of the petals falling to the desktop after I've forgotten to refill the water for a week.

    Thanks, Cam!

  21. When I write, I try to remember the little things. Knowing what season you're writing in is one thing, but what about the weather? Sometimes it should rain, and not for dramatic effect. Then again, sometimes that rain can cause a landslide. And you know how the snow smells when most of it's melting, and the only bit that's left is the muddy, dense snow under the tree shade? I love that snow.

    I try to inject that in my writing as much as I can, but sometimes I think I get too caught up in the motion of the plot to notice.

  22. I realized, I just needed the down time! Also, food tastes a lot better when you're really paying attention to it.

    I call it: The Writer's Diet!

  23. This is fantastic advice and I will definitely try this exercise. I love writing descriptions that involve other senses but I don't always remember to do it in my WIP.

    I love The Sky is Everywhere!

  24. this is a great post--using all five senses is something I try to focus on in my writing. Using them in unexpected ways, etc. Thanks! :o)


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