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Inspired Creative Writing 3


Learning to see the world in a new light

This is the third excerpt from Inspired Creative Writing by Alexander Gordon Smith from the brisk and entertaining 52 Brilliant Ideas series. This month, Learning to see the world in a new light.

Third excerpt

Second sight

We’re all wearing blinkers, and like a plough-horse finally lifting its head to see the mountains, we’ve got to learn that there’s more around us than mud. It’s time to find our second sight.

52 Brilliant Ideas – Inspired creative writing

Learn to see the world in a new light, a light that exposes sharp details and ironic truths. The view from your window just isn’t enough – from now on, you’ll be absorbing material everywhere you go.


A book without detail is like a matchstick Mona Lisa. If what you are ‘seeing’ doesn’t appear real, or lacks depth, then nobody will give it a chance. Detail is the skin of a literary work; it’s what holds it together. It makes the background credible enough for it to become invisible (except, of course, when you want to draw attention to something), and allows your characters to stand out as fully rounded human beings. If you’re too lazy to pad out your writing with telling details, then your project is in severe danger of becoming laughable rather than laudable.


Most of us would claim to be observant people, but are we? Could we accurately describe the house across the street? The woman who works in the local wine shop? The route we follow to visit a loved one? We take a great deal of the world for granted because our brains automatically ignore anything that isn’t immediately relevant, and as a result we become blind to the all-important details. I was shocked the other day when I couldn’t remember the colour of my kitchen floor, despite it having remained unchanged for over ten years. I look at the floor every day, but I don’t truly see it because it isn’t an essential part of my life (which, I guess, I should be thankful for).

Here’s an idea for you...

Buy a notebook. Something small that can fit in your pocket or your handbag. When you see a detail that has some resonance with your work, jot it down. Don’t stop with observations either, write down snatches of conversation, interesting news reports. Draw pictures of a car that one of your characters might own; items of clothing in shop windows that would make the perfect costume. The notebook will become a record of your own experience, and a scrapbook of what you consider to be important. The personal interest invested in these scraps will bring your work to life.


Disgusting image aside, this is exactly what you need to do in order to convert a featherweight piece of writing into a heavyweight champ. Don’t take the world for granted. Look at things you wouldn’t normally look at and see them in a new light. Notice the candle burning through the dirty window across the street, the scuffed and long-forgotten wedding ring embedded in the chubby, red finger of the woman in the wine shop, the angry graffiti that says ‘love sucks’ that you pass on the way to your loved one. It may be a cliché, but there is a story behind everything. Your job as a writer is to look for the detail that brings that story to light. Learning to see the little things will give your work a profound depth, and provide a constant torrent of fresh ideas, fascinating locations and vibrant characters.

Unless you are Marvin the Memory Man, don’t rely on your noggin to store the newly uncovered details of your world. You may think you will remember a fascinating sight or unusual person later in the day, but chances are it will slip away and disappear forever. Most details are so small that they won’t reside in your memory for more than a couple of minutes, although they could be part of the minutiae that make your book memorable for a lifetime. So always make notes, everywhere you go; be the annoying sod who’s so busy scribbling that you bump into people on the street.


Of course, there is a limit to how much detail you can take in, and how much readers can put up with. It is good to be a detective, but don’t become too forensic – think astute, not anal; Kojak, not CSI. To return to the same examples, the average reader isn’t going to care how many bricks make up your neighbour’s wall, or how many times the lady in the wine shop has to scan your scotch before it registers, or the type of asphalt on your loved one’s drive (unless, of course, these things are actually relevant to the story). Note the details that say the most about your characters and their world, the particulars that reveal discrete but essential facts.

Idea 3 – Second sight

Try another idea...

Everyday objects don’t have to stay ordinary for long – see IDEAS 5 and 12 for ways to vest even the most mundane of things with metaphorical meaning.

Defining idea... ‘Little minds are interested in the extraordinary; great minds in the commonplace.’ ELBERT HUBBARD, author and publisher

How did it go?

Q I’m searching for the details in ordinary objects, but they just don’t seem very exciting. Am I going wrong somewhere, or do I just need glasses?

A You need to search for the intimate details, rather than giving a mere physical description. Try and defamiliarise yourself from the actual object by noting down any memories or thoughts it inspires in you, or any feelings it may awaken in one of your characters.

Q I can’t seem to find much to say about the world around me – it’s like getting blood from a stone. How much detail can you extract from one small thing?

A A great deal! Pick a random object from your house, something you don’t use much, then spend fifteen minutes writing about it. Look at it from every angle, note the way it looks, feels, tastes. Then write about it figuratively, what it reminds you of, whether it would make a good metaphor. Buy a good dictionary – building up your vocabulary will give you more control over the amount, and quality, of the detail in your work.

Q I’ve never really noticed the detail in the books I’ve read. Are you sure I need to worry about studying the minutiae?

A Next time you read a piece of creative poetry or prose take your time and work out how many sentences are there to provide detail, and which words help give you a strong sensory indication of the place or people. You’ll be surprised at how much of a text is designed to paint a picture, and how that picture is designed to remain inconspicuous.


The first excerpt

The second excerpt

The fourth excerpt

Inspired Creative Writing by Alexander Gordon Smith is published at £12.99 as part of the 52 Brilliant Ideas series by Infinite Ideas. To buy this book please visit their website at

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