The Importance of Fresh Perspective

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I sometimes recall a long-ago Sociology class where our professor had us all sit on the floor. The objective was to help us gain a fresh perspective about the world – to look at things differently, to shed our assumptions about good and bad entities and to replace that categorization with an understanding of the important dynamic created by both forces.

The same is true for writing. All too often, especially when working in a corporate capacity, we get “too close” to the product or service. We assume that others know what we’re discussing. We revert to industry lingo or technical terms that may not resonate with the end user. We rely on acronyms that hold no meaning for the outsider. We overlook unanswered questions that newcomers may have because, based on our own experiences, we have already found those answers.

The need for fresh perspective is an excellent argument for utilizing an external resource – a freelance writer, an editor, or a consultant. “Fresh eyes,” is what I sometimes call it. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is another phrase I use. To me, that’s the ability to say with brutal honesty, “It’s still not clear how to work with your company” or “I know what your product does but I still don’t understand how to use it.”

* TAKE A BREAK.

As an exercise, it’s wise for authors to step back or step away for a few days. Upon returning, we find ourselves more observant and critical. “I see what the character is doing, but what’s his motivation? Why did he choose to take that action at this particular time?” With direct response copy, a clear head can also catch important oversights: “I see what the monthly payments are, but nowhere does it say what the total cost will be. That seems deceptive.”

* LOOK FOR THE SECOND RIGHT ANSWER.

Gaining a fresh perspective can also help us avoid clichés. It’s easy to revert to catch phrases and familiar metaphors while telling a story. “She had a song in her heart.” Really? Let’s be cynical: “How did the song get there? What is it singing?” Perhaps we should explain more authentically: “After a week in the sunshine, her mood shifted from a sense of futility to a gradual joyfulness that caused her to hum as she puttered around the garden, pulling weeds and turning topsoil. The combination of warm earth and trilling birdsong lifted her spirits and opened her mind to new possibilities.”

* TURN THINGS INSIDE OUT AND UPSIDE DOWN.

As writers, we must force ourselves to see things others don’t. For example, we all see cars, trucks, and taxis as vehicles that pass us by on a busy city street, but what if we were in an airplane or skyscraper looking down? That’s an entirely different canvas made possible by a change of perspective. We become observers, empowered by our position. We see an interchange of moveable parts, we notice advertising on the tops of buses, we become aware of colors and patterns, might even be able to anticipate an impending accident or traffic jam. Fresh perspectives provides wisdom and scope.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a wonderful aquarium presentation staged around a kelp tank at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.  As we stood safe and dry on the outside of the enormous 70,000 gallon tank, we could look in and up to see the fish swim by. We watched moray eels emerge from the tangle of plants… observed an immense sea bass rise to the surface and descend for food. Two divers entertained us – one cleaning the tank, one feeding the fish. Just seeing the continual interaction of these graceful sea creatures and the light filtering through the water transported us to a place we didn’t know … a place where peacefulness and fluidity could translate into a descriptive paragraph or plot.

So let’s ask when writing: “What would this incident look like if I were one of the characters? What would I see, feel, taste, hear, or smell?” Alternately, let us imagine ourselves encountering the incident as an observer. “What would make me stop and pay attention?” Sure, there is the obvious — “there’s a sinkhole forming in the road” — but perhaps it’s the small detail that takes us there:  “A mouse scurried across the road only to stop at the edge of the cavern created by cracking concrete.”

In thinking about the kelp tank, I’m reminded that “blue” might be nice in describing something but perhaps teal, the color of peacock feathers, or turquoise, the color of an underwater garden, might be more compelling.

Place Names Can Inspire Plots

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Sleepy Hollow in New York State is a real place that inspired a classic story. Chances are there is such a place in your backyard.

I know of a small piece of land in Massachusetts tucked under an overpass, adjunct to an off-ramp, adjacent to one of 13 villages in a township near Boston – that absolutely has the greatest name. Every time I pass it, I pledge to use it in a book. “Hemlock Gorge” was probably dreamed up by the Department of Parks & Recreation or maybe it was passed down in local history. Either way, it always conjures up images of mystery and finality. There’s something foreboding in the name, yet alluring – as good plots should be. The name hints of darkness and danger, secrecy and deception.

Of course this piece of property is just a bit of green public land along a charming river bed, but like “Alligator Alley,” “Lantern Lane,” or “Coyote Gulch,” I’m drawn to it.

Many years ago, on a cross-country excursion, we drove through a town named “Shell.” As I recall, the population was 3 or 13. We were told it was named for the Shell gasoline station located there. I see in online search, there’s a Shell, Wyoming.  That name supposedly comes from the fossil shell beds in the region. Could be the same place, different story.

I’ve always liked Gorda, on the Pacific Coast Highway, en route north to Big Sur. There was a time when the entire town could have been purchased by a single buyer. Now it is a destination site – in fact, a resort. I, however, always imagined myself ensconced in the cliffs of Gorda among the orange coreopsis, overlooking the ocean, awaking to the sound of surf … a temporary hermit, writing my great novel.

For those seeking a compelling setting, or even the spark that ignites a story, I suggest scouting your region for names of interest. Here on the East Coast, our pond and street names are rich in Algonquin language; on the West Coast, there is a distinct Spanish influence.

It’s easy to imagine peaceful native villages and survival plots when you hear names like “Popponesset” in Massachusetts or “Mooselookmeguntic” in Maine.

In California, bustling missions, rich in ornate religious artifacts, come to life among the agaves off El Camino Real when you hear names like “La Purisma” or “San Juan Capistrano.” One name that jumps out to me does so because it was such a surprise, tucked away in the dry landscape of Arizona. Tumacácori dates back to 1691 when Father Kino visited an O’odham village and established a mission there. If that doesn’t suggest dramatic possibilities, I’m not sure what would.

If nothing strikes your fancy, try combining names. Some years ago, I noticed a “Dead End” sign near a local church. I quickly wrote a poem called “Dead End Church,” but I could see it becoming more of a Cannery Row. (Thank you, Mr. Steinbeck)

As an exercise, think about the places that influenced your childhood. Chances are, you will recall some pet names created by friends. In my small town, we always had “The Knoll,” a space on someone’s farm that was great for sledding. For years I never knew exactly where it was located in the context of the community, but with a few shortcuts over rock walls and between apple orchards, we could find it.

Aside from the rough and rigorous names, there are other names that evoke a sense of peacefulness and calm. Take “Baby Beach” in Aruba or “Mother’s Dock” at a lake in New Hampshire. Don’t you just see a turn-of-the-century plot unfolding where women carry parasols and wear bouffant bustles?

So, as the New Year gets underway, let’s stroll away from Main Street and Elm, and go to far-off and exotic places – or nearby haunts that just sound that way.

What’s in a name? It could be your next plot.