"The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers," Naomi Epel

Pros: Useful in several different ways
Cons: Comes across as a bit pretentious in places; could have used more cards
Rating: 4 out of 5

First posted 7/23/2001

“The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers” includes a portable carrying box, a small, 160-page booklet, and 50 cards with short phrases on them. The idea is that you go through the cards (one at a time, at random, several at a time, or however else you like) and if you need more inspiration than the simple phrase, you pull out the book and look up the card.

Most of the cards are meant to inspire ways of writing, rather than content. I had been expecting the latter, so I was slightly disappointed to have gotten the former. However, this is still very useful stuff. You might also be able to adapt some of these cards to inspire content instead of methods, as long as you use the cards and not the book.

Each card’s description in the book starts off by giving specific examples of how the technique is used by one (or usually several) well-known writers. Then it goes on to suggest some ways that you could apply it to your own writing. This is a very good way of presenting the material – providing both specific examples and general principles.

My only real problem with this product was the cards themselves. They’re plain, with a phrase in olive green on a white background, sans artwork. Unfortunately, they give the impression of someone who has just recently discovered that you can make nifty font-sizes and put words in odd places with a word processor, and who went a little nuts with it. In other words, it alternately comes across as pretentious and silly.

I think perhaps the best way to get across the usefulness (or not) of this deck would be to describe a few of the cards. The booklet does have an index of the cards by page (in the front) and an alphabetical index of the cards (in the back), so it’s easy to look up whatever card you pulled out of the deck. I’m not sure why Ms. Epel didn’t just put them in alphabetical order to make the whole thing easier, but oh well.

Observe a Ritual

I think this is obviously one of the cards that could be used to inspire content as well as method. I pull this card, and I find myself wondering how I can connect the concept of ritual to the story I’m writing – this could inspire all sorts of interesting writing directions.

The actual write-up in the book discusses the rituals that various writers use to delineate their working days and get them into the mood of working. There are enough examples to give you some idea of the range of possibilities, from Jack Kerouac’s candle to Willa Cather’s Bible passage and Somerset Maugham’s hat. (A certain good friend of mine has ice cream with her writing every day.) It moves on to a number of suggestions, including writing at the same time every day, closing the door to your office, putting in ear plugs, and breathing to center yourself. You can pick a few of these that sound useful, pick something of your own that you know helps you to calm down and settle in, or decide that this just doesn’t work for you.

Ms. Epel does suggest that whatever card you draw, no matter how weird or inappropriate it seems, you do what it says. I kind of like this advice. After all, it doesn’t take much effort to take a walk or start off your day with a certain piece of music once or twice, just to see if it helps or not. If it doesn’t, then move on.

Combine Elements

I have to admit that this is a technique I’ve often used to good advantage. You take plot elements that seem totally unrelated and weave something coherent out of them. Ms. Epel even has some concrete suggestions for how to do this if you haven’t done it before: things like cutting paper into strips and writing different elements down on them (nouns, verbs, adjectives, people, places, activities, seasons, phrases, etc.); then you can stir the pile of strips around, pull three at random, and work them into a story or essay.

The other cards include such things as Locate the Fear, Make a List, Take a Walk, Think Architecturally, Write a Letter, Conduct an Interview, Find the Need, and so on.

To be honest, if you already have a method of working that you enjoy then these cards will be of limited value to you. I’m not likely to use many of them for my contract-work because I already have a system that works for me. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that they’ll help me out with my own fiction work. You can also use the book like a series of exercises if you need to expand your range a bit, break through a case of writer’s block, or get started on your writing.

If you think that the cards with their odd fonts will make you laugh instead of inspiring you, you can copy the phrases over onto 3×5″ index cards and use those instead. That also allows you to add inspirational phrases of your own, and easily remove any cards that strike you as not so useful (or ones you’ve used and want to set aside).

Of course, now this deck makes me long for what I thought this was when I bought it – a deck of cards with phrases for inspiring content and new ways of looking at your project, rather than ways of writing. Oh heck with it–here’s my version.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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