On August 18th, I promised to attempt some of the writing exercises I’ve been encouraging others to do. After a successful attempt at writing longhand while simultaneously writing to an illustration I posted ages ago, this morning I finally (a week late, so sue me) tried the next exercise:

Creative Eavesdropping

This is the “take home exercise” in my Living Dialog class. If you’ve ever been to a Starbucks or anything like a Starbucks, or an airplane or airport or bus or subway train, etc., you’ll have seen all the people, heads down, typing away into laptops or scribbling into notebooks (usually the former). What are they writing? Fifty Shades of Grey fan fiction? In my neighborhood, probably mostly. Some kind of dry and soul-deadening corporate memo or report for work? Okay. The Great American Novel? Why not?

The point is, you have no idea what they’re writing and neither does anyone else and you know what? No one cares. So here’s what you do to get a real, fast sense of how people actually speak to each other:

Bring your laptop or notebook to someplace like a Starbucks and nonchalantly sit close to a table at which two or more people are sitting and having a conversation—any conversation, about anything. Then write down every word they say to each other.

Don’t tell them you’re doing that. What they don’t know won’t result in restraining orders. Just write down what they say. Don’t look at them, don’t make eye contact, and don’t judge. Don’t edit. Just be the stenographer.

Okay then. My wife took the day off today for her birthday, so she came with me to a local coffee house. She brought a book to read, a brought a cheap composition book and pen I got for free at a writer’s conference (the only tools an writer really needs to write the Great American Novel, by the way) and after ordering our coffees, I found what I thought would be the perfect table. I opened my notebook and started with:

CE 9/8/15

Then I started listening to the two women next to me . . . and I could hear about every fifth or sixth word.

One of them was one of those super quiet talkers—we get a lot of those on the West Coast. It’s a thing here. I don’t know why. I grew up in the Chicago area and by comparison people there are constantly shouting at each other. New Yorkers and Bostonians are a little louder, but not much. In certain parts of the Northwest you either learn to read lips or just stop talking to the locals.

And we were sitting right across from the counter and those big espresso machines can get really loud, and of course they grind their own beans.

Okay—it’s just this table isn’t going to work.

A little frustrated but otherwise undaunted we went in search of a better seat. Eventually I found a woman with a little boy of maybe three and (I presume) her mother sitting at a little table outside. The two women were talking, appeared a bit more animated, and it was quieter outside. We pulled up next to them.

As predicted, they didn’t notice us at all. We drank our coffee, shared a slice of blueberry banana loaf, and I tried to listen in.

But the older women was facing away from me and was another West Coast Whisperer. Her much more animated and considerably louder mother-of-a-toddler daughter didn’t disappoint in terms of volume, but wow, did she talk fast. I was writing as quickly as I possibly could but was immediately at least a sentence or two behind.

Then a big truck roared past, obliterating all other sounds. Then a guy wandering around the sidewalk started fully yelling into his cell phone. For what it’s worth, I remember him all but screaming: “Don’t ask, just do it!” A man after my own heart.

Oh, and did I mention that I turned 51 yesterday? Picking up individual sounds in crowds has been a challenge for me for at least the last five or six years.

So, with this attempt, here’s the sum total of what I managed to write down:

Noah, are

So I might end up switching over in November to Musicfest

he loved Musicfest

he switched over to

That’s pretty pathetic.

Maybe I was over-reaching with this exercise, and I wonder if anyone else has actually managed to pull it off.

I want to try this again, maybe at the gate in an airport, or even on a plane. We once flew from Seattle to Las Vegas and the twentysomething young lady behind us regaled her friend with a running monologue about this guy who was, like, totally in love with her, but, y’know, whatever, for every second of the two and a half hour flight. It was impossible not to hear her. Had I written that down it would have made for at least a novella.

In my version, her friend—who did nothing the whole time but occasionally grunt in the affirmative—pulls a gun and shoots her as the plane lands. Then the rest of the passengers burst into wild applause—including the air marshal, who’d lent her his sidearm.

Still, I refuse to accept full defeat, since one thing I did take away from this attempt to eavesdrop on this young mother and grandmother is that dichotomy of slow vs. fast, quiet vs. loud, age vs. youth that will—I promise—find it’s way into some piece of fiction from me, eventually.


Everything you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste is grist for your fiction mill—even the fragments.

And unless you’re conducting a formal interview, maybe especially the fragments.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to EXERCISE TWO . . . ATTEMPTED

  1. renobarb says:

    Aha! I’ve tried the eavesdropping exercise multiple times in the past year only to find I couldn’t hear the conversations. I was an expert at this when I lived in NY years ago,so I chalked up my failure to losing my hearing. Now you have revealed the truth- people in the West speak too softly.


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