Listening or Waiting to Talk?

One of the best tools a writer can learn is the art of listening.  Actually, learning to listen is a useful tool for any human, period.  I spent the weekend in a workshop with people who had varying degrees of skills in listening, which has had me pondering the subject.

As my good and wise friend (and leader of the workshop) Mary-Suzanne pointed out, most of us spend time waiting to talk instead of actually listening.  I’ve watched other people do this and I know that I myself do it all the time–and I pride myself in being a good listener.

Instead of actually listening and taking in what the other person is saying, our minds race.  We start formulating what we want to say in return, or cataloging all the similar experiences that we have had so that we can talk about them when the other person shuts up.  Or maybe we worry that we don’t have anything to say, or that we’ll be expected to have something to say and nothing will come out.  We worry about what we look like or maybe we’re even worrying about something we did before the current conversation.

If we’re not worrying about ourselves, we may well be judging the person we are supposedly listening to.  We judge the speed of their delivery, or think dire thoughts about the awful outfit they have on.  We judge the funny expressions they make as they talk.  Or the way they are shredding their napkin as they speak.

But all of this is worrying and judging, not listening. 

Why does listening matter to a writer?

Because writers need to observe the world and everything and everyone in it in order to gather material.  Writers need to listen to conversations of others to obtain an ear for dialogue and how people interact with each other.  We need to listen to others in order to understand what it is to be human.  Because, after all, that is what writing is all about–describing the human condition.

So start schooling yourself in the art of listening.  How to do this is a bit harder to describe than telling people they should do this, I will admit.  A quick search of the internet netted mostly descriptions for college students listening to instructors lecture.  But this site seems to have some good advice about interpersonal listening.

The gist of it, of course, is staying present and not letting all your mental chatter distract you, whether that mental chatter is worrying about yourself or judging the speaker.  You might just be surprised what happens when you start listening deeply to the world around you.

Praise is Good and Change is Scary

Geez, things change in an instant.   David Cook is no longer the front-runner to be the next American Idol (but I still think he should be, because he has way more artistic integrity than the pipsqueak David Archuleta and I voted for him a gazillion times anyway) and suddenly the TypePad interface is completely different.  Cool, but completely different.  It always takes me awhile to embrace changes like these.

The above was the Change is Scary part of this post.  Now we get to the important part–the Praise is Good part.  The wonderful Lori devoted an entire blog post to me today.  (Pause for applause, please–I found the new make a link button and guess what?  You can now open it in a new window.) 

Lori won the contest I held awhile back and at first she was going to take a free coaching session as her prize but then she decided to take me up on my offer of reading the first 20 pages of her novel.   It was an absolute pleasure to read her work but I always hold my breath a little after I deliver a critique.  When I read a writer's work I do my utmost to be scrupulously honest and also supportive and encouraging.

The MFA program I attended operated on the principle that a supportive environment is just as good, if not better, at turning out fine writers than a harshly critical one and I like to uphold those values in my own teaching.  However, what might seem supportive and encouraging and honest to me might read as scathing to you–particularly if you are not used to have your work critiqued. 

My most favorite response to a critique is when someone says that it inspired them to get back to the project with renewed vigor and that is what Lori said today.  So I'm basking just as much as Lori is today–its what makes this work I do worthwhile.

Let me also mention the other winners of the contest.  Lauri also sent me the first chapter of her novel and it was great, too.  I don't know what it is with the talented Lauri/Loris who read this blog, but I'm grateful for them.

And finally, I owe Jen and BellaVida coaching sessions.  Email me, you guys! 

Keyword Research for Writing

In my ongoing attempts to takeover secure a spot for myself in the writing corner of the internet, I’ve been researching keywords.    This fun little endeavor is part of my effort to find out what y’all want when it comes to writing and writing coaching.

(Brief, but very important aside:  Tomorrow is the LAST day to take part in the survey I posted last week.  Here’s the link: Another Contest: What Are Your Writing Problems?  I had a flurry of activity when I first posted the contest, but since then nada.  Zip. Zilch.  Its depressing me, people.  I’m looking for a last minute surge in entries here, so help me out.  The prize is a free coaching session.)

Anybody who has ever done SEO (Search Engine Optimized) writing for the web is familiar with keywords.   You’ll get a list of words which are usually very similar, like this:

Kitchen Sink
kitchen sink
Kitchen sinks
Porcelain kitchen sinks
porcelain kitchen sinks
stainless steel kitchen sinks
steel kitchen sink

Usually there would be 10 or more, but enough already, you get the idea.  Note the very subtle differences, for instance, kitchen is sometimes capitalized and sink is sometimes plural.  This is because some intrepid soul has been going through and trying to figure out what the top search terms are for kitchen sinks.

This is a tedious process.  I know because I spent last week doing it (in and around the ghostwriting).  The best place to go for keyword research is Wordtracker. They are pretty cool–they give you a free seven-day trial and they make it really easy to cancel if you don’t want to pay them $59 a month to keep the service. 

Amazingly enough, I was not researching kitchen sink words, but writing and coaching words.  After about the 5,000th time I fed a word through I began to see some similar themes, mostly that people put really strange phrases into the search engines. 

For instance, "novel writing priest."  Does this mean anything to anyone?  I actually googled it myself to see if there was some famous novel writing priest that I hadn’t heard about.  But not as far as I could tell.  However, "novel writing priest" has a KEI of 200, which is very good.  (The KEI is the number of searches compared to websites the word appears on.  You can get a word that has a ton of searches but also has a ton of websites devoted to it, and then its not a good keyword.  The KEI uses some arcane formula to figure this out.)

Besides getting me mildly upset about the state of knowledge in this country ("tips for writing fiction novels," is one of my favorites–um, last time I checked all novels were fiction) this process also makes me feel like I’m missing out on stuff that everyone else knows.  For instance, "101 very funny short stories," comes up very high.  As does "nifty stories" and "exotic short stories."  Is there some popular short story series that I’ve missed?

(And do not even get me started on sex stories.  I finally gave up putting anything remotely related to the word story in the search engine because it only returned 50 thousand variations on searches for sex stories.)

But the cool thing about it is that you really can start to get a sense of what kind of information people are looking for.  They seem to be desperate for info on writing feature stories, for instance.  And there is great clamoring for advice on writing outlines for plot.

So, you’ll be seeing more basic articles on this blog in the near future, as I attempt to stake out my corner of the writing world. 

I promise, though, I will not write an article about a novel writing priest.  Unless someone wants to introduce me to one.  The phrase has an awfully high KEI.

Writing Fiction: The Two Nows Structure

The task of a novelist is to tell a story so riveting that it will hold a reader’s attention for hundreds of pages. To do this, the author must first know the story intimately herself—which is the reason we write rough drafts (also known as “discovery drafts” or, my favorite, from the beloved Anne Lamott, “shitty first drafts”). After you’ve finished a first draft (or many drafts) and are convinced you know the story inside out, you can start thinking about structure (though there may well be a lucky few who write novels with the perfect structure from the outset). Structure is the way your story is presented to the reader—the ordering of scenes and chapters.

Writers whose novels contain a lot of important backstory often struggle with ways to weave in flashbacks without stopping the forward motion of the story. One approach is to “chunk” in the flashbacks: present several chapters of the story line to get the action moving, and then pull in several chapters (a “chunk”) of explanatory backstory.

But what if your backstory is so compelling or so important to the protagonist’s character arc that you don’t want to wait several chapters to impart it? This is the issue I struggled with repeatedly in writing my first novel. My heroine moves to a new part of the country, which is where the action begins. Yet what makes her move so painful, and the action unique, is her deep love for her left-behind home. My problem was how to get the story moving and keep the reader engrossed while also showing Collie’s ordinary world—the place she left behind.

The answer finally came in a critique session with trusted fellow novelists. Why not try running a dual story line? Tell Collie’s story from the moment she moved to Santa Fe as one narrative arc, and intersperse the backstory in alternating chapters—a dual story line. Chapter one begins the story and immerses the reader in the contemporary story line, chapter two moves back to the beginning of the flashback story line, Chapter Three returns to the present, and so on.

I’ve christened this the Two Nows Structure, because one important feature is the immersion in the “now” of each arc. This is the key element of this construction. We are in the head of the characters as they are at the moment. The flashback storyline is not told retrospectively, with the wisdom of the years that have passed. It is told in the now of that narrative arc. Accordingly, such a structure works best with a limited point of view, either tight third person or first person.

Each storyline has a distinct narrative arc, with its own conflicts, disasters, and troubles for the characters, and its own forward movement and mounting action. To decide where to begin each throughline, bear in mind the advice of writer Jack Bickham, from his book, Scene and Structure, which is “start your story at the time of the change that threatens your character’s major self-concept.

In my research on this structure, I’ve discovered two main variations. The first is a linear style, in which each story is told in strict chronological order. This is the structure used in the recent novel, A Blessed Event, by Jean Reynolds Page, which is the story about a woman desperate for a baby, and the controversial actions she takes to get one. In dealing with the consequences of those actions, the protagonist uncovers secrets from her past. The contemporary story begins in Texas in 1983, and the backstory action starts ten years earlier. Chapters alternate between the two time periods, and each story line moves steadily forward until they begin to merge about three-quarters of the way through.

A permutation on this linear storyline structure is found in Jane Hamilton’s novel, The Short History of a Prince. While Hamilton’s two narrative arcs also follow chronologically, her novel begins with the flashback storyline. The book alternates between 1972 and 1995, with each distinct arc covering roughly the same period of time—the months of a school year, September to June. In Prince, the events of the past storyline are so strong and compelling that they have affected every single character in the twenty years since, which is no doubt why she chose to begin in the past.

The second variation on the Two Nows Structure is the thematic style. In this construction, the flashback chapters are arranged in seemingly random order, but the author has placed them so for thematic reasons. Maryanne Stahl’s novel, Forgive the Moon,, is fashioned in this manner. The story of a woman whose marriage is threatened, the contemporary action takes place over a one week vacation on Long Island, and the flashbacks show snapshots of the protagonist’s past which illuminate her current behaviors and decisions.

Both the linear and thematic structures tend to follow a similar pattern—chapters alternating consistently between the two nows with an equal emphasis on each storyline. Occasionally, authors allow us to remain in the contemporary storyline for more than one chapter, but this rarely happens with the past storyline. Its important to keep the contemporary narrative moving (which is why you chose this structure) and lingering in the past will not accomplish that. By the last third or quarter of the novel, the two storylines will, of necessity, start to merge until there is one seamless narrative remaining.

Why choose this structure? In rewriting my first novel, I found it benefits my writing in several ways. By not relying on flashbacks and instead immersing my characters in the “now” of their lives, I am forced to write with more immediacy. Instead of lapsing into telling, I easily see ways to show. This, in turn, helps me to show character motivation in real time, instead of using a flashback that stops the action of the story to explain why a character does what he does. For instance, in my own novel, I revealed a crucial character motivation in a flashback scene. Try as I might, I could see no way to get this information out in any other way—until I recast the novel in the Two Nows structure. Immediately, I saw how this bit of info could be revealed in the contemporary story line, thus pushing the action ahead and keeping the story moving.

The Two Nows Structure is a useful paradigm for a variety of novels, but especially for those which rely heavily on backstory. Ultimately, I decided not to use this structure for my novel, but its certainly something I’ll consider using for future novels.