It might be the down-and-dirty technical details of getting 25 lines per page in your manuscript. Perhaps it will be writing-focused like the Deep Editing Analysis from Margie Lawson last week. But every Tuesday, I try to pass some fun new bit of knowledge on to my More Cowbell peeps.
Yesterday, I was tweeting for the accounting firm I work for and I came across the following tweet:
Hmmm…I’m a writer. I’m interested in “engagement”…particularly as it relates to my characters and potential readers.
Let’s be clear: my BOSS cares about engagement in terms of business, teaming and customers. (And well he should as it helps keep us all employed.)
Me? I care about those things…when I’m at work. The rest of the time, it’s all about my characters and the movie reel that plays in my head. So I forwarded the blog to my personal email to share with all of you.
Here’s the full article, if you wish to read it – Dan Rockwell writes really good posts. In this particular post, Rockwell examines the principle of open listening from the book, “Coaching for Engagement: Achieving Results through Powerful Conversations,” by Hancox, Hunter, and Boudreau.
According to Dan, “open listening is rigorous work not passive silence. Fools can be quiet but they can’t listen.” Here is the line that made me decide to write about this post:
Listen and you’ll know what to ask.
I’ll confess that I’m not half the listener I’d like to be. I come from a family of boisterous people that love to tell stories, finish each others’ sentences and talk all over each other. Two-way communication can get a little daunting in a family like mine. (I’m sure you find that shocking.)
Plus, I’m impatient. Far too often, I think I’ve got the gist of something my husband says only to have him stop and tilt his head (looking very aggrieved) and say, “I wasn’t finished yet.”
Oh. Whoops. Um, go ahead…Sorry!
Yeah, it’s embarrassing. Especially because I want to be a great listener all the time.
Several posts ago, we talked about various brainstorming techniques to help you with plotting your story. My favorite technique in that post is an “oldie but goodie” called The List of 20 that requires you to list twenty things (no matter how crazy) that could happen in your book.
Note: It’s best to do this in a group so the ideas can fly in from multiple points of craziness.
While brainstorming and plotting are important and enormously fun, I believe the real magic happens when you take a moment to stop and listen to what your characters have to say. When I shut my pie-hole and get out of the way, my characters tell me the damnedest things!
Listen and you’ll know what to ask.
This is what all the meditation, writing practice, walks, and showers are about for creative people. They’re about shutting off the faucet of continual life-chatter long enough to listen to your characters. When you listen hard enough, they let you climb right down into the heart of them and discover what makes them tick.
In his blog, Mr. Rockwell shared the “9 questions open listeners ask that create engagement.”
He was focusing on business and leadership. We’re focusing on character development. What would you find out if you stepped into your fictional world and asked your characters the following questions?
- What are they focused on?
- What does this mean to them?
- How are they measuring success?
- What values are they expressing?
- What emotions do you hear in their voice?
- What values or beliefs are behind their words?
- How is this impacting them?
- What strengths have they articulated that could be acknowledged?
- What are they really asking for?
I’ve never had this particular list of questions before, and I like it. My characters really like it. When I pondered the Big 9 above, my fictional peeps started shouting out their answers. (I know all you writers know what I’m talking about! Don’t try to act like this schizo-sounding stuff doesn’t happen to you…)
Rockwell also discusses some pitfalls to open listening, which nicely enough also apply to writing:
- Jumping for quick solutions – you’ll solve the wrong problem.
This ties back to the List of 20. ALWAYS list all twenty!
- Discomfort with other’s frustration while they find their own answers. Let others struggle.
Writer translation: Quit saving your characters from the crap pile. They’ve got lessons to learn, you helicopter creator, you.
- Assumptions, beliefs, and judgments.
Writer translation: Don’t start thinking this is your book. It’s only partly yours. The rest belongs to your fictional people and they don’t need you butting in with things that don’t apply to them.
- Getting caught up in the details of the story. Keep the big picture in mind.
Writer translation: “Whoa, Sparky. Watch that backstory!”
- Discomfort with silence. Shhhh!
Writer translation: There are pages for fast-paced riveting action and there are pages where some introspection would not be out of line. If you convey those quiet moments well, they’re far from boring.
So, what techniques do you use to get those characters to open up and tell you their secrets? Do you have questions of your own you like to ask? What are they? Enquiring minds always want to know at More Cowbell!
You know I love hearing from you! I love it so much, I created the Let’s Meet Up (for Training) Contest where your comments put your name into a hat to be drawn for a one hour training webinar with yours truly.
This is supposed to be the last month of this contest but I’m not sure I want it to be…I have soooo much fun on our webinars. The July Winners will be announced next Tuesday on July 26th (even though we’re just getting around to our June Webinar this Friday – I swear I don’t know where the time flies…).
Anyway, please let me know if the Let’s Meet Up Contest needs to continue for another few months. I’m willing if you are!