With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
– “November Night,” by Adelaide Crapsey
* * *
I’ve met a lot of people who want to write but have a hard time listening.
- They don’t listen to advice
- They don’t listen to the way people talk
- They don’t listen to the world around them.
One of the most important things a writer can do is listen.
If you have a hard time keeping quiet and listening, here are a few tips that may help you.
Listen to Advice
I’ve known of many would-be writers who ask writers for advice…and then ignore it.
They ask how to write, how to submit, how to get an agent — and after a busy writer takes time out from their schedule to help them, the person asking for help does nothing with the advice.
If you ask somebody for advice or help, you owe it to that person to sit and listen…and then do something with the information they give you. They don’t have to help you — they’re doing you a favor.
It’s not an editor’s job to tell you what you are doing wrong; an agent doesn’t need to offer advice; writers are busy writing.
If you’re not going to listen to the advice you’re asking for and follow up with action, stay silent and let another writer who will listen and act have the chance.
Listen to the Way People Talk
At day jobs, I’ve always been the person who can get along with the people others loathe. The person who babbles on and on, wasting everybody’s time…? I can stomach that. The ranting conspiracy theorist always gets my time. People with opposing political views, religious views, or any view get my time as well.
I listen to people others think are “below” them. I talk to the people emptying my trash in part because one of the many jobs I’ve had was a janitor, but also because that person has different stories. I’ve listened to homeless people, people running large companies, and people from backwater towns.
I listen because I like people, but in listening to the people others ignore, it’s helped me write better dialogue.
If you don’t listen to that person from the sticks, when it comes time to write a character who lives in the middle of nowhere, everything you write will sound like a stereotype.
That’s not fair to your writing, your readers, and definitely not fair to the people you never got to know.
Listen to the World Around You
We recently had the heaviest snowfall that Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas has ever seen. My wife grew up, here, and it was the heaviest snow my wife’s ever seen. (I was raised in Chicago and north of the city, and last week’s snow made me homesick.)
My wife and I ran around in the snow for a couple hours. She loved the way the snow sounded as it crunched under our feet. We stopped in a park and listened to big snowflakes fall.
On our evening walks, we’re usually both fairly quiet, spending the time as we trudge along thinking about things.
I spend a lot of time listening.
I catch the sounds of animals, distant trains and cars, planes, the wind, people chatting in backyards. I listen to my breathing and my feet hitting the ground. I hear things far off; not because I have particularly good hearing, but because I open myself up to the world around me.
While I’ve always been a writer who believes less is more when it comes to descriptive prose, a couple well-placed lines appealing to the senses — in this case, hearing — put your stories in a bigger world that seems alive, not a constrained world that seems fabricated.
* * *
So shut up
Very interesting Christopher. I too find that people often seek me out when they have something to say. And I would be quick to tell you that I can at times be a poor listener, and consider myself a weak listener to conversations that I am marginally part of. Let me modify that. If its a one-sided comment or two that someone has ‘with me’, I’m usually all ears. But if there is potential for engaging conversaton, and I don’t have the opportunity to respond, I find my attention wanders. I do want to listen to what you have to say, but my nature also wants to give advice, or at least be an active participant.
Maybe this is where we differ, or at least another area that you didn’t touch upon. I have learned many times people don’t want advice, or even a conversation; they just want to express their opinion or thoughts on something. It’s part of what I call the ‘me first principle’. That principle boils down to the fact that people are more often times thinking of themselves and not others.
If I can tell someone is going to be practicing ‘me first’ when they are engaging me, I tend to not give my full attention. Its not the rightthing to do, but I fall into that cycle. I’m placing myself first 😛
Christopher Gronlund says
Ack! Sorry it took so long to reply to this, Steve. I didn’t get the usual e-mail notification that there was a reply and I was busy working on other things last week and barely looked at the blog.
Your mind isn’t the only one that wonders when a conversation is one sided–mine does, too. But during those times, I tune into other things. If it’s something I can’t excuse myself from and the person won’t stop babbling, they really don’t care if I reply or not, so they become writing fodder to me.
I listed to the way they form words and I watch their mannerisms. I think about what the hell their parents did to them to make them babble on and on. I listen and wonder what other obsessive traits they may have besides going on and on. I wonder why they feel such a need to be heard, but not interact with others.
Trust me, we’re not that different; my mind definitely wanders, but if I’m stuck there, I’m going to listen to other things and see patterns in character and things that make one babbler different than another.
It helps with dialogue, and it helps me hit on universal traits some people have and the little things that make them different enough to not be a stereotype.
I do think you are right: most people who ask for advice don’t want advice–they want the secret shortcut.
Where writing is concerned, there’s no secret shortcut. Writing is harder work than most people think. The novel I’m working on right now…I started it years ago. But I knew I wasn’t good enough to pull it off back then, so I wrote two other novels first.
I’ve always been a sponge, so I’ve been pretty good at taking advice over the years. When it comes to the little bit of writing advice I’ve received, I’ve listened and learned. I’ve probably sought out and listened to more advice from a distance, but when I’ve directly asked writers, jugglers, or managers for advice, I focused on a specific thing I knew they could do that I respected or wanted to do (so there’s a bit of the me first thing in there), and asked them how I could get there.
Then, after asking, I shut up and listened, only asking questions after they were done talking, and only if the question was really worth asking. Then I used the advice and let the person who helped me know that it worked.
There are definitely a lot of people out there who just want to hear themselves talk, but I’ve found that there are a lot of people who really do want to help others. If I ask for advice, even if it’s not what I expected, I still pay the courtesy of listening, because nobody has to share what they know.
I’ve received some bad advice over the years, and there are definitely people into one-sided conversation I’ve excused myself from or avoided entirely.
But by listening and using the advice I’ve asked for, and even by listening to some one-sided conversations in my time, I’ve become a better writer.
Thanks for the reply!