Listen to the Book

James Scott Bell

TCM, may favorite channel, showed a clip the other day of the great actor Eli Wallach talking about Method acting. This was the movement that took off in the 1940s, inspiring a new generation of actors like Brando, Newman and Dean.
Wallach reflected that as a young actor it was exhilarating to work things out with the Method. It was a like a big gymnasium and the actors were all playing off each other, trying things, letting scenes happen naturally.
But as he grew older, he said, he got more cautious. He would sometimes forget those lessons of youth, that sense of play. To break out of his torpor he would reflect back on his early days.
“The Method tends to put you back on the track to enjoy what you’re doing, to listen,” he said. “The big secret to acting is listening. A thought on the screen is amazing. And if you really listen, it comes to life.”
This hit me as something that applies to writing as well. We don’t put our best words on paper unless, in some form or fashion, we listen to the story as it unfolds. Madeleine L’Engle put it this way: “A writer grimly controls his work to his peril.  Slowly, slowly, I am learning to listen to the book, in the same way I listen to prayer.  If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it; the book is usually right.”
So how do we listen to the book? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Listen in the morning
A valuable literary practice is to write quickly, first thing after you wake up (I will allow you a minute to start the coffee brewing, of course, but sit down ASAP and write, with pen and paper even, in stream of consciousness mode.)
Dorothea Brande recommends this practice in her wonderful little book, Becoming a Writer. It’s a way to capture that netherworld we inhabit between sleeping and waking, and therein lies treasure. Also, a lot you’ll throw away. But that’s the nature of creativity. The idea is to record as much of the mind stuff as possible, and then use whatever you find that’s valuable. Like panning for gold, you get a whole bunch of the riverbed in your pan then coax out the gold a bit at a time.
2. Use a novel journal
Sue Grafton does this, and that’s good enough for me. She begins each writing stint with her journal (she creates one for each novel). She starts with a diary entry, something about her life at the moment. Then she starts asking herself questions about her WIP. She may want to work on a scene, or a character, or some plot twist, or whatever else is popping up in her mind. Writing freestyle, is a way to open up her mind to hear what the story might be saying. It’s a conversation with the book.
3. Go to the place you fear
Going to places we fear is often where the deepest and most vital material is waiting. I never thought I’d write paranormal (abnormal, maybe). But when I came up with an idea that just wouldn’t go away, a zombie legal thriller, I went with it. It sold. Then, during the writing, I had to listen to what this new genre was telling me. I had choices, to go horrific or dark humorous or serious, throughout the writing of the first book in the series, Pay Me in Flesh. I listened intently, feeling my way along so the book had its own rhythms.
My agent, colleague and friend, Donald Maass, is a master at helping writers press beyond safe pastures. A question Don likes to ask in his workshops is, “What is something your character would never ever do or say?” Then, find a place for the character do or say that thing. Or at least think it, showing a ferocious inner conflict. Wow. Try that some time and then pick up the pieces of your head.
If you ever get stuck on a project, or the inspiration for it has given way to drudgery, remember what Eli Wallach said. Maybe it’s time to listen. Give the book your attention. Allow it to play. It wants to help!
Are you attentive to what your story is trying to tell you?

11 thoughts on “Listen to the Book

  1. Great advice, Jim. Sometimes my characters move the plot in a direction totally different from what I had in mind, and in most instances they get it right.
    I may have been you who told me the story of a writer who killed off a character his editor liked, explaining it thusly: “I didn’t kill him, I just found him dead.” To me, that makes perfect sense.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I do so want to be organized – I always think plotters must have it together and it just flows for them. I do plan, but it’s a loose plan A. I’ve learned that I must be patient and listen to the story and follow its direction. Sometimes it’s crazy, sometimes its unusually sane, but it always knows. In my current story, I’m working on revision and I had half the story missing (its my first ever nano story)…. a third of the way in I end up with a major character showing up and I’m thinking “where did this guy come from and why is he so important?” and this little voice deep, down in there said – I’ve been there the whole time, you just didn’t notice me and then I thought back about the story and all of the places he would’ve been, but my protag just didn’t know he was there to see him. Weird and he is completely vital to the story.

    Then my protag had had some seemingly incidental encounters, daily things that were just brief and normal in the course of her day. When I wrote them, I didn’t know that someone had been watching and found a way to make all of those innocent encounters sinister by setting her up for multiple murders, when those people showed up dead. My conscious mind hadn’t planned that, but the story knew all along. I’ve learned that “my way” seems to involve a lot of patience and good listening.

  3. I love the Madeleine L’Engle quote, Jim. I’d never heard that one before. I’ve never been a morning person. I wish I were, but that’s not where my inspiration comes from. It’s going to the place I fear that works for my characters. I’ve never tried the novel journal, but that’s something that might work too. Since I don’t plot extensively I have to be careful of not following too many tangents that get me off course. I do find the best time to listen like those of you who are morning folks is to listen while I walk or exercise. Instead of putting the headphones on or watching tv at the gym, that’s when I enjoy listening to my story.

  4. Really interesting. I’ve been doing the morning writing and writing a journal before I start the work of the day for years to good effect. But I’m intrigued by the idea of going to a frightening place. I can so see how that would warm up the writing muscle. Thanks.

  5. Another keeper, James, particularly as to #1 and #2. If I don’t start writing first thing in the morning tasks start to line up like elves in front of Santa and before I know it the day is gone. The diary/journal is a great suggestion as well. Thanks!

  6. Love this post, James. I realised one day while editing that I had to abandon control and tune into what the book was trying to tell me. If I got stuck it was because I hadn’t heard it well enough.
    I haven’t tried the book journal – and this is the second time today I’ve seen it mentioned around the ether. Your post is clearly my next book telling me what I need to do. Thank you

  7. I recently ended a year-long online collaboration with another writer on Blogger, where our characters interacted in real time. It was an incredibly rich source of material as we played off of each other. Neither of us knew what our own characters – let alone the other’s – were going to do next. We really had to listen closely. Often we were up very late at night or very early in the morning and our creativity just ran wild. I got to know my characters, as well as some new ones I made up for the story thread, extremely well. To the point that I am now rewriting my novel from a completely fresh and deeper perspective.

    I had to stop because it was just such a huge time drain and things got so far off track of my original plot that I needed to put the characters back into their separate stories. I would love to do it again for another project, though.

    What amazed me was how some characters had chemistry and some didn’t. One of my MC’s would lose her temper at the wierdest moments. One of them – normally calm and collected – committed a hasty murder and caused all kinds of problems for everyone, ending in a trial. Some refused to do what they were supposed to do, and others just sort of sank into the background of our ever-growing cast, unable to compete.

    Now my job is to put some of that into publishable work.

  8. I love how this post and the comments capture what it is to be a fiction writer in a way that no one but a fiction writer could understand. The subconscious mind writes the book, and the conscious mind discovers it. We’d all think we were insane if it weren’t for this commonality of experience.

    Regarding the quote from Donald Maass: When I first read that advice in “Writing the Breakout Novel,” I resisted. But I quickly realized that I’d already done what he recommended with the main characters in my WIP. Drama comes from placing characters into a situation where wrong becomes right, and they must make excruciating choices. It’s only in those situations that their true mettle reveals itself.

  9. Listening is paramount when creating. But here, you’re referring to “inner” listening. You are so very correct, James. I writer really performs in creating memorable characters and situations when their inner ear is pressed to the ground of their internal ether. GREAT post!

  10. This is exactly where I’m at right now. I’ve been so stuck on this project, and so I “journalled it out” in a long jumble of thoughts about what I want the story to be and what the story seems to want to be and why I’ve been fighting it. It helped–big time. And forward I go…. ๐Ÿ™‚

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