Listening to Your Book

by James Scott Bell

You know how sometimes you get home from a social gathering and think of the perfect line you didn’t say?

It’s like that episode of Seinfeld where George is in a meeting and is gorging on the shrimp tray. Another guy says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” Everyone laughs at George, who has no comeback.

So he spends the whole episode trying to come up with the perfect rejoinder, and to set up another meeting with the same guy. The line George settles on is, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called. They’re running out of you.”

This line fails to impress Jerry, Elaine, or Kramer. But George insists that’s the one!

Near the end he has his meeting, and has brought the shrimp himself. He stuffs his face until his rival once again says, “Hey George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.”

With a smug smile, George stands and says, “Oh yeah? Well the jerk store called. They’re running out of you.”

But then his adversary immediately comes back at him: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time bestseller!” And once again, everyone laughs at George (which is really sort of the premise of the show, right?)

I thought about poor George the other day as I was considering how to take advantage of unbidden suggestions from our deep writer’s mind, as poised against “the best laid plans…” It’s a matter of three things, I think: awareness, craft and risk.

The best impromptu line I ever delivered came at one of the Men of Mystery gatherings. This is an annual event in SoCal which brings in fans of mysteries to listen to fifty authors pitch their books for one minute each—and then enjoy a nice lunch and a keynote.

This particular year the ballroom was packed.

As the microphone made its way down my row, the author two tables away spoke about his noir series and how it takes place in the “seamy underbelly of the city.”

The next author was a fine fellow named Mike Befeler, a senior citizen writer of what he calls “Geezer lit.” These are mysteries set in places like retirement homes. Mike made his amusing pitch.

Then the mic came to me. And I said, “Mike, I have one question. In your genre does seamy underbelly have a different connotation?”

The laughter was explosive. It’s probably my favorite moment as a public speaker. Everything just fell together. First, the conditions, of which I was acutely aware, because I was actually listening. Next, the craft of the English sentence, forming one for the best effect. Finally, taking a risk, for how many times have we heard a comedian tell a joke and get crickets in return?

Fortunately, it all worked out. It will in your writing, too, if you learn to listen to the book, respond to it with craft, and risk some writing time. Yes, it could turn out to actually be the wrong move. But sometimes you have to write to find out.

This applies whether you are a planner, a pantser or some sort of breed in between. When you’re into the actual writing, the book should start to take on life. It should whisper to you on occasion, and sometimes maybe make some demands.

It might be a character who talks back to you. I wrote a novel once with a fairly detailed outline. It was about a lawyer being stalked by an old enemy, putting both him and his wife in danger. I had planned to have the wife get out of town for awhile and stay with a relative.

But when I got to that scene, the wife refused to leave. I tried to get her out the door, but every move I attempted felt false. I finally had to accept the fact that the character was right.

Which meant, of course, adjusting my plans. As I recall, it took me a couple of hours to move around the pieces and account for the ripple effects. I made use of my novel journal. This is a free-form document where I “talk” to myself about the book. I usually do most of this in the pre-planning stages, getting to know the story and characters, setting down plot ideas and delving deeper into why I am drawn to this story.

But the novel journal is an extremely valuable tool during the writing itself. (For Scrivener users, the “Project Notes” pane is a great way to do it.)

Now, you pure pantsers are always doing a lot of listening. Your challenge is to know which voices to heed! Often you don’t find this out without a lot of wandering around in the woods, falling into bogs, retracing your steps and realizing that wasn’t such a good voice after all.

Plotters, on the other hand, often resist listening at all because their outline is a finely-honed edifice they are loathe to mess with.

In either case, the more craft you know, the better moves you will make. For example, if you’re aware of what needs to happen structurally, at the very least you’ll save yourself a lot of time and frustration. As I mentioned in a comment to Joe H. yesterday, it’s good to have a map of the signposts.

And then, finally, it comes down to risk. There should always be some risks in your writing, or you’re not pushing yourself far enough along. And you know what else? Taking risks is one of the great joys of writing, no matter how it turns out.

I experienced that just a few weeks ago. I was rolling along in the first act of my WIP. I had a map of my signpost scenes, and knew the “mirror moment.” Then suddenly, out of the blue, and I mean way out of the blue, one of my characters said something that was so shocking, so upside-down turning, that I literally sat back in my chair and stared at the screen.

I hadn’t planned it, I never anticipated it. This one line would completely change the trajectory of the novel. I had to think about it, and you know what I decided? It’s one of the best doggone twists I’ve ever come up with (or should I say my book came up with it and fed it to me?) So I’m keeping it, man. I went into my novel journal and started justifying the change and creating a whole new backstory.

In my humble writer’s opinion, it is much better than what I started out with—because I listened to the book, am trusting my craft, and am taking the risk.

And loving it.

You will, too … if you listen.

Do you ever hear your books talking to you? How often do your characters wander off your chosen path? How does your craft serve you in those times?

23 thoughts on “Listening to Your Book

  1. Not so much a case of wandering off the path as never shutting up. OMG, please let me fall asleep!

    Am on the last drive through current WIP. Adding nuance to a gut-wrenching scene. Write the line and stare at it. What? Well, hell, that’s a book title. No, that’s this book title. (If interested:

  2. When I see a scene in my head, I write it. If I don’t see anything, I write about the project itself. Usually within a sentence or two, I’ll see the scene.

    • I need to know the objective of the POV character in a scene and the potential obstacles (I usually make a list, then pick and choose). Finally, there has to be an outcome. Here’s where I’ll let the “movie mind” offer some suggestions. I want to “see” something surprising.

  3. I like the way you weave listening with plotting. I use my critique group to test my gut instinct–comes out about 50/50. That’s batting 500, but it’s a mediocre average for writers, no? Says I should listen harder when my book speaks. I plot my sign posts, but when I get there, I open my ears to Donald Maass, who whispers, “I see whatcha got, but that’s not the worst thing that could happen at this moment. Go for the worst.” Isn’t that what you did when the wife refused to leave? Did she get herself killed, or did she save the day? Or can you neither confirm nor deny!

    • Ah yes, the Whispers of the Don (not to be confused with the Whispers of the Dawn). Anyone who’s been in one of his prompting sessions knows whereof you speak.

      As for the wife? She ended up showing true grit!

  4. Excellent point. One of the many rewards of writing is getting caught up in the creation of a work that acquires a life of its own. You shape it, but it shapes you, too. These moments are rare, but man, when they arise, they make it all worthwhile.

    • Indeed, Mike, this is where the joy of writing comes in. We know there’s a lot of hard work ahead, so having it laced with delight is always a good thing.

  5. “When you’re into the actual writing, the book should start to take on life. It should whisper to you on occasion, and sometimes maybe make some demands.”

    I love this description of the part of writing that is fleshing out the story, putting meat on the spine and the outline, and is probably what some call “organic.” And, for me, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing. Sometimes, it’s not just hearing the book talk to me, it’s seeing and hearing the movie in my mind. The unexpected twists and turns require some bending of the skeleton (the outline and spine of the story), but it’s worth it, and probably part of the writing process that is addictive.

    • What I love, Steve, about the movie in the mind business is that you can replay a scene over and over and have it take on different colors, and even let the characters improvise a bit. I will sometimes write only dialogue for a few minutes, seeing what the characters really want to say, prodding them to go a little deeper. Of course, sometimes they prod me!

  6. My best bit of serendipity came based on something about me and my own quirks (and their number is legion.)

    I don’t like using GPS. I like maps. I love big thick books of maps. I love getting on Google maps and planning out the twists and turns of a trip and putting the directions on my clipboard. I love changing those directions when a bright shiny object distracts me.

    In the scene, my heroes are being sent to a meeting and are handed a GPS unit with the route programmed in. The hero stops them at a restaurant with wi-fi and has her pull up the route on google and then writes all the directions down on a napkin.

    On the way out of the restaurant he throws the GPS in the trash and says, “I hate those things. I like maps.”

    Well, of course, everything goes wrong and our heroes are wounded and stranded in the middle of nowhere down a series of dirt and gravel roads. The heroine has enough juice to make one phone call and says, “How can I tell them where to find us?”

    – I was really stuck at this point, it was a true DAMMIT moment. –

    And then . . . the hero pulls the napkin out of his pocket and says, “I told you I like maps.”


  7. I’ve come to know my characters pretty well. I know what they’ll do, what they won’t do, and the conflicts and excitement they’ll get into. So I pretty much let them dictate what they do. I just have to come up with the situations for them to deal with, figure out, and/or get out of.

    I think I have a relatively good sense of story, in that everything seems to happen in the right places (with tweaking in revisions, of course.) But since I don’t have the stories planned out, if something unexpected happens, it’s fun to follow it and see where it goes. Me, I’m not afraid of writing things that may not work. I’m sure a good portion of my writing will never be published, but I accept it as learning the craft. I write stories to develop the characters, so I know exactly who I’m writing about, and what they’ll do in situations. A lot of those will probably never be seen by anyone else, but they fill the characters out for me, so I can use them to the best effect.

    The first novel I ever wrote in my series will never see the light of day. Not only was my writing fairly amateurish then (this was a few decades ago, after all), but things didn’t work out as planned. You see, the first novel would actually have taken place near the end of the series. I liked it, I liked the protags, and I decided to develop them more fully by beginning the series where they first started working together.

    In the ‘first’ novel, one major character was the wife of one of the protags. She was a strong, independent woman who hated sharing her husband with his workmate and best friend. As I wrote stories in the series, as this protag met and worked with the other protag, I explored both characters more fully. Finally I decided it was time to meet the future wife. She was in the same profession as the others, so there were a couple of stories that included her. Protag and future wife were attracted, so then I wrote ‘the first date’.

    It was a disaster. She was angry at the protag’s friend, because he had (rightly) scolded her for doing something unethical. Protag liked the woman, but this was his best friend she hated. Since he’d turned out to become a pretty strong-headed and loyal guy, I realized that this relationship was not going to work out.

    ‘First’ novel crashes and burns.

    Protag does find a wife a few years later who is less arrogant and more understanding, and who doesn’t hate his work partner. It’s not a perfect union – what marriage is? – but it’s perfect for them. She’s also strong and independent, but she’s willing to accept her husband’s faults and friendships more than the other woman.

    So for me, it’s not so much the book talking to me, as the characters. Yes, my imagination works full time getting them into trouble, but they have to work their own way out of it. And sometimes they do surprise me by what they choose to do – but it always fits their characters.

    BTW, I am a big fan of the Whispers of the Don. I try to attend his sessions whenever I’m able, because he not only has a lot of insight into the industry and into what readers really want, but he’s always able to stir up the imagination, to make you see things in a different way, and add more life to a scene.

    • I was the opposite when I started out, BJ. I worked and studied and studied, and wrote, and worked … and became a really good plotter, and had structure down, too. That got me a five book contract. When I moved to a new publisher (with a great editor) I learned I had to go deeper into character work. That’s the ideal, of course. Great plot, great characters. It’s an ongoing and wonderful process.

  8. Last week, I was trying to fix a clunky, but crucial scene between a private investigator and the murderer. I tried adding, subtracting, and rearranging text, and moving the scene to another location. Nothing worked, still clunky. Then I realized the problem: this character could not possibly be the murderer. Once I accepted that as truth, another character with a much stronger motive emerged as the logical murderer.
    You are so right. It pays to listen and remain open-minded to possibilities.

    • Truant, that’s the sort of realization I was talking about, with my character who said the shocking thing. I kept asking myself if I could really go there … it would change so many things … but it felt so doggone good, so right. I love those moments.

      Which can happen, I hasten to add, before you write, too. I do a lot of playing around in free-form documents before setting out on the writing. That’s the wonderful thing about what we do. If you’re open, the good stuff can occur at any point.

  9. My novels talk to me when I’m asleep, and I have all sort of odds and ends scribbled on notes on my nightstand. At 3 AM, I’m sure these insights are brilliant. By the next morning, not so much. I once found a note I’d written in the wee hours that said, “Call California.” Huh?

    • I love the boys in the basement, Elaine. But I have terrible handwriting. I’ve written things down in the night that I couldn’t decipher. I use voice memo now. I sound like a drunken man, but usually know what I said!

  10. Sometimes it’s hard to “hear” your story talking to you. Sometimes the story talks sotto voce so you miss it. Sometimes it screams so you ignore it. And, as you say, sometimes you’re so stubborn about staying on your path, you just can’t bring yourself to face a truth the story might be trying to tell you. I’ve had characters tell me things I never considered. Had characters come on stage unbidden. I’ve learned not to fight these moments. Nine times out of ten, they are gifts. In our third book, a young kid came into a scene and I had no idea why he was there. But suddenly, a main character had a son I hadn’t planned on. It wasn’t until ten chapters later that I realized he held the key to the whole story.

    I called this “The Kid Stays in the Book” moment. (apologies to Bob Evans). Thank God I listened!

  11. I’ve definitely had many moments where my characters have suddenly done or said something that has taken my conscious mind by surprise – although I’m sure subconsciously I must have known what was coming. In my first book there was a death that took me by surprise and in the MG book I just submitted to my agent there was a pivotal moment where one character revealed something about her mother that I certainly hadn’t planned but totally worked (and changed some key moments in the rest of the novel as a result).

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