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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Art of Listening by guest blogger Ann Tatlock

Ann Tatlock is the author of eight novels. She enjoys teaching and acting as writing mentor at numerous conferences and workshops throughout the year. Her greatest joy is her daughter Laura, with whom she shares a love of life, laughter and Chihuahuas. Ann lives with her family on the side of a mountain in beautiful Western North Carolina. You can read more about her work on her website.

The Art of Listening

If you can’t figure out exactly who your characters are and what it is they ought to be doing next, it may be that you’re trying too hard. Your characters will tell you everything you need to know, as long as you’re willing to listen.

Maybe you remember that wonderful scene from “Finding Forrester.” In the movie, Sean Connery plays William Forrester, the reclusive Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who never writes a second novel and who hasn’t left his New York City apartment for years. Unexpectedly, he is befriended by a 16-year-old basketball player named Jamal Wallace who has a secret passion—he wants to be a writer.

Once Forrester reluctantly consents to becoming Jamal’s mentor, he brings out a couple of typewriters, starts tapping away at his own and tells Jamal to “go ahead.” Jamal says he can’t go ahead, he has to think first. To which Forrester replies, “No. No thinking. That comes later. You write the first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is to write—not to think.”

While I agree with Forrester (he is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize winner!), I would back up one step. Even before you begin to write, just listen. Just go about your business—clean the house, mow the lawn, pay bills, play with the kids—and at the same time try to be aware of the voices at the back of your mind that are telling you their story. Because if you’re a writer of fiction, that’s the best way to give your imagination the freedom it needs to work.

It’s impossible to explain exactly how this happens, but it may be something like this: Picture those times when you were about to say something but suddenly you forgot what it was. The other person says to you, “Well, it’ll come to you when you’re not thinking about it.” And it does! As soon as you move on to the next topic, your mind retrieves the lost item that had disappeared from the tip of your tongue.

The mind and the imagination—what a wonder! Especially when our inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit. The word “inspire” in fact means “God breathed.” Just as God breathed life into us (Genesis 2:7), He continues to breathe life into our minds and souls so that we may create works of beauty that glorify Him.

Before I start a novel, I pray for God’s inspiration and I listen. And then my characters rise up and become real, three-dimensional people with minds of their own. They tell me everything I need to know for the story to take shape, and though I’m the one who must sit at the keyboard searching for the right words and putting the scenes in order, they are always there, guiding me and correcting me whenever I take a misstep.

Believe me, they have minds of their own. They don’t like it when I attempt to change their story. When I tried to kill off Doc Eide in my first novel, A Room of My Own, he made me feel guilty and out of sorts for days until I realized he had no intension of dying. Thankfully, I relented and let him live. The story is much better with the good doctor alive at the end.

Ditto with Howard Draper in All the Way Home. As far as I was concerned, he was going to meet his Maker on that lonely back road in Mississippi. “Not on your life,” he said. “Kill me, and your readers will rise up and revolt.” Of course, he was right. Had I succeeded in doing Howard in, the story would have been ruined. When All the Way Home won the Christy Award, I could hear Howard--still alive and playing his violin somewhere in that place where all satisfied characters reside--saying, “Told you so.”

Tillie Monroe of Promises to Keep was another character full of surprises. She first came to me about 25 years ago, long before I was a published author. I tried to write her into a novel, but the story fell flat. “What’s the matter, Tillie?” I asked her. “Not time yet,” she replied. “I’ll let you know when it is.” That dear old woman patiently sat around for a quarter of a century before finally showing up in force. “All right,” she said. “Now’s the time. And here’s the story.” While she spoke, she was sitting on the front porch of a house she used to own and she was reading the morning paper. And there begins the first chapter of Promises to Keep.

Now you may wonder whether I tried to kill Tillie off. I can’t tell you, of course, or I’ll ruin the ending of the story for you. But I can tell you that she rather snippily said to me, “You do tend to lean toward killing people, don’t you? And you’re not even a writer of murder mysteries.” I like to think that she and I came to a good compromise on the story’s ending, though that’s all I’ll say about that.

Like the proverbial pounding of a square peg in a round hole, it doesn’t work to force characters to be who we want them to be or do what we want them to do. They are their own people, and the story belongs to them. They will tell you their names, and you must accept them, even when the name seems ridiculous. (I told Satchel Queen of Every Secret Thing that Satchel was a boy’s name, and that the only Satchel I ever heard of was an African-American baseball player while here she was a young white girl. I tried to change her name to Susannah, but my attempts were useless. Satchel said she wouldn’t tell me her story if I didn’t call her by her real name.)

They will tell you what they look like and what their dreams are and where they have been and where they are going. Sometimes they will come upon you suddenly, when you may be halfway through the book already and you had no idea any other characters are involved. But there they are and you must include them, because the story won’t be complete without them.

As someone who believes fully that Christians must be thinking people, still I offer my first word of advice to writers both published and not-yet-published: Don’t think. At least, not at first. Instead, get into the habit of listening. Give your characters the freedom they need to become fully formed people, rising up to populate that wonderful world of your imagination. First, they will surprise and delight you and then, in turn, they will surprise and delight your readers.


Eleven-year-old Rosalind (Roz) Anthony escapes an abusive home life when her mother decides to leave her husband and take the children to another state. Leaving Minnesota behind and settling in Mills River, Illinois, the family is surprised to wake up one day and find a stranger on their front porch, reading the morning paper.

That stranger is 70-year-old Tillie Monroe, the former owner who aims to die in the house her husband built for her and where she lived all her married life—before her sons sold the place out from under her. Tillie’s insistence on coming home proves a godsend for the family in ways they could never imagine.

Alan Anthony has followed the family to Mills River, but reveals himself only to Roz. What Roz wants more than anything is for her daddy to quit drinking, to be the good man she knows him to sometimes be, and to take his rightful place as husband and father. He promises to change. But should Roz trust him?

To read my review of Promises to Keep, click here.

4 comments:

Ane Mulligan said...

Thanks for sharing this, Ann. Listening to characters can really be fun. Then again, so can eavesdropping to restaurant conversations in the next booth. ;)

Rosanna Huffman said...

I enjoyed this post, Ann. Also greatly enjoyed Promises to Keep. Saw it on Amazon several weeks ago and pre-ordered. It arrived well before the "release date" of Feb. 1 and I devoured it immediately. I wasn't disappointed, but then I never have been with an Ann Tatlock novel. Thank you.

Marti Pieper said...

I love this concept and thank you for sharing, Ann.

Listening/praying/listening has helped me so much on my nonfiction projects. I love the sense of "working when I'm not working," too. As for fiction--I think I've been listening for years. I hope to turn some of that listening into words and chapters before too much more time goes by.

Julie Garmon said...

Beautiful words. Thank you! And what an intriguing cover. Must read this one.