Writing Secrets: If you want to be a writer … listen
Yes, yes, you’ve heard this before. Be observant. Listen to interactions in the world, to the way people speak. That goes without saying.
But your listening practice should go deeper. Listen to your own writing. Words and sentences make music. There’s a rhythm to them, which we should be aware of. Writing isn’t just about content. Slapping it all down in monotonous sentences, all of which have a similar construction, will never make writing great.
Every word is important. Every sentence helps impart your meaning, and its pace and tempo shows us more about the narrator, the characters, and how they’re feeling in the moment.
Reading your writing aloud, particularly your dialogue, will make a difference to how realistic it sounds. This was recently confirmed, yet again, by a writer I deeply admire.
Here’s what Hilary Mantel said in an interview on her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.
“I have written for the page, the stage and for audiobooks. These experiences are different, but they are closely allied for me because I hear everything as I write it, not just dialogue, but the narration too.
“I’m very conscious that everything that goes on the page should also be able to be spoken, so the rhythm and the musicality of the language is very important to me.”
I would venture to say that her sensory immersion in what she writes probably goes even further. Yes, listening is important. It allows you to hear whether your narration plunges us into a character’s thought process in a realistic way.
You’ll be able to pick out when it sounds “clunky” or written. Remember what Elmore Leonard said? If it sounds written, delete it.
But Mantel’s experience of writing for the stage has influenced her writing, she says. So I’m certain that she sees as well as hears her characters – that they surround her while she writes.
I often say to new writers: make the decisions you need to make before you start writing. Where will a scene take place? What will happen in it? Who will be there?
But the instant you start writing, forget the mechanics. Immerse yourself in the time and place, among the characters. See, hear, smell and feel them. Day-dream them.
Don’t be the puppet master, manipulating them from a great distance. Let them speak to and around you.