When Tod Goldberg gets stuck on a project (and let’s face it, it happens to the best of us), he’s learned the perfect medicine is to get away from the computer screen and out into the world. And this guy knows what he’s talking about–Tod is the author of a bounty of books, including the novels Living Dead Girl and Fake Liar Cheat, and the popular Burn Notice series. Whether he’s writing mysteries, spy thrillers, or directing the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, Tod knows that exploring the world around you can be the best way to see how people (and characters!) interact in real time.
Figment Daily Theme–May 31, 2012
Jump Start Yourself By Listening
This writing exercise actually requires, well, exercise. And some covert ops, but more on that in a moment. Whenever I find myself stuck with a piece of fiction, I find that the least happy place to be is sitting in front of my computer staring into the infinite white space hoping for some spark of inspiration. Invariably, I find that the reason words aren’t coming to me is that I’ve been alone in my office typing for too long and not, you know, interacting with the human race.
So, I like to get out of the house and mingle with society. I’ll go to a crowded place — a restaurant, or a Starbucks, or a Barnes & Noble or even just a grocery store or shopping center — and I’ll sit down and listen. And by “listen” I mean: eavesdrop. People say the most remarkable, horrible, beautiful things to each other.
I used to bring a pen and notebook with me on these excursions but it always seemed a bit obvious when I’d be sitting next to some fighting couple furiously taking notes on what they were saying to each other…so now I do it on my iPhone and it just looks like I’m texting or answering email. To really pull it off, if the conversation I’m eavesdropping on seems particularly fraught, I’ll keep my ear buds in, just to look inconspicuous. Every conversation ends up being a battle for some kind of contested territory…and that’s where you’ll find the real nugget of drama.
So here’s your assignment: Go out to a crowded public place….and listen. Transcribe what you hear and then see if you can backwards engineer the conversation you’ve heard to figure out the real drama of the moment. Who are these people you listened to? What do they want? What do they need? Why are they where you are? Imagine what has brought them to this place and time where they are having this conversation. What is the subtext of the moment? Is it a first date? A break-up? Friends, family and people in relationships all speak to each other differently, but in your pages you can decide who these people are, where they’ve come from and where they are going next. Give yourself 1000 words to really flesh out a full scene and you’ll be amazed by the results.
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