Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Sounding Board

funny pictures - No no, it's fascinating  Do continue
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

My bedtime reading for the past few nights has been Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print. I don't read a lot of writing guides, but I've always liked Block's for their humour and practical view of the craft, and it's rare that I don't find some statement that resonates strongly while reading him.

Last night the comment that struck me was tucked in his chapter about what to do when your story stalled, and among other suggestions Block wrote that it sometimes helped to talk that part of the book through with somebody.

"Not every friend will do for this process," he warned, "and you have to experiment to determine which of your acquaintances serves you best as a sounding board. Some people—well-meaning, certainly, and often creative themselves—serve only to stifle your imagination. Others prove enormously helpful, perhaps because they're capable of listening so attentively. The person you select may be an agent or an editor. It may as easily be someone unconnected with the business, someone who doesn't even read much. You can try different people to see who does you some good..."

The reason this piece of advice struck me is that I realized I do it a lot—all the time, to be honest. My mother's my sounding board.

We talk at least once a day on the phone, and whenever I'm trying to work out a kink in the plot, or decide what my characters ought to do next, I will often discover the answer by talking it through with my mother. Or to be more accurate, by talking to my mother, since she doesn't actually have to be saying anything back to me at the time of this discovery (and to be perfectly fair, when I'm talking on the phone, it's hard for anyone to get a word in edgewise to begin with).

The conversation usually goes something like this:

ME: So the characters are heading to the airport.
MOM: Oh, yes? That's nice.
ME: Unless...unless they stop and see her grandfather...
MOM: Uh-huh.
ME: Yes, they could stop and see her grandfather, and maybe he could give her something...maybe...
MOM: (Respectful pause)
ME: ...a book. Hang on now, what if she's already phoned him ahead of time, asking if he could loan her the book, and then they could stop on the way to the airport, and while they're there I could sort of bring out the complications of how they get along with each other, and then he could give her the book, and if it had maps and old photographs in it then it might come in useful to them later on.
MOM: Uh-huh.
ME: And maybe the reason he doesn't mind giving her the book is that he never really wanted it in the first place, because he doesn't want to be reminded of where he came from, and maybe it was a gift from her father...

And on and on it goes, until I've got a whole new scene I never knew that I was going to need, complete with new thematic threads and everything.

This only works, for some reason, when I'm talking to my mother. No one else provides quite the same kind of a sounding board (much to my father's dismay, since I usually phone while they're washing the dishes and he has to finish up all by himself while my mother sits off to the side saying "Uh-huh" for half an hour...)

I'm not sure why this is, or how the whole process works, in all honesty, but reading Lawrence Block's book last night started me thinking, and wondering...

Anyone else have a sounding board?

(Sorry I'm late with this post, by the wayit's been crazy at my house this week. Come back Thursday for Julie's next post).


  1. My husband and I are both writers, so we use each other as sounding boards, although it tends to be a bit more interactive than what you described. We do ask each other for advice/suggestions with scenes and make each other come up with possibilities, but we almost never TAKE any of those suggestions, weirdly enough. Somehow, it helps each of us as writers to hear the other person's suggestions only because when one of us is stuck, hearing an obviously WRONG suggestion for what should happen next can be enough to jolt us into realizing what the RIGHT answer really should be. And then the writer yells "Aha!" and runs off to write it...leaving a disgruntled sounding board behind.

    It can be a bit frustrating to BE the sounding board in that situation, coming up with clever ideas that are inevitably ignored - but since it's a reciprocal situation, we both accept it with (mostly) good grace!

  2. Stephanie, that just made me think of that glorious scene in the film "While You Were Sleeping", when Peter is being discharged from the hospital, pushed in a wheelchair by Jack, and Peter tries to describe Lucy and, at a loss, asks, "What is she?" Whereupon Jack fills in with this Incredibly Awesome summing up of what Lucy is, and when he's done Peter says, 'Nah, that's not it.' :-)

    I know exactly what you mean, though. I do this, too.

    1. I love that scene! And I *love* that movie. Now I have to re-watch! :)

  3. I'm very careful about who I talk to, because I've seen that glazed eyed owl look more often than not. These days my husband bears the brunt of my need to verbally work out certain scenes or plot twists. Usually while we're out in the wilds hiking, so he can't really get away. He hikes ahead of me, so I don't have to see his eyes. :) He's usually pretty quiet and lets me natter on, waits a respectful pause when I stop, then starts another conversation. But now and then he'll brainstorm ideas with me. And now and then one of those just happens to be perfect.

  4. I love Lawrence Block too, both his novels and his books about writing. My husband is my sounding-board for my non-fiction but I don't really have anyone to fulfill that role for my fiction. Tried it with one writing friend last summer and the bruises still haven't faded! That critique knocked me off course for a while although having recently re-read the ms myself I'm back on track. I very much relate to the idea of the wrong suggestions helping you to see the right ones.

  5. Lori, if your husband is anything like mine, he's probably thinking of something entirely different while you're talking behind him, anyway :-) Even the *appearance* of listening can still be helpful, though, I find.

    And Maggie, sorry you had such a bruising experience! Glad to hear you're back on form with your manuscript.

  6. My wife, a professional day-care teacher, is pretty good when it comes to my picture books, but I have no one when it comes to anything else that I write. I have no critique group. I have a thick enough skin that I can accept a critique from someone and re-look at my writing to see if it needs changing, but I have found that no one seems to be able to accept an honest critique from me. Perhaps I haven't looked far enough for truly professional-level writers. Amateurs, by definition, love their creations and don't seem to want anyone to point out any perceived imperfections. So, for now anyway, I'm by myself.

  7. I have a friend who lives in the north of England who I use as a 'sounding board'. Our conversations go very much like the one you described with your mother.

    I'm not sure that 'sounding board' is quite the right term for it, though, as there's little come-back from the other end. It's really me thinking aloud, crystallizing my thoughts and ideas, correcting ideas that I can hear are dud ideas when I articulate them, and getting new ones in the process, while my friend continues hanging on (possibly reading a newspaper) at the end of the line.

    I'd feel an idiot if I talked to myself at home in such a way, and I wouldn't have that necessary focal point of knowing that there was someone else listening to what I said, but in effect, it is talking to myself.

    Liz X

  8. I have several sounding boards, some of them who are also Heroine Addicts. I attack them on a regular basis, poor things.

    I never ask my husband for help because he invariably suggests aliens and big guns as a plot solution. Which does work sometimes, but y'know, not ALL the time.

  9. Like Julie - I have several sounding boards and some of them are Heroine Addicts...DH is becoming one now as he now gets my writing and how it absorbs me...and lucky for me my editor is becoming one...