Could Dick Mullender persuade me not to jump off a bridge? If he offered to run through this session again, yes – I now want nothing more than to lead the rest of my life as someone who listens consciously. I want to be the Formula 1 racer who never switches off, not the person who merely aims their car.
The problem is, Dick told us that taking notes prevents you from listening – from really listening. So I stopped writing and tuned in my ears. Much of what follows is from memory and – following his advice – the occasional summary note. If there are gaps it’s because, as he said, real listening is knackering.
We already knew, from his great conversation with Martin Clarkson in the morning, that if Dick Mullender were called out to persuade a received wisdom not to blow itself up he would probably light the fuse himself. Everything we thought we knew about listening had already been detonated. Body language? Waste of time. Empathy? Just an intellectual construct. So it was no surprise when he demolished a few more popular misconceptions about listening:
that questions are the best way to get information;
that Active Listening Skills are the same thing as listening, and
that you have complete control over what you are saying.
Poor Tony Blair, lulled by Fern Britton into blurting out that he would have invaded Iraq anyway. And what about Gordon Brown famously saving the world? ‘There is no such thing as a Freudian slip, ladies and gentlemen,’ said Dick. ‘All I have to do is get you relaxed and you will talk.’
The subconscious is very powerful indeed. What we learn to present to the world is the iceberg’s tip. Most of what we are – our values, our beliefs – lie underwater. The listener’s task is to understand the hidden parts, and that can only be done by learning to listen consciously. ‘If you don’t listen consciously, you’ll never be a great listener.’
Big tip: stop giving advice. ‘It’s all about them, not about you.’ Don’t be an ‘autobiographic’ listener – you’re trying to build trust, not rapport. Your ideas will only be credible when you communicate them in the language and context of the other person’s values, beliefs and views of life.
How do you find out what these are?
First, you have to know what you’re listening for (‘When an insight arrives, I want it to find me listening’). Second, encourage them to keep talking (no questions, no new information, just a few nods, smiles, grunts). Third, spot the telling details, the key words, and start guessing what they might mean. Suggest what they seem to mean to you (‘It seems to me that…’ ‘It sounds as if…’) and, hey presto, the other person will agree and start to expand, or will disagree and correct you. You are starting to get the information you need. Learn how to summarise this every so often, and you are in control.
Did I consciously hear Dick contradict some of his own principles at one point? Yes I did, I’m sure I did. He definitely recommended adjusting body and eye positions in order to give the other person space to relax and to think, and he also described the best listening position: sitting forward, fists open to avoid appearing combative. Body language does matter sometimes, he admitted.
And what was all that about questions not being the answer? He gave us three brilliant questions to ask when a significant word had been spotted – all variations of asking why that thing was important to the other person. The key was to wait for a response to the first question, in the hope of picking up another revealing word and pursuing that, and so on.
Do I forgive him these apparent inconsistencies? A silly question really, because ever since Wordstock I’ve been following Dick’s advice to practise listening every day. I’m not very good at it yet, but I can tell you something (without being too autobiographic) – it really does work.
Lessons from a Hostage Negotiator
In his talk at Wordstock, former Scotland Yard hostage negotiator Dick Mullender described a negotiation situation:
Behind a locked door is a man who thinks his wife has had an affair. He’s tied her up and poured petrol over her. He asks you, “What would you do? I go to work every day, I work hard and look after my family and she does this. Go on, what would you do?”
I would most likely go into a state of panic, plead with him not to do anything stupid, and as a last resort offer a cup of tea, or something equally unsuitable. But in a high-pressured negotiation situation, Dick explained that the most important thing you can do is listen.
In the few sentences that the man spoke, he revealed an awful lot about himself. He’s a family man, he works hard and he loves his wife and children. It’s only by listening that you can start to understand someone’s beliefs and values. And that understanding should inform everything that you say afterwards.
That’s what Dick said we could all learn from a negotiation situation: before you write, listen. Work out what your audience thinks and feels and it will help you avoid the dangerous pitfall of making assumptions. Then once you understand your audience, use the language that they use. If you want to persuade someone, you’re going to be much more successful if you use their words and express their values. As Dick put it: “It ain’t about you. It’s about them.’
Writers can write anything. Right? They can produce a story out of thin air.
That is the premise (and challenge) of Throw Away Lines, a 26 project invented (if that’s the right word) by Andy Hayes and an exercise in writing during one of the sessions at Wordstock this year, expertly facilitated by Malcolm Blythe.
But writers need provoking, so there were cash prizes and Andy was nominated to be our judge. And writers’ imaginations need evoking, so Malcolm presented each of us with a piece of ephemera, scraps of paper with lines of words quite literally thrown away. They were the kind of stuff found at the bottom of a waste paper basket, a shopping trolley or a street curb. Then he asked us to write a story (a very short story – we had 10 minutes’ writing time) based on what was written there.
The scraps of paper were grubby and I was rather glad they were in sealed plastic ‘evidence bags’. Their words were scrawled, some indecipherable, written hastily in pencil, others in ink. Mine was ludicrously brief: email Tristrian!! A double exclamation mark had to mean some kind of urgent imperative to the missive, I thought. But how could I crack the story? Ten minutes flew by.
Dick Mullender said in his keynote talk, “Words betray us.” So the key to Throw Away Lines is that they are notes to selves. Our job, as writers, is to find those ‘selves’, those essential beings that are distinguished from another, to reveal what they value, to evoke a place, a time and a situation and eventually, through our imaginations, to get the thrown-away lines to tattle their tales. Like informants, they squealed!
I was astonished by the depth, breadth and richness of the stories as we each read them out. My word! No wonder a judge will direct a jury to consider all the evidence and not rely on the statements of imaginative and unreliable witnesses!
And the winners were… 1st: Steve Potts; joint 2nd: Chris Martin and Tony Clark; 3rd:Libby Brown.
Paragraphs are the foundation of good writing and the best writers are good with paragraphs. At our creative writing workshop, Greg Mosse gave us some tips on how to craft good paragraphs.
Greg took us through various examples of well-crafted paragraphs taken from Kathleen Jamie’s Sightlines. Like this one:
We eat and, as night falls, the waters of our anchorage change. I’m leaning over the side, puzzling about the sea 25 feet below. It’s become sluggish eerie green, and suddenly it reminds me of a horrible rubber sheet my mother used to produce, to complete our humiliation, if my sister or brother or I had a phase of bed-wetting. I haven’t thought about that sheet for forty years, but here it is: deep in a fjord in east Greenland at nightfall, at 71 degrees of latitude, undulating around the ship: salt-water, slowly beginning to freeze.
Paragraphs are perfect narrative structures. In this example, the present gives way to the past. The tenor of the memory infiltrates the narrative present so we get a structure of now, then, now.
Here’s another example:
Sam led us behind the cottages, to the area confined within a long-head dyke, and we gathered by a particularly handsome example: a head-height oval building, made of dry-stone, which corbelled in a little, and was roofed with living turf. At one end was a low, dark, oracular doorway. It looked like a Neolithic Andersen shelter. That was the point, really. These buildings, unique to St Kilda, could have been prehistoric, or could have been built just before the people left.
This paragraph takes us on a journey that’s constructed through a sequence of responses to one thing. It’s a single crescendo, an intellectual poetic climax that brings the reader to a statement.
We went through several examples of Kathleen Jamie’s paragraphs then Greg asked us to write our own based upon the different narrative structures. It’s a great exercise; so do give it a go.
We need paragraphs of all kinds to animate our writing, but Greg told us that understanding structure first is a must. If you can internalise the narrative structure of your paragraphs and write to it, you can free up your imagination from the editorial brain. Not only will this help you write better paragraphs, it will make it easier to write your first draft.
26 things we learned at Wordstock
‘I don’t persuade a person because I use my words, I persuade a person because I use theirs.’ Dick Mullender.
‘Being rejected is part of the job, if you’re not being rejected you’re not trying hard enough.’ Sara Sheridan
‘There are very few professions that have as many disadvantages as being a writer, but one advantage is that you can do whatever the hell you like.’ Sara Sheridan
‘The architecture of the novel becomes more important than the tone.’ Kate Mosse
The three essentials for a great workshop are:
– Good structure with emotional logic
– Brilliant note taking
– Confident facilitation
‘Everyone is different. You have to get inside their head and work them out.’ Dick Mullender
‘Paragraphs are perfect narrative structures. If you internalise that structure and write to it, you can free up your imagination and make it easier to reach a first draft.’ Greg Mosse
Dido’s Lament is the most requested record on Desert Island Discs.
It is legal to drive a corpse around in your car.
‘The moment I understand your values, I can impose my values on you.’ Dick Mullender
Body language is a waste of time. The words that come out of your mouth are more revealing. You reveal secrets every time you open your mouth.
‘I don’t believe in empathy. You can’t know what it’s like to be someone else. Use the words they use.’ Dick Mullender
‘If you’re working abroad, ask your interpreter – what are the five dumbest things I could do?’ Dick Mullender
‘Stories choose their own shape. Some things are short stories and if you stretch them they will break like a piece of blue tac.’ Kate Mosse
‘Everyone always asks me “what’s the trick?” The trick is simple. Hard work. That’s all. As Picasso said: “When inspiration comes I want it to find me working.”’ Kate Mosse
‘The only piece of advice I have for writers is to try and find what suits you and then organise your life to live like that. It is about finding your own voice and getting the best out of yourself.’ Kate Mosse
‘When you are creatively writing it’s about binding yourself in that space. You must absolutely not check your email or play with those [angry] birds. Take yourself seriously. Go into your book and stay there until you want to come out of it.’ Kate Mosse
‘You cannot influence what happens to your book once it’s out there. Be proud of the process and separate that from the rewards.’ Kate Mosse
‘Paragraphs do different things. You can start with a mundane thing that leads to a philosophical reflection or describe one thing with a sequence of responses. You need paragraphs of all kinds to animate your writing.’ Greg Mosse
Try audiobooks. They’re ideal for busy people. A great way to absorb literature while you’re cooking, driving or ironing.
‘Leave me alone unless for dinner or lunch.’ Throwaway Lines
‘You should be spending a third of your time marketing and promoting yourself as a writer.’ Sara Sheridan
‘Rereading a book that’s had an affect on you at a young age is like returning to yourself.’ Ella Berthoud
‘Keep a beautiful reading notebook, write down title, author and where you read the book and you’ll remember a lot more about your life.’ Ella Berthoud
‘As an adult, life isn’t a nice slope upwards towards Elysian fields, but once you accept it’s up and down, it’s OK.’ Kate Mosse
‘Ladies and gentleman, there is no such thing as a Freudian slip.’ Dick Mullender
Elen Lewis, Laura Hunter, Faye Sharpe and Nicola Ramsden
Sara Sheridan: Promote yourself and your work
Sara Sheridan introduced herself as a writer who had balls of brass when it came to self-promotion. These are some of her tips for how we can polish up our own:
spend 30% of your time on marketing and PR, and manage your diary so that dealing with editors, publishers and agents fits your preferred working rhythm;
be persistent: pitch to appear in festivals and book shops each year;
toughen up (part 1): being rejected is part of the job – if you’re not being rejected you’re not trying hard enough;
toughen up (part 2): don’t worry when your attempts to interest national newspapers fall into a black hole of silence. It’s simply that the traditional London media have no manners at all. They’ll come back to you if your work links with something of current interest.
How do we know to whom we should pitch and what might interest them? With the help of some great management-consultant-style analysis of course – in fact, by using the very same branding matrix that a publisher once happened to leave on a table in the same room as Sara (she did say she had balls of brass).
Using Wolf Hall as an example, Sara showed us how to analyse four aspects of the book:
its brand values (historical, literary, traditional, Booker-winner…)
its themes and tones (English, royal, London, rich texture and language…)
reader’s identification (male book, strong characters, political content…)
These show you the key selling points – how the book will make a reader feel about it (‘secure’ in this case) is emphasised for online selling; how the book makes a reader look (‘intelligent’ in this case) and how they talk about it to friends is the thing to pinpoint for selling traditional books.
In fact, this method is so powerful that Sara now does this analysis before she writes a new book, just to check that it ticks the boxes for marketability (it has to be well written of course, but no one was doubting that.)
Now you must brand yourself as a writer – your image, skills, behaviour, reputation, beliefs and values – and record them in your own ‘personal brand pyramid’, a concept developed by Jennifer Holloway (Spark). Armed with this self-knowledge, you will not make the mistake of accompanying your crime novel with a pleasantly grinning mug shot – not unless you want to look like a psychopath.
You must be congruent; you must be precise. Extract the three words that sum up what you and your books are about and then live by them (Sara’s, by the way, are ‘interesting’, ‘accessible’ and ‘intelligent’):
use them to filter opportunities;
make sure that your biography is consistent with your brand;
pitch with an understanding of what each market is looking for;
keep your pictures up to date and appropriate (ref psychopath above), and don’t forget how visual the online world and Facebook is;
blog about things related to the books rather than the books themselves, and use social media consistently with your three words.
At some point you will emerge into the spotlight and will be offered money to adorn an event. Not all events have a budget – but if you want to appear, go ahead and do it. As Sara said, there are very few professions that have as many disadvantages as being a writer, but one advantage is that you can do whatever the hell you like.
And finally, amid the frenzy of promotional activity, heed the advice given to Sara by Alexander McCall Smith: protect time for writing.