“Uh-huh” in interviews

The most powerful interview technique is nodding your head and saying, “Uh-huh.”

Everybody knows that the best interviews become conversations, and that’s true. But it’s a peculiar kind of conversation. It’s one-sided, with one person doing most of the talking, and the other steering. And subjects are anxious about what you’ll do with the information.

So you need to build an atmosphere of trust, where the subject feels free to tell you things. You have to disarm their worries, avoid any sense of manipulation, and friendly things up.

So you nod your head and say “Uh-huh” a lot. What’s the effect? Subjects interpret nodding and “Uh-huh” as agreement with what they’re saying, and tell you more. Since you seem so agreeable, they keep talking. And you keep writing down what they’re saying, so they feel important and tell you more. Once in a while, you say, “Tell me more,” and they do. More nodding, more “Uh-huhs.”

You have to do this naturally and subtly. If subjects notice what you’re doing, their anxiety comes roaring back.

I don’t need to list all the related techniques because you already know how to converse: eye contact, smiling, leaning in, laughing at funny bits, not hunching your shoulders, etc. You already know the things to say that propel a conversation along: “Really?” “What was that like? “Who else was there” “How did you know him, meet her, get there, find it?”

Here’s the bottom line. A good conversation works because both people feel important and interesting. A good interview works because subjects feel safe and important and interesting, even if they’re not the subject of the interview.

N.B. These principles apply to print interviews; television has a different, tenser dynamic.

[Got any magic interviewing tricks you want to share?]

Published in: on July 22, 2009 at 10:19 am  Comments (8)  

Emotion and detail

Writing about emotion worries writers because it’s so easy to lapse into sentimentality. The secret is restraint at every level. Whatever moved you, artfully conveyed, will move your readers.

We’ve talked about how showing has more power than telling. Showing also allows a precision that telling lacks. The vocabulary of description is huge; the diction of human emotion is limited and limiting.

The first step is to get yourself out of the way. If you narrate in the first person, you will inevitably start adding adjectives about your own feelings. If you show what you saw and heard rather than experienced, you stimulate readers to respond in ways that mean more to them.

Think for a moment about monster stories and movies. The least effective ones, the least scary, show you the creature over and over in close-ups, lots of fangs and claws and red eyes and slobber and blood. The really scary ones never show the whole monster, except for maybe a shadow or a shape or one arm torn off at the shoulder. Readers make up their own monster out of what they’re really afraid of.

Showing works best with a little framing and small details. Set the scene and then zoom in on telling details. A telling detail conveys meaning and impact to readers, like that “one arm torn off at the shoulder” I just mentioned. Beowulf ripped it off Grendel.

Where do you find such details in real life as opposed to epics? They’re all around you. You look for them while you gather, and you mark them in your notebook (“TD,” maybe). You won’t put detail in a piece unless you get it into the notebook. If you don’t capture it in the notebook, you might not see it in the first place. Some writers see more and better than others because they’re tuned up to look for key details.

Because writers worry about emotion, we tend to find sources to talk about it, and we end up with their doing a lot of telling, and our doing very little showing. What people say is also a telling detail, and needs the same rigorous selection and omission.

Narrative conveys emotion best because it involves detail and speech and action. As V.S. Naipal puts it, “Great subjects are illuminated best by small dramas.”

Let’s take a look at a passage with the potential to drip with sentiment, describing two shelter technicians euthanizing a dog:

Nancy Hill cradled the small tan dog against her body for several moments, then tenderly placed him on the stainless steel table.
The 3-year-old animal with sad, liquid eyes looked quizzically about the strange gray room.
“I love you,” Heather McKee whispered, inserting a syringe filled with pink liquid into his right leg. Hill cried as she stroked the dog’s back and spoke to him tenderly.
The animal gazed into the eyes of a stranger. A moment later his head flopped to the side, eyes frozen open.
Life was over for the nameless terrier-labrador mix, but the cycle of suffering for those who had to kill him was only beginning.

Borderline sentimental because of three words: “sad” and “tenderly” twice, but otherwise restrained. The narrative focuses on actions, captured by strong verbs. The writer selects the key details: “stainless steel table,” “syringe,” “pink liquid,” and “right leg.” Heather doesn’t tell us how she feels; we hear her tell the dog. We almost get inside the dog’s mind: ”looked quizzically about the strange grey room,” and “gazed into the eyes of a stranger.” Almost.

“Almost” is the key to writing about emotion. And it helps to have a good restraining editor to keep you from flying over the edge.

[What’s your experience with writing about emotion?]

Published in: on July 9, 2009 at 5:53 pm  Comments (1)  

Using alliteration

Alliteration is front rhyme. The initial syllables rhyme, as in “fancy feet,” instead of the final syllables, as in “neat feet.” Consonants alliterate only with themselves (“faulty feet”), while any vowel can alliterate with any other vowel (“itching arches”).

We’re talking about sounds, not letters. So “happy herbs” does not alliterate (in American English, anyway), but ”erotic herbs” does. “Pneumatic knees” alliterates, but “persistent pneumonia” does not.

Alliteration links words together, creating extra meanings. It makes phrases jump off the screen, and can cement them into the readers’ memory, as in “Frosted Flakes.”

It works unless it’s overdone, as in William Safire’s famous phrase coined for Vice President Spiro Agnew: “nattering nabobs of negativism.” In stretching for two words to alliterate with “negativism,” Safire nosedived archly into archaic nonsense.

Sometimes, alliteration gets out of control, as in this passage from Amanda McKittrick Ros, describing her villain, Madame Pear, who “had a swell staff of sweet-faced helpers swathed in stratagem, whose members and garments glowed with the lust of the loose, sparkled with the tears of the tortured, shone with the sunlight of bribery, dangled with the diamonds of distrust, slashed with sapphires of scandals.” There’s a reason why The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature described her as “the greatest bad writer who ever lived.”

Here’s a sentence I wish I had written, by Adam Nicolson, in his Seize the Fire: “The ship was a place of yelling, the guns roaring, the blocks and tackles with which they were hauled out through the gunports and manoeuvred to bear on the enemy, screaming and squealing like pigs on the point of slaughter.” Nicolson alliterates “screaming” and “squealing” and “slaughter,“ tying those terrifying words together; and they in turn frame “pigs” and “point.” Lord Nelson’s enemies didn’t stand a chance.

[Ever used alliteration as an interesting and inventive artifice?]

Published in: on July 9, 2009 at 9:21 am  Comments (5)  

Shortening prose

The second-hardest part of writing is cutting your own work. (The hardest is organizing, deciding what to say and how.) It’s not like trimming your fingernails; every precious word is like a finger.

My wife Joan and I once helped her colleagues out of a jam. They had worked for five hours to cut a key document in half, and managed to remove only ten words. We offered to take a crack at it. I chopped out three whole sections and any sentence likely to cause a fight. Then she revised the transitions. Fifty percent cut, 20 minutes flat. Not a miracle, just technique.

Here’s the basic principle: cut long, cut short, revise.

First of all, cool off. When you’ve been slaving over a piece, especially a long piece, you get too close and can’t see it. Take a break, eat a gelato, kiss your honey, whatever takes your mind off what you’re writing. Then come back fresh and see what works and what needs work.

Strunk and White advised, “Omit needless words,” but a lot of the words you need to cut may not seem needless. You can’t really shorten a piece by focusing on individual words or even sentences. You start with whole sections.

Ask yourself what the piece is about, and then examine each section. Does it contribute to what this is about? If not, adios section. Just cut it; remember anything you remove survives on the Clipboard. Then read through where it used to be, and usually you’ll find you didn’t need it.

Repeat this procedure for paragraphs.

Read the whole piece aloud from a printed copy. Put a tic in the margin by anything that’s hard to read, then go back and delete each bit that bumped you. You probably struggled to write it because it really didn’t belong.

Chop anything you really love. If you read along and say to yourself, “This is gorgeous; damn, I’m good,” cut that part. It’s probably self-indulgent, written for yourself and not for the reader.

When you’ve slashed and burned, you need to restore the flow by writing transitions, making sure all the characters are actually introduced, and checking that readers have all the information they need. Then you’ve done it, and (surprise!) it reads better.

But sometimes, you just can’t cut your own work. You’re exhausted or fed up or too involved, etc. You need somebody else to help you, either by doing the shortening, or by asking you questions about what your readers actually need. Don’t let this assistance become a habit; you want to control your own work.

I’ve just read this piece over, and it seems long. If it feels long to me, it’ll seem even longer for readers. So I need to cut it. That second paragraph with its self-indulgent anecdote about me and my heroic wife saving the day, has to go. Whack!

[Know any good chopping techniques?]

Published in: on July 8, 2009 at 2:06 pm  Comments (1)  

The Next Step

We think of the Writing Process as a series of steps, implying that we do each stage in order. Actually many writers, even the most devoted planners, skip around in their process, and events can disrupt the sequence. Most writers would like to have all the information before they type anything, a perfection rarely achieved and ultimately self-destructive. The novelist John Gardner, who was also a medievalist, never wrote a book on Dante because he couldn’t imagine reading all the scholarship in one lifetime.

Nevertheless, it helps to have a test or marker for moving on to the next stage. Here’s a simple version, based on knowing when to end each step:

IDEA: I can stop because I know what I’m after.
GATHER: I have the material I need.
ORGANIZE: I know what I want to say and how.
DRAFT: I have written the framework.
REVISE: I have finished this enough to publish it.

In the IDEA stage, you know you’re after a story or an explanation, what it’s likely to be about, what medium it will appear in, about how big it will be, possible starting sources, who might be involved, issues, etc. You can start out with less than all that, but you’ll gather quicker if you know what you’re after.

You end the GATHERING stage by using the tests in our discussion on how you know when you have enough. But the very process of gathering information, especially talking to sources, usually changes the idea. The topic turns out to be larger or smaller or deeper than you imagined. Sometimes the notion you start with doesn’t pan out at all. So you break the sequence of steps and return to the IDEA stage and redefine.

Some people write a little during the GATHERING stage, just to see what they’ve got, or if they understand it. The trick is to draft rather than finishing this writing; it’s really a form of notetaking.

In the ORGANIZING step, planners usually know what they want to say and how by jotting down some sort of outline or plan. Plungers skip this step and start typing to discover what they want to say. From one point of view, they DRAFT and then ORGANIZE. Actually, they ORGANIZE by DRAFTING.

The point of DRAFTING is to get it down so you can get it right in the next stage, REVISION. This step goes faster if you don’t revise at all while drafting. I like to use an analogy from sculpture to explain this counterintuitive concept. If I give you a block of marble and tell you to create a portrait head, are you going to carve the eyes first? Of course not. You shape the contours of the head, followed by the shapes of the face, and then the details of lips, nose, and eyes. Finishing details without the underlying structure makes writing hard in this stage.

You often discover during drafting that you’re missing something, so you jump back into GATHERING. Or what you’re trying to say just won’t land because it’s wrong or has big holes in it. In dire cases, you may have to go all the way back to IDEA and refocus the piece.

Events tend to bounce us out of this stage. You’re typing along, and the phone rings: new information. New in that you didn’t already know it, or new in that it just happened, a fairly common experience nowadays with social networks pouring information into the hopper. Sources call back during drafting, and everything shifts.

For some people, REVISION never ends because they never achieve perfection. However, the test is not perfection for you, but viability for your readers. You probably can’t judge when to give it up; that’s what editors are for.

Because REVISION also involves typing, it has many of the same trap doors as DRAFTING: new or missing information, unfocused ideas, etc. When revision breaks down it’s usually a problem of sincerity: you trying to say something you don’t believe. So you back up to ORGANIZE.

Some lucky writers just seem to march through the steps in order. Most real people follow their needs wherever they lead them through their process.

[When do you leap around in your writing process?]

Published in: on July 6, 2009 at 3:22 pm  Comments (2)  
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