“If you invent two or three people and turn them loose in your manuscript, something is bound to happen to them – you can’t help it; and then it will take you the rest of the book to get them out of the natural consequences of that occurrence, and so first thing you know, there’s your book all finished up and never cost you an idea.” Mark Twain
As a writer I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to improve any of my skills, be they technical, linguistic, goal-oriented (such as the skills it takes to publish a book), or basic. Listening falls into the latter category; it’s something all of us do, yet all of us can improve on. I don’t think I need to mention the fact that we are a generation on information overload; media screams at us to get our attention, whether through the use of power-punching, gut-wrenching headlines, or power-words written in ALL CAPS! with the appropriate punctuation, or flashing ads that give us no peace until we either turn them off or leave the website they’ve invaded. Adds flash at us constantly whether on TV, in shops, on the internet, or driving down the motorway. Eventually we become numb and stop listening. We put in our ear-buds, turn on a song of our choice and try to tune out the rest of the world, at least for a moment.
By improving listening, I am not implying that we toss out our MP3 players and force ourselves to listen to everything in case we miss something important. We must all use discretion about where our “focus energy” goes. But by improving our listening, we can begin to hear the quieter, more subtle elements; we can focus our ears and minds to perceive things that might be more worthwhile than the noise that vies for our attention. Conscious listening creates understanding.
I recently listened to a TED talk by Julian Treasure on five exercises to improve listening; I share them with you here; click on the image above if you’d like to watch the talk yourself:
1) Silence: For at least three minutes a day, try to find a place of complete silence (if not possible, at least aim for very quiet). It helps to recalibrate your ears, so that you can actually hear the quieter things once again.
2) Mixer: In a noisy environment, whether a café or sitting by a stream, practice focusing your ears on one sound, then another; It will improve the quality of your listening. I use this technique with singing students; before they begin rehearsing with a song we will analyse and dissect it instrument by instrument, verse by verse, vocal by vocal. The more they become aware of this process, the better they will understand how their vocals fit into the bigger picture as both a wind- and stringed instrument.
3) Savouring: There’s a “hidden choir” all around you; focusing on such mundane sounds as the dish washer or the coffee machine can reveal rhythms and build an appreciation of the simpler things in life. Sound technicians for films use this as their greatest tool; because they’ve trained themselves in this area, they know they can combine the squishing of an orange, the grating of a cinder block across a corrugated iron sheet and the distortion of their vacuum cleaner’s sound to come up with a monster ala the Balrog of Lord of the Rings, or scraping keys along a piano wire to land Dr. Who’s TARDIS.
4) Listening Positions: This is the idea that you can shift your position (“level” of listening) according to what you’re listening to: active/passive, reductive/expansive, critical/empathetic. These adjust certain filters that we all have, such as culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations and intentions, which increasingly focus our listening from all “sounds” down to things we specifically listen to.
5) RASA: An acronym for Receive (i.e. paying attention to the person), Appreciate (giving verbal feedback such as small sounds of agreement or interest), Summarize (feedback of what you’ve understood), and Ask (ask questions afterward). Practicing RASA will improve not only how we listen, but our retention of information.
Listening is one of our five senses, and one that’s worth exploring in writing; when a reader can become absorbed in the sensations of a scene – hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling and tasting the environment through well-chosen words – they will be invested in the story, and care about what happens next.
In the course of research for the novel I’m currently polishing, I developed a taste for obscure literature; among other manuscripts I’ve read is the Poetic Edda, or Eddic Poems. What I find fascinating in the poems is not just the language itself, but encapsulated within the language is always a glimpse into the mentality, humour, and mindset of a people.
The Poetic Edda is a collection of Norse poems and mythology, mainly preserved in the medieval manuscript Codex Regius which was written in the 13th century, though the poems and tales are centuries older, having been oral history passed on by the skalds for generations before they were written down. The poems were originally composed in alliterative verse (the alliteration may have changed from line to line, such as “Over beer the bird of forgetfulness broods / and steals the minds of men”), and kennings were often used (a compound noun used instead of a straight-forward noun, e.g. “wound-hoe” for “sword”), though they were not as complex as many skaldic poems were. For a far more detailed history on the collection, click here.
I’d like to share a few gems with you; the reference “EP#” is the page number embedded in the Kindle manuscript. These gems are either sayings, kennings, customs, or historical trivia. Enjoy!
EP17: “The wolf that lies idle shall win little meat, or the sleeping man success.”
EP20: “Hard is it on earth / With mighty whoredom; axe-time, sword-time / shields are sundered, wind-time, wolf-time / Ere the world falls; Nor ever shall men each other spare.”
EP30: “A faster friend one never finds / Than wisdom tried and true.”
EP31: “Less good there lies / than most believe In ale for mortal men; / For the more he drinks / the less does man / Of his mind the mastery hold.”
EP35: “To mankind a bane must it ever be / When guests together strive.”
EP36: “Love becomes loathing if one long sits by the hearth in another’s home.”
EP36: “Away from his arms in the open field a man should fare not a foot / For never he knows when the need for a spear / Shall arise on the distant road.”
EP39: “No great thing needs a man to give / Oft little will purchase praise. / With half a loaf and a half-filled cup / A friend full fast I made.”
EP41: “To question and answer must all ready be / Who wish to be known as wise. / Tell one they thoughts, but beware of two / – All know what is known by three.”
EP44: “Wealth is as swift / As a winking eye, / Of friends the falsest it is.”
EP45: “Give praise to the day at evening, to a woman on her pyre, to a weapon which is tried, to a maid at wedlock, to ice when it is crossed, to ale that is drunk.”
EP45: “From the ship seek swiftness, from the shield protection, cuts from the sword, from the maiden kisses.”
EP48: “Wise men oft / Into witless fools / Are made by mighty love.”
EP71: “If a poor man reaches / The home of the rich, / Let him speak wisely or be still; / For to him who speaks / With the hard of heart / Will chattering ever work ill.”
EP167: “Drink beyond measure / will lead all men / No thought of their tongues to take.”
EP250: “On the gallows high / shall hungry ravens / Soon thine eyes pluck out, / If thou liest…”
“Welcome thou art, / for long have I waited; / The welcoming kiss shalt thou win! / For two who love / is the longed-for meeting / The greatest gladness of all.”
EP277: “In the hilt is fame, / in the haft is courage, / In the point is fear, / for its owner’s foes; / On the blade there lies / a blood-flecked snake, / And a serpent’s tail / round the flat is twisted.” (Runes carved on a sword)
EP296: A “breaker of rings” was a generous prince, because the breaking of rings was the customary form of distributing gold.
EP299: “There was beat of oars / and clash of iron, Shield smote shield / as the ships’-folk rowed; Swiftly went / the warrior-laden Fleet of the ruler / forth from the land.”
EP300: Raising a red shield was a signal for war.
EP304: “Helgi spake: “Better, Sinfjotli, / thee ‘twould beseem Battle to give / and eagles to gladden, Than vain and empty / words to utter, Though ring-breakers oft / in speech do wrangle.”
“…For heroes ’tis seemly / the truth to speak.”
EP305: “Swift keels lie hard by the land, mast-ring harts* and mighty wards, wealth of shields and well-planed oars.” (*the ring attaching the yard to the ship’s mast.)
“Fire-Beasts” = Dragons = Ships: Norse ships of war, as distinguished from merchant vessels, were often called Dragons because of their shape and the carving of their stems.
EP349: “The word “Goth” was applied in the North without much discrimination to the southern Germanic peoples.” “The North was very much in the dark as to the differences between Germans, Burgundians, Franks, Goths, and Huns, and used the words without much discrimination.”
EP368: “Combed and washed / shall the wise man go, And a meal at morn shall take; For unknown it is / where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”
EP369: the “Bloody Eagle” was an execution for a captured enemy, by cleaving the back bone from the ribs and pulling out the lungs.
EP373: “Few are keen when old age comes / Who timid in boyhood be.”
EP374: “When one rounds the first headland” means, “at the beginning of life’s voyage, in youth”.
EP378: “Unknown it is, / when all are together, / Who bravest born shall seem; / Some are valiant / who redden no sword / In the blood of a foeman’s breast.”
EP379: “”Better is heart / than a mighty blade For him who shall fiercely fight; The brave man well / shall fight and win, Though dull his blade may be.”
“Brave men better / than cowards be, When the clash of battle comes; And better the glad / than the gloomy man Shall face what before him lies.”
EP382: “There is ever a wolf / where his ears I spy.” This is an Old Norse proverb that basically means, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.
EP398: “I rede thee, / if men shall wrangle, And ale-talk rise to wrath, No words with a drunken / warrior have, For wine steals many men’s wits.”
EP399: “I rede thee, / if battle thou seekest With a foe that is full of might; It is better to fight / than to burn alive In the hall of the hero rich.” “The meaning is that it is better to go forth to battle than to stay at home and be burned to death. Many a Norse warrior met his death in this latter way; the burning of the house in the Njalssaga is the most famous instance.”
EP400: “I rede thee, / that never thou trust The word of the race of wolves, (If his brother thou broughtest to death, Or his father thou didst fell;) Often a wolf / in a son there is, Though gold he gladly takes.”
“Battle and hate / and harm, methinks, / Full seldom fall asleep; / Wits and weapons / the warrior needs / If boldest of men he would be.”
EP405: Eating snakes and the flesh of beasts of prey was commonly supposed to induce ferocity.
EP409: The actual mingling of blood in one another’s footprints was a part of the ceremony of swearing blood-brother hood.
EP418: “Borne thou art on an evil wave” i.e. “every wave of ill-doing drives thee”. A proverb.
“Flame of the snake’s bed” = Gold, so called because serpents and dragons were the’ traditional guardians of treasure, on which they lay.
EP452: “As the leek grows green / above the grass, / Or the stag o’er all / the beasts doth stand, / Or as glow-red gold / above silver gray.”
EP455: “On the tapestry wove we / warrior’s deeds, And the hero’s thanes / on our handiwork; (Flashing shields / and fighters armed, Sword-throng, helm-throng, / the host of the king).”
EP457: “In like princes / came they all, The long-beard men, / with mantles red, Short their mail-coats, / mighty their helms, Swords at their belts, / and brown their hair.”
EP458: “Heather-fish” = snake
EP468: The punishment of casting a culprit into a bog to be drowned was particularly reserved for women, and is not infrequently mentioned in the sagas.
EP513: “Thou hast prepared this feast in kingly fashion, and with little grudging toward eagle and wolf.” = “You’ve been generous in the men you give to die in battle today.”
EP524: “Full heedless the warrior / was that he trusted her, So clear was her guile / if on guard he had been; But crafty was Guthrun, / with cunning she spake, Her glance she made pleasant, / with two shields she played.” In other words, Guthrun concealed her hostility (symbolized by a red shield) by a show of friendliness (a white shield).
EP546: “The dawning sad / of the sorrow of elves” (i.e., sunrise – the Old Norse belief was that sun killed elves).
Notes from The Poetic Edda (Snorri Sturluson), translated by Henry Adams Bellows. Kindle Edition.
Have you ever stopped to consider the handshake? It is a non-verbal form of communication, and it can tell you volumes about a person. It is usually the first contact in a face-to-face transaction, used not only as a greeting form, but as an aid in assessing the other person’s confidence, assertiveness, aggression, or social skills. What if the handshake is weak or strong, clammy or crushing? Is it too short (which sends the signal that the person who breaks off the touch either disdains or disrespects the partner), or too long (which is an invasion of private space, too intimate, or disconcerting – it can even interrupt verbal exchange if it’s too awkward)? Is it a neutral-valued exchange, or does the touch signify some ulterior motive (power-play, intimidation, invasion of the partner’s intimate sphere, a sexual connotation, etc.)? What difference does it make for any of the above factors to take place between partners of the same sex vs. the opposite sex? In other words, if two men shake hands and one is crushing, what message comes across differently if the partner being crushed is a woman? Different cultural interpretations enter into the equation as well, as touch signifies various things in various cultures. What difference is there to a handshake with a superior or authority figure to that of a peer or inferior? What if the superior is a woman shaking the hand of a man of lower rank? Or a woman of lower rank? Or a man from a culture that does not recognize women as authority figures?
When developing a character for a novel, the handshake can be a telling gesture. Even if none of the above questions are answered explicitly in your manuscript, just answering the questions for yourself can go a long way to your own understanding of the character, and how you want to express them to your readership. So the next time you shake someone’s hand, alert your writer’s mind to take notes – putting those feelings into words develops your senses far more than simply identifying those feelings. There have been a lot of studies on body language, particularly in the field of international business. For a humorous yet telling video of the “Top Ten Bad Business Handshakes”, click on the image above.