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Blue Square


Life lessons

on the craft 

The Voices in my Head

Remember those cop shows in which a suspect sits handcuffed at a table while a cop in a suit paces back and forth in the grey interrogation room? Maybe there’s another cop drinking coffee, sitting opposite the suspect? Inevitably, one cop will say, “Okay, let’s go over this one more time…” and the suspect will narrate again. I’m pretty sure that’s a required line for every cop-show writer. It’s a useful (although overdone and cheesy) writing tool to deliver information to the audience about what, in real life, everyone in the room already knows. But real cops, in real life, do it.

Writing is no different. Just like an officer will question their suspect over and over and over again, so a writer should do with his writing. Police officers ask suspects to repeat and repeat and repeat because, if the person is lying, they’ll trip up and contradict themselves. Or, even if the person is not a suspect, the repetition is likely to spark their memory about some smaller detail they normally would not have thought about [if you don’t believe this works, here’s an experiment: at your desk at work, close your eyes and imagine yourself walking through your childhood home. Start at the front door, go around the first floor – maybe to the basement – and then to the second floor – maybe to the attic – and then leave out the back door. Try to remember as much detail as you can. The little things like the color of the carpet or the height of the stairway railing or a light fixture. I’ll bet you can remember more about the last room you’re in than the first. I’ll bet that by thinking of your old four-poster bed, you suddenly remember your Rainbow Bright pillows, or by thinking of the bathroom arrangement you remember the hardwood floors in the hall].

Writers can learn a lesson here. Go over your story again and again and again. I’m not suggesting you lock yourself in handcuffs and sit in a grey room with weak fluorescent lighting, grilling yourself mercilessly. But pick one character or action and explain its importance to yourself. Ask yourself over and over again those important writer questions: Why is this important? How would this character respond? Why did the character do that? Why did the character say that? What implications will this have later?

Do it over and over and over. I honestly recommend speaking aloud to yourself. Really. Talk to the voices in your head. This is a little easier said than done of course – if you’re at a library, talking aloud can seem neurotic. Even if you’re in your own room, talking aloud might draw some unusual looks from your family passing by your door. Try it anyway.

I’m the kind of person who needs to hear the idea, even if it’s my own. But if you’re not like me, there’s still the police-style benefit. You’re going to uncover details and ideas you didn’t have before. Saying it aloud over and over, explaining it to yourself over and over will, like a police interrogation, start to show some of the inconsistencies, flaws or missteps in your writing.

True story: I was revising a novel. I wrote a chapter that was necessary, but one I didn’t like all that much. It was short and the writing wasn’t good and it wasn’t really doing what I wanted it to do. So, I just started asking myself questions (again, out loud... and sometimes I pace and bounce a tennis ball). I started explaining things as if someone were across the table. I talked about what I needed from that chapter, why it was important to the rest of the novel, and then – from nowhere – ideas starting falling into place about this chapter and others. I started seeing how characters needed to behave and how those behaviors would lead into the next section, which I was also struggling with. Suddenly, holes in characters started to fill. The writing started to improve. By repeating to myself what I already knew, I started to see where I had gone wrong with other details, other contradictions I had made. Not only did I begin to reform what that chapter needed to be, I also started finding clues to how to fix other problems I was having with the book.

By this point in your writing career, you’ve probably heard the advice to read your work aloud. From a fluency/voice/pacing standpoint, this is a great idea. It also helps correct some common grammar mistakes, just because they’ll “sound” wrong. Use that same idea in the first drafting stages, when constructing ideas and developing characters. Everything sounds good in your own head. Jokes are funnier, your impersonation is spot on, and the tone of voice is always perfect. But all that goes away once it comes out of your mouth. Ideas are no different. Defend yourself to yourself. Say it ALOUD! And if anyone asks you what you’re doing, why you’re talking to yourself, just say, “I’m having a conversation with the voices in my head.”

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