Writers who don’t talk to themselves scare me

image Welcome to this week’s edition of Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, where some of today’s most prolific writers come to acquire the kind of wisdom Tom Clancy has called “…an example of complexity and insightfulness I generally delete from my first drafts.”

Or as Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins raved, “My measuring stick when it comes to font size.”

But enough accolades already!

Whether you’re a novelist, columnist, poet or Subway sandwich artist, talking to yourself during the creative process is important. Admittedly, I can only speak with some authority on the first three; that last example is mostly an observation based on the two Subways in our area. Regardless, at the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I think every good writer needs a certain level of multiple personality disorder with a dash of schizophrenia. That’s because, as a writer, you need to have the ability to do more than simply observe and notate things about people and situations; you have to be able to inhabit them in the same way that, say… Justin Beiber inhabits his role as a skinny caucasian gangster.

Except unlike Justin Beiber, you must be believable.

To do this, you have to be willing — and able — to step outside yourself and literally experience things as someone else in order to formulate reactions and dialogue that ring true. Even as a columnist, I have a few individuals who make appearances from time to time because they allow me to approach a subject more effectively than through simple narrative.

One of these individuals is Ima Knowitall, the “self-proclaimed best selling author” behind the novel, Fifty Shades of Time-Traveling Vampire Love.

Confession time: I’m not actually a 30-something, pessimistic female writer who wants so much to believe in her own fame that she constantly projects a facade of celebrity to the point of ludicrousness.

If you need a moment to fully process this realization, I understand. My wife was pretty shaken by my big reveal as well, once we took the leap from Match.com to meeting for the first time seven years ago…

Welcome back! (Coincidentally, the same words I used at the beginning of our second date.)

As I was saying, Ima Knowitall is an individual I turn to when I feel that exploring an idea is better suited — and more engaging for readers — if they feel like an active participant in the conversation. That’s where multiple personality disorder comes into play. Even if what you’re writing is an over-the-top character or situation, readers will be willing to suspend their disbelief as long as there is an element of truth. Screenwriters for sci-fi, horror and action movies constantly rely on this element to convince viewers to go along for the ride.

And that element is the believability of your characters.

In order to make an individual like Ima Knowitall work, three things need to happen:

1) What she says and does must stay true to her character
2) My reactions and responses to her must embellish, not contradict her
3) Anyone else we “interact with” must do the same

To pull that off, you have to engage your MPD in order to shift your points of view convincingly from one individual to the next. For novelists, this is the first step in graduating from linear plot-driven writing to richer, character-driven stories.

Or in the case of a humor columnist, the first step toward a life of alcohol abuse.

Which brings me to the effectiveness of talking to yourself. First, let me clarify this shouldn’t occur in a room full of strangers or, for example, while making someone’s Cold Cut Combo at Subway. But when utilized as a tool in the privacy of your own home or office — or even during your morning commute if you pretend to have a Bluetooth — actually verbalizing dialogue is the best way to hear if it rings true. Not only will it identify phrasing that would be too difficult for someone to say (Note: This does not apply to characters written by Aaron Sorkin), it can also be an integral part of “inhabiting” that individual in the same way an actor verbally explores a script to understand delivery and motivation.

My fellow journalists in the newsroom have become accustomed to my mumblings on deadline days. Even if I’m in the breakroom making a sandwich…

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52 thoughts on “Writers who don’t talk to themselves scare me

  1. at times, i have so amused myself with my dialogue that i have chuckled in my car, and almost slapped myself for something that i had written that was so rude. should i consider myself a method writer?

  2. What I say out loud is better than what I write. But it’s like magic, once verbalized, it is lost forever. If I could just shut up, my blog would be a hive of genius. That’s my story…

    • Jackie, it sounds like you need one of those computer apps that writes whatever you speak. That could be really helpful!

      As parent, it could be big trouble for me, though…

  3. I try lines out on other people who are, I believe, unaware of what I am doing. I will sometimes earnestly pretend that so and so said thus and such to see what sort of reaction the line gets. Is that unethical? Have I become a caricature of myself?

  4. Ned, more good advice, how do you manage to stay undiscovered?

    I must try this talking to myself thing.
    “Yeah, me too.”
    No one’s talking to you, buddy.
    “Yes you are.”
    I said, rack off!

    Ned, help, how do I turn it off??

    • I usually try stuffing something in my mouth, like a peanut butter and marshmallow sandwich. By the time I get it unstuck, I forget who it was I was talking to. I got the idea from my dog.

  5. Ned, this was really helpful and I wanted to say thanks. The rest of the bozos up there just wanted to make fun of your quirk. But as I am writing my first collaborative serial novel with a friend for our new blog site right now, I needed this reminder.

    • I’m sure he finds it an endearing quality that is simply part of your quirky personality. You know, like people who assemble their toe nail clippings resemble famous movie scenes…

  6. This guy Ned doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I should be the one giving writing tips. You should. I know I should! You don’t have to tell me. I’m going to crank out my own how to writing blog and show this guy how it’s done. Start with explaining which goes first with the latter and former thing. No on ever gets that straight. I know you don’t.

  7. Oh, dear… I talk to myself all the time! LOL… A dash of schizophrenia is a writer’s “must-have”. Creative people’s mind is quite different from the rest; it’s both visceral and an “ode” to intellectual creativity.

    • Good topic. I’ve talked to myself my entire life. Probably due to being the youngest and only girl. Hence, always left out and forced to entertain myself. I have voices, too. Nice to read your work again, Ned.

  8. Pingback: To be heard above the crowd, a writer needs to establish their voice | Ned's Blog

  9. Pingback: Celebrating a year of somewhat questionable writing advice | Ned's Blog

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