(in which I reveal my dirtiest little secret)
AuthorScoop is pleased to feature this guest column from novelist, essayist, and occasional poet, Graeme Cameron.
It’s not considered good form to hear voices in one’s head. Since the blossoming of popular culture’s morbid infatuation with mass murder, those of us so afflicted have carried a burden of homicidal expectation; an unspoken certainty that we have, at the very least, a screw loose – and more likely, a strangled hooker in the freezer.
At his trial in 1935, geriatric paedovore Albert Fish – today fêted as America’s first serial killer – blamed the very voice of God for his hefty catalogue of perversions. It didn’t work and, in a defining moment of poetic justice, they fried him shortly thereafter, but his psychobabble nonetheless quickly established itself as the ruse of choice for anyone seeking to dodge the ‘chair. We may have considered such behaviour unseemly since the day we hoisted our knuckles up out of the dirt, but it was Albert who made it the stuff of legend.
Now, given modern folklore’s take on the matter of intercranial instruction, you might be wondering why I’d so readily and publically admit to entertaining such Fishy folly. Well, there are two reasons for that. Firstly, I haven’t got much of an appetite for monkeys and pee wees. And secondly, I’m doing it so the rest of us don’t have to.
The difference between Albert and me, you see, is that my voices know who’s boss. They never presume to tell me how to do my job, and they only offer advice when I ask them for it. I don’t work for the voices; they work for me. And like any other employee, they’re out the door if they misbehave.
In fact, they’re not like those other voices at all. Mine all come with names and faces, addresses and birthdays; school reports, shoe sizes, hopes and regrets; haircuts, shopping lists and bobbly suit jackets that they just throw in the washing machine because there’s never a parking space outside the dry cleaners. They’ve got places to be and people to see, and rarely does any of that involve me. They always know when I need them to drop everything and come running, but they only do so if they’ve got nothing else on. It’s trying sometimes, but then none of them ever claimed to be omnipotent. Which, I think you’ll agree, is a good sign.
In fact, you could argue that I don’t actually hear voices at all – but rather that I’m surrounded by a very fickle bunch of imaginary friends. And yes, I know that serves only to offer a low mental age as an alternative to my being the Zodiac, but it’ll do, because I can justify it in just three short words:
I’m a writer.
You see, without wishing to overstate the obvious, writing fiction is all about making shit up. And therein lies the problem. Anyone who’s ever entertained an enthralling daydream knows that the line between fantasy and reality is very distinct. In one’s head, the facts never stand in the way. You can gloss over all the tedious little details that don’t add up; the practicality and the geography and the glaring errors in continuity. But when the cold light of day meets ink and paper, your torrid affair with Brangelina goes down like the Titanic.
That’s when the old cliché comes out – the one about ignoring your overactive and uninformed imagination and writing what you know. And in principle it makes sense, until it occurs to you that what you know is swiping groceries through a scanner for eight hours a day before coming home to bang a Rustlers rib into the microwave and fall asleep in front of the tv. There might be a book in that somewhere, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want to read it.
So if you can’t just make up random rubbish, and no one wants to hear about your gas bill, how are you supposed to write anything at all? Well, you can get off your arse and do some research, obviously, but more importantly this is where your imaginary friends come in.
To be successful, your made-up story needs to have a solid foundation in reality, regardless of whether it’s about shopping for shoes or slaying dragons – and it’s down to the people doing the shopping and chopping to build it. A reader will take as read the most ludicrous set of circumstances you could possibly cook up, provided your characters react to it like real people. Even the most pedestrian of tales is doomed to the bargain bin if “People just don’t talk like that.”
Put simply, the key to a good story is the people who are in it. Like the actors in a film, they need to be told where to stand and who to talk to, but they also need the freedom to improvise a little; to tailor their performance according to their own unique personality. Unlike an actor, though, a character can’t be relied upon to just turn up on the day and rattle off his lines. He is, after all, not the one hunched over the keyboard. He has no earthly body and can therefore neither act out a scene nor scribble down his thoughts. He relies solely on you, the writer, to express his feelings for him; to portray his reactions, his opinions and his method of getting the lid off a jar of pickles. And the only way you can hope to do that is by knowing him inside out.
Now I don’t know about you, but the way I like to get to know someone is by spending a little time with them, and when they only exist in my mind, that process is a whole lot easier. I don’t have to worry about missing appointments or emailing maps. I give them a shout and, if they feel like it, they just turn up – simple as that. And when they do, I can reach as far into their psyche as I want or need. I can pull up a chair and make idle smalltalk, or I can leap right in like Sam Beckett and spend an hour or two in their skin. And yes, I know this sounds like something I should seek professional help for, but I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. I may not be able to remember where I left my bloody sunglasses, but I know exactly what A***** is going to do when she finds out about T**, C***** and the f******, and that’s by far the more important issue.
So please, if you want to be a writer, forget about drawing tedious beardy character charts and just let out your inner child. Invite all your imaginary friends round for a tea party and find out what they’ve been up to. Slip inside their heads and see what the world looks like through their eyes. Your imagination is a wonderful thing, but with a little bit of theirs you’ll go a long way.