Wednesday, October 28, 2009

That Sounds Familiar...

It happens every time. The day after watching "Mamma Mia" I have one or two of those ABBA songs running in my head. All day. It's more than slightly irritating, but there is something about those tunes that my brain seems to like. They're familiar. Familiarity breeds earworms.

Digression: Why is it impossible for me to remember someone's name who I met last week, but absolutely possible for me to sing along (word perfectly) to every song I heard on the radio while I was a teen? This strikes me as a terrible waste of brain space.

A form of earworm can pop up in writing; it's that phrase that sounds just a touch familiar. I'm not talking about cliches, I'm talking about famous phrases. No writer is able to have their character say "You can't handle the truth!" without their readers picturing and hearing Jack Nicholson. I don't recommend a character saying "To be or not to be" even if they are working out some algebraic equation. Your detective can't employ their little grey cells nor can your heroine say to her true love "You had me at hello."

These type of phrases, from both books and movies, stick with me; I blame my years as an actor and the resultant necessity of memorizing scripts. The reason, of course, is that every one of those phrases (and there are thousands) are so wonderfully written that they have become part of the lexicon. No character can ever describe their work day as "It was the best of times and the worst of times"....even if it was. When I write many of these phrases pop into my head, but my self-editor ensures they don't leak through my fingers, unless a character is actually quoting the phrase.

I keep a notebook filled with lists of words (usually verbs) I come across while reading. Words that aren't usually in my everyday vocabulary, but words I love. I also have lists of phrases that pop up in my head that I like the sound of. I want my writing to sound like me, but I want it to be me at my best. I use a thesaurus; but with discretion. I know when I've hit the right word because I can almost hear a 'ping'; it's a similar feeling to knowing when I've got the right name for one of my characters.

Do you have a problem with earworms? Do famous or familiar phrases pop into your head while writing? Or am I standing out in the field all alone?


  1. Yeah that happens ALL the time. Mostly for me it's cliches, though, and I have to watch it with those. As for Mamma long as you don't get Pierce Brosnan's horrid singing voice stuck in your head with it!

  2. there is a treatment with songs, for patientes of Alzaimer.

  3. I'm *tormented* by earworms. Plagued by them. I know way too many songs. My husband is wicked and gets me stuck on "Boogie Oogie Oogie." Curse him!

    Maybe we should sing people's names, Elspeth. Then we might remember them later.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. What an interesting topic. With me it's exclamations. In real life we say things like, "Oh my God!" "Good God!" Oh no!" "Mercy Me!" "You don't say!" I might write them in the first draft but they get axed the second go round. I'm constantly listening for the more subtle ways people respond in moments of emotion.

    I know what you mean about songs, I was in the grocery store and didn't even know I was listening to them MUSAK, but when I got home I was singing, "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..."

    My son said, "What the heck are you singing and why are you singing it?" (He's nineteen, he probably wouldn't matter what I was singing he'd have respond the same way.) ;-)

  5. Karen; Glad to know I'm not alone!

    Stephanie; I'm looking at Pierce Brosnan. Do you think I care about whether he can sing or not? It's PIERCE BROSNAN.

    Carlos; That would make sense.

    Elizabeth; Singing people's names; maybe that would work! Your husband sounds fun.

    Elizabeth; Exclamations are tough. The music at the grocery seeps unnoticed into your brain and festers.

  6. LOL - loved this. Believe me, I have all kinds of "bugs" in my ears when I write. Song lyrics, phrases from movies, other great books I've read ... I have to make sure what I'm writing is all mine and only INFLUENCED by the worms.

    Marvin D Wilson

  7. Elspeth -
    I get "earworms" too, like everyone else. Mine, like Marvin's, are very often phrases I've read in my favorite books. When a piece of dialogue is particularly strong, it's soooo tempting to use it myself. I resist the urge, but I occasionally have to flush all of those bon mots out of my mind so I can write my own dialogue.

  8. As you can see, you're not alone. I tend to exploit the phrases as part of the comedic moment, but I have to be careful that it doesn't border on cornball.

  9. Marvin; "The Influence of the Worms". I think you've got the title for your next book!

    Margot; It's tricky, isn't it? And such a temptation...

    Elisa; Nothing wrong with a little cornball, the operative word being 'little'.

  10. Yes. Words, phrases, songs, you name it. I try to catch them in subsequent drafts, but I'm sure some slip by. I'm so glad I have great critique partners.

  11. Yes, yes, yes!! I remember every word of the old songs. But don't ask me to remember which parent belongs to which child at school. Or to remember where in the world I've put my pen... or wallet... or, well, you get the idea :)

    Love your idea of keeping a file of wonderful words and phrases!

  12. I like to have my characters, especially my smart-aleck ones, take a famous phrase and "adapt" it.

    Like a smart-aleck dentist saying, "You can't handle the tooth." Or someone doing a Bill Cosby impression: "You had me at Jello." Be careful, though. A little goes a long, long way.

  13. I remember addresses and phone numbers from my childhood, but can't remember anybody's name that I meet. 60's songs are stuck in my head. Thankfully, I missed the '70's songs while watching Sesame Street instead. :)

  14. i write as i speak and as i use the same words alot when speaking such as CLEARLY for example i tend to overuse that word in my writing

    btw love to do murder mysteries - have done them like 3-4 times with my mom's club and i abso love books that take place anywhere in the UK - don't know why - i guess it is my uk heritage :)

  15. Carol; It's wonderful to be able to depend on other sets of ears!

    Jemi; It's irritating, isn't it? Glad you like my lists. They're very useful.

    Alan; You're just funny. I love "You had me at Jello."

    Laura; I've got the '70s songs. I swear I've got every one of them in my head.

    SFRC: Welcome! I'm so glad to have someone reading my blog who likes to do murder mysteries! I suspect my UK heritage has something to do with me placing my books in England.


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