Good Cop/Bad Cop

The hubs and I just finished the first season of The Wire yesterday. So naturally we’ve been walking around using our best gangster slang whenever we’re home and sounding pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.

Aside from the revelation that I don’t hear “Most def” nearly enough in my day-to-day life, The Wire got me thinking about the traditional Good Cop/Bad Cop trope and how it relates to the writing process. There’s a scene in Season 1 in which idiot detectives Ellis Carver and Thomas ‘Herc’ Hauk try to employ the good cop/bad cop tactic to get a juvenile delinquent/drug dealer to talk. Only in true Carver and Herc fashion, they totally gum up the interrogation and the good cop/bad cop stunt doesn’t prime the suspect to talk but instead results in a messy brawl causing the whole line of questioning to shut down.

I’m pretty sure every writer has a Good Cop and a Bad Cop, each of which rears their little ugly head somewhere during the course of writing and revising a novel. And the thing is, there’s a place for both of them, IF (and only if) they come at the right time and are used correctly.

In The Wire, Herc and Carver mistakenly start out with the good cop and then go to the bad cop, but hello! any good Homeland fan knows that you start with the bad cop and then move to the good one. That way the suspect–after being used and abused–is ready to listen to what the good cop has to say.

For me, conversations from my Good Cop go something like this:

Good Cop Writing Voice: OMG, this is the best thing you’ve ever written–like ever! You are a genius. Congratulations on your big, swollen genius brain. It’s a wonder your skull can contain it!

Good Cop Writing Voice: You should send this off straight away! It’s perfect! Editors will call overnight. First one then FIVE editors. And then an auction! Or perhaps a pre-empt! It’s written in the stars!

Good Cop Writing Voice: At the very least, you should have a bottle of champagne lurking in the fridge! Silly writer. So cautious.

Good Cop Writing Voice: You’re going to be a millionaire!

On the other hand, the role of Bad Cop goes like this:

Bad Cop Writing Voice: You actually spent time on this? Really?  It’s so embarrassing. The writing is flat. The characters are flat. If you wrote the world, I bet it would be flat, too.

Bad Cop Writing Voice: Oh. My. Goodness. Are you trying to bore me to death? An editor won’t read past the first page. Wait, what? Someone paid you to write this? Oh geez, you should just give their money back now. Stealing is wrong.

Bad Cop Writing Voice: You will never be good enough. Not ever. And definitely not with this book.

Bad Cop Writing Voice: Everyone is going to be disappointed in you.

Okay, so as you can see, the good cop is way too good and the bad cop is way too bad, but each have little nuggets of truth in them, that if I interpret correctly, can be used to my benefit.

In fact, Good Cop may be right. This may be the best thing I’ve ever written. If I’m trying hard and improving with each book, it *should* be the best thing I’ve ever written. That’s something I should take pride in and be motivated by and I should be willing to look at the work as objectively as possible to determine if it is, truly, the best work I’ve done. If it is, then good for me. I shouldn’t deny myself the pleasure of recognizing that. A job well done shouldn’t go unnoticed, least of all by the writer. Now, is my book going to sell overnight in a 5 house auction? Ummmm…probably not. I mean, it could, but odds are very, very low. Still, this is the type of hare-brained dream that can get us through the hard times. When your manuscript is a bear and you’re contemplating quitting or at least crying into the dried up bowl of oatmeal that’s been sitting next to your computer for the past three days (not that this has ever happened to me, of course). This type of positive self-talk can inspire the love you need, the love that will in turn bleed into your writing on the page. If you’re not feeling it, neither will the reader. And more importantly, if this is your pie-in-the-sky goal, it should make you work crazy hard to do your best. Aim for the 5 house auction and if you don’t reach it, you’ll still end up with something great on your hands. The only problem lies in taking Good Cop’s commentary as a foregone conclusion, as destiny rather than a reward that has to be earned.

But that’s okay because Bad Cop is there to bring you back down to earth. And fast. My Bad Cop is super mean. Too mean, if we’re honest. My Bad Cop can cripple me into not writing at all if I’m not careful. Sometimes, I have to consciously bring Good Cop back in. But Bad Cop has a role too and that role is not to let me off the hook. Maybe my writing is flat. Maybe the characters don’t have enough layers. Maybe Bad Cop’s telling the truth and I just don’t want to listen. I at least have to consider the consequences that Bad Cop is presenting me. This is the voice inside that pushes you as far as you can go. But it only works if you don’t let it shut you down. Let the Bad Cop tell you the hard truths. The ones that scare you. Bad Cop is the driving force to betterment, the one that forces you to consider your weaknesses.

As far as I can tell, for most writers, the order of “interrogation” needs to be: Good Cop, Bad Cop, Good Cop. I need Good Cop to get me through the first draft. During that time, I need to feel the love. I need to write confidently and without (too much) fear. After the first draft is down, I can let Bad Cop take its turn. I put my head down and listen to everything that I’ve ever done wrong and force myself to consider what might happen if I don’t listen. Once I’ve done all I can do and the book is out of my hands, it’s time for Good Cop to come back. If you’ve truly done your best, then there’s no reaason to beat yourself up about anything more. Take pride in the work and the effort and the enthusiasm and pray for the best.

Do you have good and bad cops while writing? What do they say?

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One thought on “Good Cop/Bad Cop

  1. “The only problem lies in taking Good Cop’s commentary as a foregone conclusion, as destiny rather than a reward that has to be earned.”

    Oh, I love that you said this. Because that is the tension right there. It can be hard to explain why you might have faith in your novel, and yet, maintain realistic expectations. Because you know Good Cop is right but it’s going to take a lot of work to make that happen.

    Also, I pretty sure Bad Cop is the sibling of Internal Editor of Doom. Or at least cousins or something.

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