The above image-string is a perfect visual representation of what you need to do when you write.
A lot of writers tell very good moments in their stories. They build tension, make the reader wait, breath held, and then ... stop.
The problem with this is that though the writer is great at telling an action (or inaction, as the case may be), she does not let the action run out. Think of it in terms of breathing. When you write a moment of suspense, for example, you're writing the drawing of a breath (the inhale is the buildup). Then you're writing the holding of that breath (the suspense, the tension). What makes the held breath so powerful is that we know it has to come out -- as a scream, as a relieved exhale, as a slow, controlled breath, whatever. Let us see the exhale.
If you build suspense, it has to pay off with equal weight. Remember what I said in Character Development? action equals reaction. If you build a lot of tension and something happens, it needs to warrant the tension built. If you build a lot of tension and nothing happens, we need to feel as much relief as we felt tension.
Can you dig it?
As with everything awesome, the answer is in baseball. When a pitcher throws, he doesn't stop his arm after he releases. His arm continues to swing all the way down, past his waist. That's follow-through. When you write, don't just release a fastball and then cut to the dugout. Let your arm fully swing. Let us see what happens with the pitch. If the batter hits it, show the action of the catch, the out, the sprint to third as the throw comes in from left. If the pitcher strikes the batter out? Don't just end the scene there. Let us see the catcher spike the ball at home. The pitcher pump his fist in a "Yesss!"
Cutting your action short is a common flaw, even in seasoned writers. Keep the resolution of your action in mind when you write, Even if nothing happens.
Write for the Jugular, always.
I know. Hiring an editor is scary and expensive. But you might be reacting based on misinformation. Allow me to dispel some of your woes.
Myth 1: Hiring an editor is expensive.
Reality: Yes, it can be, but it's not a bad as you think.
The problem isn't really the money, it's the perceived value of the service bought. If you want to just write and release, go ahead. But, if you want to
- write like a pro
- write the best story you can
- build your career as a professional writer
then the money you spend on an editor is an actual investment in your career. The same as the money you spend on writing classes. The same as the money you spend on better shoes -- because you get what you pay for.
And for the record... No one has ever accused me of overcharging, given what I give them for their money. If you want references on that, ask me for them.
Myth 2: Editors are scary and insulting.
Reality: Don't be an idiot.
Editors are not your mom, who's going to tell you everything's great. Good editors will call it like we see it. But A, that's what you need, and B, we're not going to tear you any new ones. At least I'm not. We're going to give you honest, constructive feedback and help you make your story the best it can be.
We want you to succeed because ‒ and pay attention to this ‒ our reputations are tied up in your work. So we want you to write the very best you can. It makes you look good, it makes us look good.
So maybe editors come off a little serious sometimes, but the truth is, we're on your side.
And for the record… The top comment I hear about my style is "I love your honesty. You tell it like it is, but you're not an ass about it."
So there you go. My advertisement. I'm Scott Morgan and I'm not an ass about it.
Myth 3: Editors just rewrite it to how they want it.
Reality: Not unless you're a staff writer at a publication.
I don't rewrite for people. I never will. And I don't know any reputable editors who will rework your words, unless you're a reporter at a newspaper or magazine.
For book and story writers, this fear isn't typically based in any fact, though I have heard one or two horror stories. And they all seemed as credible as any other friend-of-a-friend story that ends with a man dressed as a woman hiding an axe under his dress bullshit. If an editor does start reworking your writing to sound like his voice instead of yours? Fire his ass.
Tip: Vet your editor before you hire one. Ask for some references and talk to people he's edited. Ask these writers about the editor's style, how the editor handles things, how he frames criticism, and if he's pleasant to work with. And ask the writer how much she learned or how much the story has improved because of the editor's input.
And for the record… Don't let an editor change your voice. A good editor will suggest ways to improve your work and offer examples, but never let one actually reword significant amounts of text.
Write for the Jugular, folks
I hate these "Top 4" kinda things and their hyperbolic "must see," "mind-blowing" headlines.
But it's cute when I do it. It also happens to be true. These four tips I'm about to give really are incredibly simple. By the way, I'm going to sneak a fifth tip right here, which is that you should read every word of a blog like this. But I'm going to bet that only a few of you have seen that fifth tip because it's not a highlighted bullet point and you skipped over this intro. And those who blow past this intro also will not read the full text of each section, just the bullet points, which is a shame. Just sayin' is all. For those of you who do read it all, thanks. You're going to heaven on a satin pillow.
1. Write what you want to read. Great writers -- legendary writers -- write for themselves first. Whether I'm a great writer is up to you to decide, but my approach to writing is to write something I've never read before. That might be a kind of story, the perspective of the protagonist, whatever. But it will always be something I've never read, but would like to. Whenever I've tried to copy something, it's blown up in my face, and it's painfully easy to see when a writer is not writing his/her heart and soul.
2. Listen to your god-damn editor! We're here to help, people. I've said this several times. Listen to us. Related...
3. Don't be lazy. Again, you've heard this. Rewrite your stuff accordingly. Something about sending a book to an editor makes writers totally lose their drive to craft a terrific story. They just don't want to rewrite. Then they're surprised that their books don't do so well. Put the effort into rewriting. I've never really edited a bad story. It's the mechanics that are flawed, not the story. Work on the mechanics.
4. Vet your writing teacher. Not all writing teachers are the same. Some are awesome (thank you, thank you) and some are utter bulletheads. One former student of mine aspired to attend an MFA program in creative writing and left (and I don't blame her) when her mentor refused to grade her work. The reason? She didn't write about the area she came from or her own culture. Apparently, the guy doesn't think it's legitimate writing if you're not writing only about experiences you've actually had. I don't recommend MFA programs at all, really, but I do recommend you take some writing classes. Just know what you're getting. Research the teacher's work, maybe talk to the school or former students. A crap teacher will make you feel like ... well, you know. A great teacher will inspire you, even if she pisses you off.
Write for the Jugular, folks.
Evolution is a funny thing. It's a bit like the advance of clock hands; something you barely perceive until you stop paying attention, and then you realize how far you've come since you last looked.
Without getting too conspiracy-theory, it's accurate to say that society is in the middle of a paradigm shift. Wireless communications and technology are changing how we read and write; how we find, process, and interpret information. In a few short years, this blog, the way it's written and presented, will be obsolete, if it's not already. The information is timeless, but the delivery will change. And longwinded treatises like this one won't exist because people will not need nearly this many words to glean the meaning of what they read.
So you and I, fellow writer, face a future that we'll need to pay attention to. How you write will have to change, because how readers read is changing. The good news is, your voice and the basic, universal truths of storytelling will remain a bedrock. Your work will still matter, and the ABCs of putting your stories together will not change. People will still want to read funny and dramatic and scary and sexy. As we evolve, we must remember that we are only evolving the form, not the content.
So keep writing. Keep reading. Keep studying. And keep working towards richer, fuller, better fiction and creative nonfiction.
Now or tomorrow, always write for the jugular.
Don't roll your eyes, I'm not going to rant about anything. I'm going to talk about this film as a textbook example of how powerful nonfiction can be.
All great documentaries take a position, even if that position is to be objective. Blackfish most definitely takes a side, and is an ideal example of activist nonfiction in the tradition of the great Edward R. Murrow. The filmmakers rely heavily on objective footage and public records to show the horrifying trail of "accidents" that befall orca trainers at popular marine parks. At the same time, the filmmakers rely on the scientific knowledge that orcas are not big, dumb slaughtering machines. They are immensely intelligent, family-oriented animals capable of being emotionally destroyed.
Blackfish centers on the story of Tilikum, or Tilly, a 12,000-pound male orca who's known to have killed two trainers. I'll let the film tell the rest of the story, I'm just here to point you to it. But suffice to say, Tilly is not the brainless killer he's been portrayed to be in the news; and the film is moving enough for me to ask you to sign the petition to have Tilly released from captivity. Read the story of the movie here, and read the story behind the petition at www.FreeTillyNow.org.
The film's power is its ability to take your simple assertions (i.e., Tilly's a dangerous killer who should be put down) and forcing you to realize that Tilly's aggression is the product of systematic abuse. And for those of you who think this is another "make excuses for a killer" story, I merely say this: Watch the film before you make your moralistic judgments.
Moreover, Blackfish is one of those rare movies that makes me want to do something. As writers we are able to tell important stories. We are the people who can give voice to the voiceless; tell the stories of the speechless. It's not a gift to take lightly.
A word of caution: Blackfish is not an easy watch. It is brilliantly crafted, perfectly executed, and bravely objective where it needs to be. But it is heartbreaking in spots. As a writing instructor, I would recommend you follow its model in terms of how well-constructed it is and as a template for how to take a side in your persuasive writing. As a human, I would ask you to take a small action that helps.
Please sign the petition. Click here.
And always write for the jugular.