It’s been a while since I’ve blog hopped, but thanks to my good friend Kelly Belmonte, who once graciously allowed me space on her very excellent writing blog, All Nine Muses, to talk about my favorite poem (it’s ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling), and she, in turn, graced my site with her thoughts on The Muse.
Kelly has asked me to answer these questions four and pass them around to a few other writing friends. In the coming days/weeks, my other good friends, Julie Frayn and Ben Ditmars, will answer these questions as well.
If you don’t know Kelly, get to. A stellar poet with a gentle humor and a genuine honesty, she is one of the handful of online colleagues I have yet to meet, but very much hope to. Read her take on these questions here.
Likewise, if you don’t know Julie or Ben, you’re missing out.
Julie is one of the best pure writers I’ve read in a long time. A master of characterization and storytelling that will not keep her in the indie arena long, once the right person gets his lucky eyes on her novels. She’s the coolest Canadian export since hockey. Visit her here.
Ben, though still in his twenties, has the soul of a wise old poet and sage. I’m not typically a poetry fan, but Ben’s work routinely gets me to say “Damn, that kid can write!” Exclamation points and all. Visit him here.
In any event, get to know these people, and take a gander at my thoughts on the writing process. Thanks for asking, Kelly. Happy writing to all, and to all, Write for the Jugular.
1. What am I working on?
I’m working on a new short works collection. Takes time to build up a set of short pieces to make a book (I don’t end up liking everything I write and sometimes I get into a story and realize it’s either a stupid idea or a great idea I have no idea how to really accomplish). The centerpiece so far is an 8,500-word short with no title (yet) that I can’t describe without tainting you toward what it’s really about. It’s not an easy read in spots, but it tells what I think is an important story overall.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Hard to say. I never identified myself as having a genre, per se. Maybe what used to (and still may) be termed “little/literary?” That’s the closest thing to a genre I could get, I suppose. The kind of writing you’d find in old-school lit mags. I don’t write for plot so much as concept, which I hope isn’t as pretentious as it sounds. Rather than build a plot in the story, I tend to tell vignettes that paint an overall picture of a theme or idea. What separates my work from other works in the genre? Well, to be honest with you, the fact that I’m the one doing it is its major standout feature. It’s my perspective I’m telling, not anyone else’s, but then, that’s what separates everyone’s work from everyone else’s.
3. Why do I write what I do?
Sick compulsion. Urge to convince the world I’m right. Masochistic impulse to make myself uncomfortable and espouse points of view I don’t always agree with. To say things that have never been said before. To know I connected with people. To know that I don’t have to say something directly for people to understand what I’m driving at. To remind people they’re not alone.
4. How does my writing process work?
Long periods of wondering what to talk about, followed by medium bursts of intense work, followed by the glee that I could keep writing this piece forever, followed by the sudden realization that I’ve said everything I need to say in a few thousand words and don’t have a novel. In between projects, there’s a lot of start/stop. I come up with ideas that I discard all the time. I start working and think, “I don’t want to tell this to the world.” I only put something out when I feel it has something to actually say. Often, I look back over something I’ve written and find I either hate something I originally thought was good or like what I originally thought was mediocre. Whatever I write, I try to write Gestalt ‒‒ tell as little as possible and let the reader complete the picture. I chop out a lot of what I write because I want the readers to be part of the storytelling. They own the story when they take part in it.
A couple years ago, I gave a surprisingly well-received webinar (that has since disappeared in the ether) on what the Declaration of Independence can teach us about the craft of writing. With the Fourth of July rolling around soon, it seemed a good reason to bring this baby back, because the lessons of the Declaration still work:
1. Mince no words. The very title, 'Declaration of Independence,' hits you right in the throat. This is no 'Suggestion for Independence,' no 'Let's Work Something Out.' The very title of the document leaps out and says 'We're doing this, and we're not asking.' No ambiguity, no minced words. Absolutely no one who reads the words 'Declaration of Independence' will misconstrue its intent. It is a clear lesson is starting strong, because if you start this strong, there's no way you're going to wuss out on the rest of your message.
2. Use fitting language. The lofty language of the Declaration of Independence is pivotal to its success because within this document are revolutionary (indeed, treasonous) political and humanistic ideals that had never been tried prior. The country these men were plotting out would not be based on power and privilege and geography, it would be based on ideology. It takes the pen of a Thomas Jefferson to convey that emotion (and the Declaration is an intensely emotional piece of writing) through sound, reasoned thought. All the words in the Declaration fit the mood and the subject matter perfectly.
3. Know your audience. That same language was perfect for the intended audience. Remember, the Declaration was not something passed around in tavern or on the streets. Its intended readership was the King of England and the British Parliament. This was a letter from statesmen to statesmen, and it was written with the dignity and respect that such an audience deserved. Whatever you write, know the appropriate language. And also remember, trying to sound too lofty is just as bad as sounding too lowbrow.
4. Try new things. I mentioned above that the Declaration of Independence contained revolutionary ideas. Well, you might have noticed that the whole thing worked out fairly well. Maybe a better way to say this is, have the courage of your vision. If you've never seen your ideas before, maybe you've invented a new way of thinking. Have the courage to see your message through, because the world, your life, your business, your industry, can only grow when people follow their inspirations.
Write thee for ye jugular
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