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.
I kinda suck at painting. I'm better than little-kid art on the fridge because you can usually tell what it is you're looking at from me, but not so good that you'd think anyone with any formal training had a hand in it.
So I understand, dear writer, that there are things about your stories that seem off, but you don't know why. I'm going to say: Start by removing gerunds, the word "as" and all adverbs. Then move onto your dialogue.
The number one thing to know is, NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER spell out a character's dialect phonetically. Why? Because it's insulting. It comes across as pandering or mocking. And you'll probably get it wrng. People from New Jersey don't come from Joisey. People from Canada don't go ootside.
Phonetically spelling accents also wastes time (because you have to do it for EVERY SYALLABLE), irritates the hell out of readers, and is usually based on stereotypes.
If you have to read the dialogue out loud to sound out the accent, you did it wrong. What's telling is not the sound of the words, it's the words people use to say something. Only in the deep south would someone say something like "this here heat." Or "this flower is wilting." (And I've heard that used, BTW)
That same setup, that it's very hot out, can be said numerous ways.
Where I come from (New Jersey): "Damn. Hot as balls out there."
California: "Oh my God, it so hot."
Canada: " It's really hot out today."
Did I spell anything phonetically? Did I write "Damn, hot as bawls out dere?"
Or. "Omagawd, it's so haaaaaaawt?"
Or "Wow, it's realy hawt oat today?"
No. Because I don't suck. Stay away from writing accents. Familiarize yourself with colloquialisms and patterns of speech and regional sayings. They're more accurate, more telling, and more true than any tortured syllable gymnastics you're ever going to try.
Write for the Jugular, folks.
Quite some time ago, when I was a newspaper reporter, I was in the final throes of a particularly good story about a local icon who'd just died at age 103. I went in early that day. Just to write in the calm, reflective quiet of an unpeopleified newsroom.
Then the power went out. Some workmen on the roof kicked an outlet and the story I'd just spent two-plus hours getting juuusssst right blinked into the ether with a wry twist of its snidely mustache and an evil cackle.
At that moment, only one other person was in the office, a rather fetching, impossibly quiet young receptionist to whom I said "I'll be right back." I walked outside, took several giant steps from the office, turned away, and screeched the loudest "FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCCCCKKKK!!!!!" ever uttered. Half a strip mall away, the receptionist heard me. When I walked back in, she asked me if I was all right. I think it was the only time she ever spoke to me first.
I'd lost the whole story. It never saved. It never went into recovery. It was gone. And I was on deadline. And much like when you drop your sandwich in the toilet (don't make fun), there's nothing you can do but start over. So I sat down and started typing.
And a curious thing happened. I wrote a better story the second time. As pissed off, despondent, and under-pressure as I was, I wrote a much better story than I had the first time. It was tighter, leaner, punchier. I remember muttering something about the Bionic Man ‒‒ we can rebuild him; we can make him faster; we can make him stronger…
Fast-forward to September, 2013, when I am set to restart my character development class for the first time in a year. I'd taught this class a few times in New Jersey and had some good notes about what to teach in each session.
And I lost them. I have the outline, but not the notes. Anywhere. At all. And class starts in a few days.
My profanity this year was a lot quieter, but essentially the same. So I've had to start from scratch. And a curious reminder occurred. It's better than it was. Tighter. More focused. I can make it better; it can make it stronger….
In here somewhere is a lesson about rewriting and about how we improve as writers. When I lost my story on my favorite centenarian, my editor said to me "Of course it's better now, you only remembered the good parts when you rewrote it."
Rewriting is a wonderful thing. Each time you rework and rewrite, you trim away more useless flab and get down to lean muscle mass. And if you lose your notes or even a whole story, odds are you'll remember only the good parts when you sit down to rewrite.
Rewriting, particularly under pressure, is a blessing. Accept it. Embrace it. And keep writing.
Write for the jugular, folks.