Entries in write for the jugular (33)
One thing people in their twenties are good for is destroying your illusions or cozy presuppositions. Having never read Youth In Revolt, I was unaware that my mustachioed evil doppelganger, Francois, bore the same name and follicular countenance as that book's main character until a twenty-two-year-old waitress informed me.
I'd be more annoyed if I cared what she thinks. And, in truth, Francois got his name from a moment of inspired comedic brilliance by a guy named Ted Blumberg. But that's not important.
What's important is, Francois seems to be so much better at life than me. For one thing, the ladies kinda like Francois ‒‒ his sinister, plotting fingertips; his oxymoronic mustache; his way-cooler-than-mine name.
For another thing, Francois is the one who gets to come up with the fun stuff. While I'm toiling away yelling at you people to get back to work in How To Be A Whiny Beeyotch, Francois gets to take credit for the reissue of my short fiction. If you don't believe me, look at the photograph. He's totally bogarting the whole book.
Stories My Evil Twin Made Up is a collection of previously published works from Short Stack, Tryptic, and Love/Sex/Soul. If you already read those, save your money. Unless you want to read them in paperback, which you couldn't do before. If you want to reward Francois for his villainy, it'll be released on February 15, 2013.
I want to love Francois, but I don't know. Clearly, I'd be only half a man without him, but he's kind of like the annoying neighbors I once had. They'd do anything for you, then remind you how awesome they are for doing you a favor.
And, clearly, Francois would be an ideal choice to play Roderick if anyone were to make a film of my short story, "Bruce Goodlooks to the Rescue." But where does that leave me, the guy who doesn't have the lantern jaw and broad shoulders of a Bruce Goodlooks?
All I'm saying is, it's hard to know that your evil twin is having more fun you are. But I guess that's what evil twins are for. And why Francois will never write about his virtuous twin, Scott.
Write for the Jugular, folks.
Stories My Evil Twin Made Up: available February 15 in print and E-book from Oriole Publishing.
Ten or fifteen thousand years ago, i.e. the Nineties, someone made money trading stock online because he knew how to monitor the minute-by-minute health of his investment portfolio. And like any good Gold Rush, people with the age-old dream of cashing out and retiring to an island where they didn't have to pretend to like people quit their jobs to become day traders.
If you don't know what that means, a day trader essentially is someone, generally untrained and undisciplined in the world of finance, who obsesses over every tenth of a point his stock rises or falls, all day, every day. And this practice once was an actual fad.
Surprising as it might come to you, the practice of day trading turned out not to be a good career plan. By the time the phenomenon subsided, the benumbed and bewildered realized that they had either broken even, lost a bunch, or ended up spending their profits on the Xanax it took to carry them through the agony of watching their fortunes increase and deflate in an ocean-like rhythm for months on end.
The funniest part of this to me is that this tendency to watch obsessively over our fortunes has not died, it has merely transmogrified. Which is awesome, because it gives me a rare chance to use the word "transmogrified." Moreover, it sums up what is happening with the indie author's favorite and most hated stock ticker, the Amazon ranking.
I don't know about you (though I have a pretty good guess), but I spend way too many online minutes dropping in "just to quick see" where my numbers are. And to tell you the truth, I don't know which is worse ‒‒ when one of my books is ranked as a Top 100 bestseller, or when the same book a week later is number 622,067 in overall sales.
Rather than money, my portfolio of popularity offers me a many-times-daily chance to think "Yay, they love me!" mixed with "What the hell is wrong with these people?!" Those numbers, those fluctuations, those bestseller lists … oh my.
Though it will do no good, I would like to suggest to my fellow OCD writers that perhaps we should stop checking our Amazon rankings every five minutes. Would it not be better to concern ourselves with actual sales figures than rankings? It would certainly take less time out of our day. And fewer Xanax pills.
Although, now I wonder … are the owners of Amazon and the makers of Xanax one in the same? I doubt it. But damn, that would be an awesome business model, wouldn't it? Supply the stress and provide the treatment for it …
Sounds like a good plot for an e-book. I'll have to write it. I just hope it stays on the bestseller rankings…
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Write for the Jugular, folks.
Ladies & germs, welcome to a most excellent piece of writing on what it takes to be a good writer -- from the brain of a a freakin' awesome one. My friend and, this week, partner in crime, RS Guthrie offers his A-side to my B-side -- his half of a joint blog post that we're sharing on our websites. If you want to read the B-side, visit Rob's page at RobOnWriting.com. And if you don't want to read it, drop by Rob's site anyway and get to know him. He's a rare creature in Writerworld -- an ass-kickin' writer with a huge streak of humanity.
All right, enough of the bromance, read this and listen:
I know, I know—what’s up with the tricky negative? Well, this is a companion piece to writer Scott Morgan’s brilliant “5 Things Writers Should Do (When They Want To Suck)”—not only was I shooting for witty symmetry between our opposite angled views of the same issue, I also loved the pith of Morgan’s title and decided to suckle right up to it. I figure it’s only plagiarism if my counterpart says so, and he admires me too much to do that. Right, Scott?
Best to get on with my own list and hope for my peer’s deep propensity to forgive.
In all seriousness, if you want to suck, please disregard the five suggested truths outlined below. Better yet, go out and do the exact opposite. I’m not saying your work will suck—I’m guaranteeing it. And you may be tempted to think I am pulling a Joe Namath here—allowing my arrogance to coerce me into making a bold prediction (particularly not knowing you, your writing, or anything about the market for which you intend to write). Don’t simply be tempted: know it. The five suggestions below are not complicated, nor are they really anyone’s secret. But I warn you: violate them at your own peril. Or at least the peril of your writing.
(In a ill-disguised knockoff of master David Letterman’s Top Ten lists, I have attempted to order mine from least to most egregious. This prioritization could easily be debated. What cannot be debated is that in doing so I flagrantly violated my cohort’s fourth rule. Want to see for yourself? Afterward you can click here.)
#5. Read. A lot. If you are going to be a writer, you need to immerse yourself in the trade. The trade, dear readers, equates to the books. Not just those you write, but the entire canon of literature out there. (And yes, using the word literature just now in reference to “all” the books out there absolutely did make my skin crawl—but hopefully you get the point.)
The truth is, a writer can never read enough. The bad along with the good. The ugly along with the pristine. Most people know Shakespeare’s classic adage “learneth from thou mistakeths”. Or was that Monty Python? In any case, we writers can learn as much from other writer’s mistakes as we can from our own. Spend some time in a critique group, reading piles of other aspiring writers’ pieces. You’ll learn some invaluable lessons about what you definitely don’t want to be doing in your own writing (along with some great examples of what you do want to be doing, too).
Imagine a shipbuilder who, despite her amazing talents and potential, locked herself away in a building all of her life and never viewed so much as a single other ship. Unless she was a savant, chances are when she presents her brilliant masterpiece to the world, the last thing it will resemble is a seaworthy ship. They call them industry standards for a reason—you can’t “think outside the box” until you know where the box is.
#4. Write. A lot. Imagine a different shipbuilder who does nothing but watch and admire other builders’ work. One who signs up for every “How to Be the Next Best Ship Seller” seminar on the ‘Net. Such behavior equates to saying “show me the easy way to the money and success, please.” It doesn’t work that way in any other profession and I dare say in the creation of art it is even more crucial to polish your talents by doing what you do.
#3. Show, don’t tell. Fiction writers should be disallowed the usage of adjectives, adverbs, and all dramatic prose for the first ten years of their writing careers. No, wait—twenty. In fact, these elements should be banned altogether—particularly the adverbs. The irony is, the more elaborate the adverb or adjective, the weaker the writing becomes. Try it. Take the best piece you’ve ever written and throw in a whole gaggle of flashy descriptors. Have a tongue? Make it flailing, tomato-red, and obese. Your hero? How can he be a hero if he’s not devastatingly handsome, magnificently endowed, incredibly hilarious, wickedly smart, and excruciatingly debonair?
Never use a ten dollar word when a ten cent one will do. Seriously. People don’t seethe. They rarely rage. Weeping was a largely eighteenth century activity. Well-written characters hardly ever romp, gnash, prance, bludgeon, abhor, relinquish, fiddle, waddle, or wince. Objects never rocket (unless they are actually rockets). Only explosives explode. And eyes, no matter how angry or venomous, cannot act anything like lasers shooting laser beams.
Oh, and yes—snakes are venomous, but rarely human beings. (Never eyes.)
Don’t worry. A few of these words never killed a damn thing. But if your prose is littered with them? Not good. Not good at all. Venomous, actually.
#2. Care. Write from the heart (or as my counterpart will tell you, for the jugular). Same difference. And no, doing this does NOT require any of the words from #3. It doesn’t say “write like you care”—you actually need to give a crap about what you are saying. You cannot simply write to sell. You can’t write only because it makes you happy to write, either. Trust me, it doesn’t make anyone else on earth (not related to you) happy to have you write. Not unless what you write makes them care. The reader won’t give two, uh, hoots about your words if they are just ink on white page. And that’s all they’ll ever be if you are writing a story that means nothing to you. A writer will never write anything stronger than the words that come from the depths of the writer.
#1. Create compelling characters. At this point you may be wondering why this necessary truth appears at number one. Don’t. In fact, if you take nothing away from this posting, take away this: no story ever mattered to anyone that contained flat, uninspiring, cookie-cutter characters. You must—read MUST—create characters the reader can root for and about whom they can care. In fact, when you have great characters, faux pas in #5-#3 can sometimes be forgiven by the reader (#2 was intentionally left off—it’s almost impossible to write great characters without the words coming from the heart).
This doesn’t mean you have to give every character who walks onstage a limp or an accent or a funny affectation. Far from it. Some of the most memorable characters are memorable simply because of how human they are. As readers, we love to relate to a character. That also doesn’t mean we want to relate to her prowess as a CPA. (Maybe, if that prowess is juxtaposed against a deep ethical dilemma because she is forced to cook the books in order to pay for her son’s bone marrow transplant.)
You get it. Live inside your characters’ skins. Infuse them with your own loves, fears, dreams, desires, and dilemmas. They need to have depth. Nothing leaves uncreative swampland in its wake like a story littered with shallow characters.
I’ll summarize this way: you can ignore the advice above. I’ll share something with you, however: I learned all of this from other writers who cared enough about my potential to share their experience with me. I didn’t discover these truths on my own. Heck, I don’t always follow them myself—none of us is perfect. But these gemstones come from the most sacred place of all: from mining the successes, failures, and infinite experiences of all the other writers who have come before us. The worst thing we can possibly do is ignore them.
Only contrarians and teenagers ignore the advice of those who have been there before them.
--Leave Rob a comment by clicking the tag below.
Scott Bury is my Canadian alter-ego. My brother from another mother. A journalist, author (of Bones of Earth) and communications pro who owns The Written Word, Scott has a terrific take on what 'Write for the Jugular' means and a direct, no-nonsense style that I love to read.
So we've decided to Wonder-Twins up and guest blog for each other this week. Check out Scott's thoughts on the jugular, below, and make sure to leave him some feedback (here or at his site).
And be sure to read my guest post on his site, www,WrittenWord.ca, by clicking right here.
What I mean by writing for the jugular
When I read Scott Morgan’s subtitle, “Write for the jugular,” I thought “YES.”
Then I thought “Why couldn’t I have come up with that phrase? Augh!”
It epitomizes my ideal for writing. Great writing, fiction or not, reaches an audience the way a big cat reaches for its prey: no compromise, maximum effect.
To me, writing for the jugular means telling the story. Great writing is active; it moves ahead, pulling the audience helplessly with it.
Action doesn’t mean just violence, car chases and explosions; the story can and should also move ahead emotionally, spiritually and mentally. The focus has to be on things that happen, whether they’re events, motions, words or thoughts. Some people call this “show, don’t tell.” Show, describe what characters feel, say and do.
Ditch the back story
One of the worst mistakes that many new writers make is putting in too much back story. I love the depth of the invented history JRR Tolkien put into The Lord of the Rings, but I understand how it daunts a lot of readers. It’s also the reason the book is three volumes long.
Few writers can get away with this. Write the back story for your own benefit as a writer, but put it in a binder somewhere. Audiences don’t read for your benefit as the writer—they read for their own needs as readers.
Focus on driving the story forward, and fill in the back story only when necessary. Fitzgerald’s early short stories are great examples of this. We don’t know the back story of the Jellybean or why he’s in a particular situation; we just know he’s a jellybean and out of place at a country club party.
How much back story does James Bond have? Almost none. This makes him very mysterious—that’s part of his appeal.
If your audience needs to understand how your character got to a point in the story, put a SHORT flashback at the point where you need it. Not before – I would rather read it when I need to know it, not have to remember details 100 pages later.
Remove excess detail
This is something that I had to learn the hard way. Dashiel Hammet briefly described Sam Spade’s face as a series of Vs, so that he looked like a pleasant blond Satan. The only description of Phil Marlowe that Chandler gives us in — how many? — novels and short stories is that he’s tall and weighs about 190 pounds, and once or twice, women call him handsome. That’s it.
That too old-school for you? Okay, one of my favourite new writers is Rob Guthrie, author of the Clan MacAulay series. Other than having a prosthetic leg, I don’t know what the main character, Bobby Mac, looks like. I don’t know if he has a beard or is totally bald. The story mentions that he’s Scottish; this fact grounds some of the character’s personality and factors into the mystery and back story. But that’s it.
And the back story? There are a couple of flashbacks and a brief description of a long-fought feud, but it’s very brief.
Every writer should have his or her own style. If you like description, go for it. I describe my characters and settings in some detail because the setting is a time very different from our own.
Readers can feel bogged down by long explanations of family or political history. Don’t try to impress readers with your gift for language. Get on with the story. Include descriptions and details only when they’re necessary to getting the point across. What does it matter if there’s an ashtray in the Director’s office? Mention it only if one character hits another with it.
I am always impressed by a book or a movie where the climax depends on some detail that seemed unimportant when it was first introduced. For example, look at the best-seller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It begins with a problem that lands the hero in jail (goes for the jugular). A small detail near the beginning of the story becomes the point that explains how a famous investigative journalist was tricked, and also ties up one of the major loose ends of the novel.
I use this technique in my own novel, The Bones of the Earth. See if you can spot it.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not a great book, but I think one of the reasons it has been as successful as it has is that the story goes for the jugular. Readers don’t care about the nuances of voice or vocabulary that commercial publishers and agents do. Readers want a story that grabs them and pulls them along.
To me, writing for the jugular means telling the story. Bring out your characters’ inner demons through their actions.
I didn't invent writing for the jugular. I merely subscribe to its newsletter. Long before me, writers threw convention to the wind and told us in no uncertain terms, through the characters they created, that they don't give so much as half an acorn whether we like them or not.
If you need to find the jugular, these 6 fictional characters can point you in the right direction (and then leave you in a crappy neighborhood).
1&2: John & Ella Robina, The Leisure Seeker, by Michael Zadoorian
Proving you're never too old to get out of Detroit, octogenarians John and Ella Robina strap on an RV and ride west to Disneyland, against all medical and familial advice. Sure there's death approaching with every RPM, but then there's this line: “Why does the world have to destroy anything that doesn't fit in? We still can't figure out that this is the most important reason to love something.”
The Robinas don't give a damn because they have no reason to. And this is a surprisingly romantic tale that will inspire your middle finger in ways you can't yet imagine.
3: Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Who doesn't love sluts? Even the Puritans made allowances for the occasional bit of ankle. And in a moment of monumental insight, they of the awesome Thanksgiving costume thought they'd teach town tart Hester Prynne a lesson in shame by strapping her into something black, emblazoned with a big red A.
Hester's response? 'Biteth me!' Hester is so defiantly proud of her A (and the T on which she wears it) that she actually changes Puritan women's attitudes toward her and her reckless ankles. That's like convincing Tony Danza not to punch you out at the airport.
Seriously, don't tell him I said that.
4: Jo, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott.
Who doesn't love teenage girls? Especially the ones who set their clothes on fire?
Josephine March Bhaer is so tomboyish, people actually call her by a boy's name, Jo. And yeah, that's the Victorian Era's way of "suggesting" something about Jo, but, really, Jo's boyishness is the highest form of Victorian-Era rebellion. Young ladies were supposed to be young ladies, all frilly and genteel and valuable only as much as they appealed to creepy old men who liked hang out with teenage girls.
Jo defies every form of convention, life gently kicks the shit out of her, and she manages to become a little woman.
5: Adam, Godflesh, by Brian Hodge
OK, so you have to be at least 18 (and in some states 21) to read anything past the first paragraph in this short story, but since Brian Hodge wrote it, it's worth wishing your youth away to get to the point where you can dive in with a rubber suit and a can of disinfectant.
This story of Ellen, quixotic bookstore worker by day/Sasha Grey by night, introduces a seductively repulsive Adam, who convinces Ellen that it's a totally awesome idea to trade a little of herself for the promise of ever-greater … relief. When Ellen finds Adam, he's legless, in his wheelchair, in an alley, doing his best Pee-Wee Herman, without a care in the world. And then shit gets kinky.
Now, remember – I'm not here to tell you what you'll like. I'm here to tell you who doesn't give a flying expletive what you'd think of them. And Adam makes Brian Kinney look like an attention-starved whore.
But you get the point.
6: Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
Kids love to stitch people together.
We all have Victor Frankenstein, the original mad scientist, to thank. Victor doesn't just not care what you and I think, he doesn't care what God thinks! And in his pursuit of mad scientistry, Victor Frankenstein creates life! And then does what any red-blooded man would do – he ignores the consequences. But who cares, right? All he was trying to do was build a man, not be all "Daddy" up in his castle.
Me? I'm looking for the mad scientist who can squeeze into this:
Write for the Jugular, folks.
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