Thursday, August 23, 2012

9 Writing Lessons From Jaws

I already miss Shark Week. Seven days of sharks just isn't enough. So, I re-watched Jaws recently, and found that besides the entertainment value, it offers some good tips for writers.

There's plenty of wisdom in the movie, but here are nine lessons I found that apply to the writing life:

1. You're gonna need a bigger boat.
Writing can be a lonely journey. We do work in isolation most of the time, but it's much easier and much more pleasant with a support system. Find a group of local writers and/or online groups to network with. It's no fun to celebrate your good news or weather a storm all alone in your little boat. Have a community of writers to help you along the voyage.

Shark hunter Quint insisted his small boat was just
fine, and even wanted to shun any help and go
completely alone. And how did that work out, Quint? Oh, right, you can't answer that. You know, since the shark wrecked your boat and ate you. And great idea, smashing the radio to isolate yourself even more when you needed help.

Remember too that being in a writers' community is a reciprocal relationship; help out your friends when they need you. Don’t lie there drunk on the beach when they're getting mauled by a shark, you big jerk.

2. Sometimes subtle is better.
This bit of wisdom could also be called "Sometimes mistakes work out for the best." During the making of the movie, Bruce the mechanical shark wasn't cooperating. Steven Spielberg decided to use the ominous music to indicate the shark was nearby. That anticipation, the knowing what was coming without seeing it, turned out to be much more compelling than showing the actual shark approaching and attacking. Weaving in some foreshadowing or a hint that something's wrong lets that sense of foreboding creep in, and gives your story more suspense. Much more so than punching the reader in the face with horror. Or biting them in the face, as the case may be.

3. Have a plan, even if it's a rough one.
If you're like me, you prefer to see your story's plot unfold as you write it, rather than plotting it all out first. But it helps to have some idea where it's going. You can think about a few turning points in your story and where your character will end up and how they'll change, yet still have the freedom to figure out the details as you write.

Remember the guys who tried to catch the shark by tossing a roast into the water and chaining it to the dock? The dock they were standing on? Having no plan at all and no structure to hold on to can lead to everything falling apart beneath you. Chief Brody's team didn't know exactly how they'd catch the shark, but they had a boat, some weapons, and piano wire fishing line.

4. Chum the waters.
It seems obvious, but tell a good story that grab the readers’s attention. When Quint told the guys about his war experience in the torpedoed submarine, they hardly blinked, they were so fascinated. The details and the way the narrative unfolded pulled the listeners in, gave them some good suspense while they waited for what would happen, and didn’t let go till the end. Keep your readers intrigued and wanting more, so they can't help but turn the page to find out what will happen next.

5. Don't bite off more than you can chew, or anything that will explode in your face.
Be careful about overcommitting yourself. To make writing a priority, other things might have to slide. Only you can figure out what to take on and what to turn down, but it'll be up to you to schedule your writing time, or it'll end up being last on your list after you take care of everything and everyone else. Some people are good at taking advantage of small chunks of time throughout the day, while others need a larger block of time all at once.

And a note about explodey things. We know the shark met its (un)timely death via pressurized SCUBA tank. As long as we have the Internet, there will be people who enjoy annoying people. And they'll try to reel you in. Maybe they hated your book so much they feel compelled to email you and tell you about it. Or send you tweets about it. Or maybe they just enjoy arguing with anyone who will listen. So don't. Don't take the bait, don't bite down on the pressurized tank. 'Cause that just gets messy. Save yourself. Swim away.

When things are especially bad, lay low and emerge when the biting's done

6. Know when to call Richard Dreyfuss.
Chief Brody started reading a lot about sharks after those first attacks on the beach, but he knew that wasn't enough. After doing his own research, he called in a shark expert.

I don't know how many books and online resources I read about India, elephants, and Burma while writing CHAINED, but the best research I did was talking to people who've lived in those countries and to elephant experts. I learned things from their personal experiences that I never would have picked up from books or a website. Learn all you can about whatever you need to know for your book, but contact experts when you need to know more, or to check your facts. Reading on your own will help you figure out what questions to ask, but you can learn more from people who’ve lived in the world you’re writing about than you will by only reading. People are generally more than happy to talk about their passions, and if someone's writing about them, they want it to be authentic.

7. You'll get there faster if you don't hurry.
Quint, who was stubborn enough to insist his boat was adequate for catching the shark, also ran the engine too hard when the other men were warning him to slow down. It wasn't enough just to ignore their advice; he ran the boat even faster, until it finally broke down. His obsession with achieving his goal made him blind to common sense and good advice.

Writing a good book takes time. Getting published takes more time. Rushing into the publishing world, sending a manuscript too early, querying agents as soon as your first draft is fresh off the printer, will just leave you in a cloud of black smoke, adrift in your broken-down little boat. Take the time you need to write the awesomest book you can, then have it critiqued by writers you trust to give you honest feedback. Then revise it, and revise it again. And again, until you're at the point where you can't think of anything else to do to make the story better. Before you send it out, do your research to find reputable agents or editors who are interested in acquiring the kind of book you've written.

8. Have something to cling to when your boat sinks.
Most authors don't rely only on writing as their only income. Don't quit your "day job" because you want to stay home and work on your novel. I mentioned that a great book takes time to write, and once that's finished, the query and manuscript submission process can take anywhere from a couple of months to forever-ish. Hopefully your book is fabulous and will sell to a publisher for a hefty advance, but even if that does happen, it'll be a while before you see any of the money. Some of your advance will come few months after the sale, more after your edits are done, and maybe the last of it when the book is released, generally 18 months to two years after the sale. Not many people can survive that long between paychecks. (My idea-to-publication journey took six years, and that's not at all unusual).

When the Orca was in tatters at the end of the movie, our heroes didn't drown. They each grabbed on to a yellow barrel and stayed afloat.

9. Celebrate with maniacal laughter after a success.
...Or whatever else you'd like to do to celebrate. Of course you'll celebrate the book deal, but remember the smaller steps along the way too. Finishing a new draft, getting a request from an agent, catching an editor's interest--all of that gets you closer to your blowing-up-the-shark moment. Enjoy a nice dinner out, take a break to read a book, or buy a little gift to reward yourself.

I'm sure there are more writing lessons and/or life lessons in the movie, so let me know what others you think of.

So this tides you over till the next Shark Week, right?

I know, nothing comes close to Shark Week. But you didn't do much writing that week, did you?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Because a Tiled Car Would Be Ridiculous

Usually when I leave work I'm ready to hurry home to all the fun I'm missing on the Internet get back to writing a new novel, but I saw something the other day that made me turn around and re-park. 

Never mind the hubcaps, just make sure it's well carpeted

Here's a view from the front.

You'd never believe it without the pictures, right? And you'd never get away with writing such a spectacle into a story. Imagine the conversation that would go on if you were getting a critique of a novel about a character who had such a car.

"Wait a minute, so...he got the car carpeted?"

"That's right."

" Why?"

"The carpet store would do it, I guess. Or maybe an auto shop. Maybe there's a guy at the auto shop who's a carpet installer. And he got it done because it looks awesome and it was cheaper than a paint job."

"Is it outdoor carpet?"

"Nope. Just regular carpet, like you'd get in your living room."

"I guess it would save money on car washes."

"Sure, he wouldn't go to the car wash. Well, except to use the vacuum."

"So what does he do when it rains? Cover it with a giant shower cap?"

"I don't know. Stays home, maybe."

"Well that's convenient. And what's with the skulls?"

"It's decorated with a few animal skulls. Other animal bones, too. Like legs, maybe. Oh, and overturned salad bowls."

"Oh, come ON!" 

I know, it's completely unrealistic, yet here we are. Carpeted and beskulled and bebowled.

And in case you couldn't see the hood ornament well enough:

I did go on home after gawking and getting the pictures, although I was tempted to just hang out by the car until the owner returned so I could ask how this all happened. And really, I think we can safely assume the owner isn't a criminal or anything. Wouldn't make the best getaway car, would it? "Sorry, ma'am, we lost the assailant after a brief chase, when he blended in with all the other cars covered with home flooring...".

Come to think of it, my car did look really boring parked next to this one. Thankfully the cobblestones have really livened it up.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why Isn't This My Job?

I'm sure we all have a few dream jobs in mind--chocolate tester, fireman calendar photographer, stay-at-home reader of bestselling novels--but I have a new one.

I'm talking of course about Entertainment Coordinator for Baby Pandas.

You people know how much I love elephants, but really. Until someone invents a slide that baby elephants can play on, this is my new dream job.

I can't imagine a better career than leading pandas down a slide, but please share if you know of one.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Happy World Elephant Day!

Yes, it's World Elephant Day, the day where all good little elephants wake up to find presents under their trees and apples in their baskets. Or something like that.

However they celebrate, we can stop by The World Elephant Day website and watch the new documentary, Return to the Forest, about efforts in Thailand to re-introduce elephants to the wild after captivity. Here's the trailer:

And if that wasn't enough to entice you, it's narrated by William Shatner.

To continue the party, here are a few more of my favorite elephant stories found online:

Rajan the elephant retires after thirty years of working as a water taxi. He's been replaced by motorboats, which wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

Speaking of swimming elephants, Ricky Gervais talks about elephants "caught swimming" in the ocean:

A hotel was built on this elephant herd's migration path, but that doesn't stop them:

The article "A Mother's Determination: Elephant Rescues Baby Trapped in Mud" has amazing photos of an elephant freeing her calf from a mud hole.

And here's an article with pictures of an elephant funeral procession, not for another elephant but for the human known as "The Elephant Whisperer."

Enjoy your Elephant Day, but don't overdo the peanuts!