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?


  1. I miss shark week, too! This is such a clever, useful post. Love 1 and 7 the most!

    (Going to tape 7 above my desk!)


    1. Oh, great idea, Shelley! Publishing moves at a glacial pace, so it's tempting to try to hurry things along.

  2. Great post. I love comparisons like this.

  3. This is brilliant, Lynne!! I'm saving this on my desktop as a reminder. And JAWS is definitely up there in my top 5 movies if all time.

    1. That's great, Eve, thanks!

      And me too--it's one of those movies I just have to watch whenever it's on.

  4. Awesome post, Lynne. Love Jaws too.

  5. Oh, this is GOOD. Maybe it's time to see Jaws again.

    1. Yes, it's one of those movies I never get tired of.

      Thanks, Mirka!

  6. Great post, Lynne, AND a great trip down memory lane! :-)

    1. Jaws never gets old.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Julie!

  7. Fantastic analogies. Just what I needed to hear.