One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever gotten came from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind. It’s an older book, but one I dog-eared into oblivion in my beginner days, long before I ever got published. And the one thing Natalie said that has stuck with me, most likely because it harkened back to my theatre days, was “Go for the throat”.
This was a watershed moment for me, back when I was uncertain of my own skill level or if the stories I wanted to tell would be stories anyone would want to read begin with. There was, quite literally, an audible, tangible click in my head when the light went on. It wasn’t all that long afterwards that I was offered my first contract.
Of course, I then proceeded to take matters to the other extreme and over-edited myself, but that’s another story.
Anyway, back to this going for the throat business.
This isn’t a matter of going all Walking Dead on a story, shambling up on an unsuspecting victim and biting indiscriminately to make more zombies. This is a matter of hunting—focus, patience, and then taking the shot.
Anyone who has ever had cats has seen the following happen. We have Ninja Katz, so this happens to the power of 10. (Seriously, if they ever learn to use the can opener, we’re toast.)
We have a small sunroom/nook off the end of our living room that facing out onto the golf course behind our condo complex. The windows are floor-to-ceiling, and have sliding glass doors—and the Thing One and Thing Two LOVE to hang out here to watch all the action—birds and lizards and squirrels, oh my!
Something not visible to the mere human eye will zip past, or fly over, or bounce along a roof. Do they immediately try to disembowel a perfectly innocent little critter whose only failing is to be made of fur and enticing squishy bits? Some cats might—but not ours.
First, their eyes widen in the prescribed “bug face” mode, to take in more light, examine the surrounding terrain and environment elements, and possible the fires of hell while they’re at it. Then they stalk, one paw at a time, toward the window. Every muscle, every sinew, every molecule of their very existence is narrowly focused on their potential prey. Only when they are strategically, perfectly poised do they try to bullet-pounce through the screen with the full array of their armament displayed for maximum fear and death. They know what a jugular looks like, and they see one RIGHT NOW.
I guess this makes them more like vampires than zombies, if you want to see it that way. But whatever.
It’s that pre-pounce focus, though, that captures one’s attention. That still, silent posture of imminent death. There’s no fear there–only unfathomable, undeniable instinct.
As writers we tend to dance around the things that make us uncomfortable, searching for the right steps, and the right words. We fox trot and waltz round and round, but we rarely tango straight on through when the occasion calls for it. Mostly this is due to inexperience, or self-conscious uncertainty. We use too many words trying to get our point across, or not the right words.
Sometimes we just need to clench the editorial dagger between our teeth, and GO FOR IT.
I’ve learned there are three steps (and drafts) to getting to that jugular:
- Discovery Draft: Get it all down. Mind dump it. Whatever it takes—just as long as you get the story out of your head so you have the right perspective to see what it is you actually have to work with. Make it tangible as well as visual. Just say it, whatever it is. Focus on that prey, and the situation surrounding.
- Meditation Draft: You’ve said it, now say what you mean. Stalk up on your prey, word by word, sentence for sentence. Think through and strategize every step, and be aware of every flexing muscle. See where it all fits together in the rhythm of the hunt. Be aware of the terrain of structure, the paw print of foreshadow. In other words, seek clarity.
- Revision Draft: You’ve said it, you’ve hunted for the right way to say what you mean—now say it well. Cut away the unnecessary, the redundant, anything that lacks focus—this draft is all about purpose. Find and pull out layers, textures, sensory detail made touchable in the mind. Anything that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t do the job—rip it out. Have you hurt your characters enough, or were you just a bit too kind because you love them so? Eye that difficult scene where you meandered around, searching for what you were trying to say and didn’t quite get there—and take no prisoners. Be brutal. This isn’t about the romantic notion of writing complete with a diaphanous white gown and gothic notions—this is about blood.
In other words, write fearlessly, with focus and purpose. Go for the throat.