Rules of Writing: Get to the Fucking Monkey

Has a song ever changed your life? I’m betting yes. Probably whatever was playing during your all-important first kiss, or maybe it was an album that got you through the death of a loved one, or what you had blaring in your iPod that time you took your pants off at the rodeo. I had a song like that.

That was “King Kong,” by Tripod. Other than being a work of sheer, staggering brilliance, it hit upon something very important to the crafting of a good story and quickly became a cornerstone of my writing philosophy. That would be identifying the good part of the narrative and getting to that as soon as possible. The song confines itself to film, though the problem is just as bad if not worse in literature. After all, a movie has an upper length of three-and-a-half hours (although, with the way blockbusters are going, we’re approaching the inevitable five hour Thundercats death march), while a novel can lurch on for thousands upon thousands of pages. Literally the only limiting factor — wrist strength — has been removed with the advent of ebooks. So if a movie fails the test, you’re looking at thirty minutes before Batman puts on his cowl. Less than ideal, sure, but not the kind of thing that leads to rage-quitting. But if a book takes its sweet time, you might actually injure yourself.

I encountered this phenomenon the last time I decided to get with the zeitgeist and read Stieg Larsson’s lurid locked-room mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Though it came highly and universally recommended, even the book’s fans (which, briefly, seemed like everyone), cautioned that it doesn’t get started until a hundred pages in. I was baffled. What could possibly take so long to set up a little noir thriller like that? The central mystery is a classic one, and certainly gives a perfect framework for the kind of Viking Gothic (that’s a thing, right?) mood Larsson was shooting for. But instead of creating a character who would be perfect for unraveling the mystery, he gave us a guy who needs a hundred pages of excruciating exposition just to get him into a place where he can go on the adventure. This is because of Dragon Tattoo’s chief flaw (among many — I am not a fan), which is that while Larsson’s protagonist is a total Mary Sue, a flawed hero would have been both more compelling and appropriate. Instead, the first hundred pages (and the last, but I’m not talking about overlong denouements today) are devoted to an utterly extraneous plot about whether our hero gets to keep his magazine, something that the collapsing magazine industry will settle for him in a few weeks anyway.

The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson’s thought exercise masquerading as a novel about how nanotechnology will reshape the human race, is a rich, detailed, and complete example of worldbuilding. It is also a frustrating slog that punctuates intense boredom with cheap shock tactics, like Howard Stern if he ever got a PhD in nanoscience. (I’ve heard Cryptonomicon is an even more egregious offender, though I have not read it, and now have no intention to.) This is partly due to the book’s stubborn refusal to get to the fucking monkey, but even worse, when the monkey finally does show up, it’s not really recognizable as such. Mostly because the endless pages of the book, which mostly concerns itself with — no shit — a little girl reading a book, have physically strangled the pleasure centers of the brain. The book has lulled the reader into a state in which we’ve forgotten that a monkey was even a possibility, like a man in solitary so long he forgets what the sun looks like. It’s a trap science fiction can fall into, in which the author forgets to include a good story within his fascinating world.

Stephenson also provides one of the best examples of the rule followed to the overall benefit of the novel. Snow Crash has one of the most electrifying beginnings I can remember, showing the world through the filter of an action sequence, while introducing our two main characters in the midst of a bizarre vehicular duel. The book not only gets to the fucking monkey, it gets there repeatedly, loudly, and on fire.

It happens so often with more famous writers for a very simple reason: they no longer have to pitch their work. An unknown writer like me (that makes it sound like I write in a mask, which is entirely accurate), has to do what are called queries. These are letters of introduction for the book in question, including things like a synopsis of the manuscript and a little resume of the writer. They are directed toward agents (if you enjoy wasting your time) or publishers (if you enjoy being published). Often, but not always, the recipient will, in the guidelines on his or her website, request a sample of the manuscript. This can range from five pages to three chapters. If nothing happens in this short window, you’re fucked. Queries hammered the vital importance of getting to the motherfucking monkey like nothing else could. It’s why The Dollmaker opens with the ceremony bringing the Firstborn to life and why Undead On Arrival tells the reader up front that Glen Novak is a dead man.

While writing, try to keep your readers in mind. They have things to do. Lives of their own. And presumably, eat enough roughage that they’re not taking the kinds of three-hour poops that would support a meandering story. Show some respect and get to the fucking monkey.

For other rules of writing, try to learn from Glorfindel and never ever press the Big Red Button.

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About Justin

Author, mammal. www.captainsupermarket.com
This entry was posted in I'm Just Sayin, Level Up, Moment of Excellence, Puffery and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Rules of Writing: Get to the Fucking Monkey

  1. Same thoughts here. I felt that Larrson got away with a long prologue and action delay that most of us wouldn’t have been able to make stick. The books are really just a cool character study, but I did love them. The second book starts with some action, which, ironically, then has little influence on the rest of the story other than to reveal character (which, had already been revealed). I am a fan, however, but book 3 was bad. I’ve seen all 4 movies. 3 swedish, one US born.

    • Justin says:

      Truth be told, he should have just made Lisbeth Salander the protagonist. I found her character a little hackneyed and easy, but she was more interesting than the main guy whose name I’ve managed to forget.

  2. mfennvt says:

    That song is great. I had similar thoughts about Moby-Dick when I first read it. “There’s a whale in here, right?” I kept asking my husband. 300 pages later. “Oh, there it is.” (I love Melville, but…)

    I don’t think I even made it 100 pages into The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Such a tedious beginning. And then I decided I didn’t want to read another “woman in peril” story anyway.

  3. Clint says:

    Moby Dick has nothing on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I glazed over repeatedly when Verne would have his protagonist start listing the scientific names and habits of fish he was observing outside the Nautilus, not one of which actually mattered to the narrative.

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