On another writing site, in a previous lifetime, I was hired as a writing coach. My job was to help aspiring writers learn how to clean up their work a little so they might become better writers. Note I did not say my job was to teach writing because writing cannot be taught. You either have it or you do not have it. No one can change that but yourself, and you have a much better chance of killing it than drawing it out. I do not say this because I think writing is somehow more special and sacred than most people can bear, even though that is what I do think sometimes, but mostly I think writing is harder work than most people can accept.
My first lesson in why being a writing coach was not going to be nearly as fun or rewarding as I envisioned was a young man who sent me a werewolf story. Except there was no werewolf in the story, and even though I explained to him having a werewolf in a werewolf story was crucial to it being a werewolf story, he wouldn’t part with his original idea. The man had a knack for names, that was something he did very well. But some of the characters he developed played no part at all in the story and I thought even though it was nice to have a florist with a tic and a cat in his shop, if the story was a short story, well, it ought to be short. The florist stayed, the cat stayed, the tic stayed, and the story was another two thousand words richer for it. I went out and bought a six pack for later.
The apartment on the corner of First Street and Dunhill Avenue looked great from the alley but neither the alley nor the apartment had anything at all to do with the story. I was at a loss as to why the detective might stop and ponder the apartment from the alley, on his way to a gruesome killing. Red Herrings are great fun, but to spend a few hundred words to describe a location totally irrelevant to the story didn’t make sense to me. I talked him into deleting this scene, but he thought it screwed up the sense of timing. He wanted the detective to get to the scene of the crime at midnight. Have the detective leave with enough time to get there at midnight without having to ponder the apartment, said I. Oh, said he, okay.
I started drinking on the job.
The detective had a sidekick who was a very useful device to ask such questions as, “Oh come on, why would you even think it was a werewolf?” and by asking that question the reader could be given a list of reasons why the attack might have been a werewolf. That worked, and it worked very nicely, the sidekick was developed, and suddenly, aliens came down from the sky and stole him. Once the detective got to the scene of the crime, the sidekick had in his time for the week and went home to watch television.
Tequila. Shots of tequila.
Okay, you’ve developed three characters; the detective, his sidekick, and a man who might, or might not, be a werewolf, or may or may not have killed a werewolf. Then without warning, you drop one of the three out of the scene, and you cannot have the back and forth conversation that just fifty words ago was working beautifully. I liked the sidekick. He had a great name, and he was interesting. It gave some interaction between the detective and third parties, like the hooker that was brought in just as they were leaving, and I thought as cliché’ as it was, it was still nicely done. There was real chemistry between the two characters, and very quickly, they had developed their own personalities. Nicely done, said I, so bring him back. Nay, not so, said the young man, the detective must face the werewolf alone.
But there isn’t a werewolf. You see where there might be a problem creating suspense when there isn’t a threat? The suspect has killed a person he thought was a werewolf but obviously, once someone turned on the light switch ( another shot, screw the lime and salt) and suddenly, if you were going for humor, this would make a great punchline but you were going for horror or suspense, and right here it is ended. There is no werewolf. End of story.
At the risk of stealing another writer’s plot, and I did think there was a nice twist at the end, I won’t tell you how it ended. It did end with the revelation of the light bulb coming on, but not over someone’s head, but in a dark room. By that time I had to stop to sober up a bit. This was killing me.
Here’s what I suggested; two men interrogate a man who thinks he’s killed a werewolf. They go to the scene of the killing, but the dead person isn’t a werewolf, doesn’t even so much as look like one, but the man who killed this person was obviously defending himself in his own home, so case closed. A month later, once the full moon comes up again, the killings start anew, and the detective and his sidekick remember the man was slightly injured in the attack. And they discover that once a werewolf is killed, it reverts to human form again!
This is a classic werewolf story. That’s what makes it a werewolf story. If you want a werewolf story, this is the formula. How the first werewolf was killed was all cool and twisty and that could have been the young man’s claim to fame for being able to break out of the formula, and still have a werewolf.
After rewriting it three times, it was still twenty thousand words long, there was a florist, a tic, a cat, but no sidekick, and no werewolf in the story titled, “ The Werewolf Of Dunhill Avenue”
That’s why I quit being a writing coach, and starting going to happy hour instead.