What would Stephen King do?

King-on-writingSilk’s Post #159 — If you want to learn to be a good writer, you could do worse than read Stephen King. The guy is a legend, but let’s check his credentials anyway:

  • Published 54 novels, 6 non-fiction books, nearly 200 short stories. Yes, he’s been busy.
  • Sold more than 350 million copies of his novels. That’s certainly impressive.
  • Won too many awards to list, including Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the National Book Foundation, National Medal of Arts … Oh, you get the idea.
  • Written 39 stories that have been turned into movies, including 5 Oscar nominees. Nice sideline, eh?
  • Is reported to be worth 400 million dollars. That should impress anyone who likes to measure success in dollars and cents.

If you’re a writer, though, one particular book nestled in this vast body of work was written just for you: Stephen King On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. As the huge horde of hungry, not-yet-published writers like me know very well, there’s no shortage of books on writing and publishing written “just for us.” Your shelves, like mine, may be groaning with them. In fact, there’s a whole industry built around selling advice and support to “emerging” writers.

A lot of the books on writing are useful (although prescriptions ought not necessarily be taken as directed), but you probably never heard of most of their authors before you aspired to become a published writer yourself. You can count on your fingers the books “for writers” penned by that super elite level of authors, the bestselling superstars.

Besides King, the ones that immediately come to mind are Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity), Elmore Leonard (10 Rules of Writing), Janet Evanovich (How I Write), Elizabeth George (Write Away), P. D. James (Talking About Detective Fiction), Walter Mosley (This Year You Write Your Novel), Annie Dillard (The Writing Life), and the prolific Margaret Atwood, who has written three books on writing, writers and the writing life (Negotiating with the Dead – a Writer on Writing; Moving Targets – Writing with Intent 1982-2004; and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination). A few of these books are in the “how to” or coaching category, while others lean toward memoir, but they’re all valuable and often quoted.

Yet the one that stands out most for me is Stephen King’s On Writing. I must admit that King had me at the epigraph, where he set the tone with a pair of quotes:

Honesty’s the best policy.
— Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.
— Anonymous

And the book only gets more circular and thought-provoking from there on, as it spirals deep into the organic heart of King’s writing life. It begins with 100 pages of memoir, called “C.V.” I call it confessions of a congenital writer. This section is larded with gut-wrenching real-life moments. Life is messy and mysterious, it tells us.

We then get to a tiny section titled “What Writing Is,” only to discover that it, too, is messy and mysterious. He opens this section with an answer to its title: “Telepathy, of course.”

Then King proceeds to demonstrate by drawing us into an imaginary scene where writer and reader experience a “meeting of the minds.” That’s the telepathy part, styled as a magic act. It’s a story about storytelling that reminded me of the famous scene in the 1976 movie The Last Tycoon, brilliantly acted by Robert De Niro, with the punchline “the nickel was for the movies.” (You can see it here on You Tube)

King then completely shifts gears, diving into a short how-to section called “Toolbox,” in which he reads us the usual creative writing teacher’s riot act in an entertaining story form. (King was, in fact, a high school English teacher at one time.) He begins with the holy trinity: vocabulary, grammar, style. These are not optional. He steers us to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as our bible. He warns that hell awaits writers who use adverbs.

Then, happily, class is dismissed and he launches into the section we were waiting for: “On Writing.” Surely this is where the magic is revealed, where King will give up his secrets and teach us how we, too, can become bestselling authors in X number of steps.

At this point, if you’re reading the book, I recommend you go back to the second of King’s three forewords, which begins, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” This is a good reality check.

I won’t elaborate on what’s in this section of the book. You should read it yourself. But I will tell you some things I learned from it. There’s nothing pedantic or even very structured in this book because King is, first and foremost, a storyteller, not a how-to list maker. What I took from On Writing are more like illuminations – ideas that lit up in some brain cell for me as a result of going along for the ride, of reading a non-fiction book written by a great fiction writer.

These are my own interpretations, not a literal list from Stephen King:

The joy of writing: Writing should be a joy. If you love it, you do it. You build your life around it, not the other way around. And that includes omnivorous reading.

The fear factor: Writing is emotionally and intellectually challenging as well as demanding of your time, and taking criticism can be bruising. So you need to have lots of that joy on tap, lose your fear of failure, and just keep writing.

Nature + nurture: Writing your head off is bound to make you a better writer, but you also have to have some native talent to become a really, really good one. Conversely, native talent will not make you a really, really good writer unless you write your head off.

Writing and storytelling: Good writing is a commandment, but storytelling is the holy grail. Writing = the craft; storytelling = the magic. You can learn a craft; magic rises intuitively from the inside out. Craft has rules; magic does not. Writing is a skill; storytelling is a talent.

Storytelling and plotting: These are not, not, NOT the same thing. A story is a tale with a life of its own. A plot is a plan, a map of how to sequence and structure the telling of the story.

OPs vs. NOPs: Forget the binary debate between outlining vs. organic styles of writing (outline people vs. non-outline people, or plotters vs. pantsers). There is no “right way.” Do what feels right. Your first draft will fall somewhere on the spectrum of imperfection no matter how you approach it. At best it will need cosmetic surgery, at worst it will be a Frankenstein that needs errant body parts re-attached in the right place. The story rules. Serve the story, not the process.

Characters drive story: Without characters, there is no story. Without characters who are real, dimensional and engaging – characters worth caring about – there are no readers.

Use your imagination: “Write what you know” isn’t a restriction, it’s an invitation. What you know – or can find out – are the answers to a constant stream of “what if?” questions you must pose. Those answers can come from your own experience, your probing imagination, or your research. Push your intuition and logic. Truth isn’t an average of likelihoods.

Use your senses: All of them. See, feel, hear, smell settings. Listen to dialogue. Pay attention to body language, micro-expressions, conflicts hidden under the surface. Taste foods, air, water, sweat from effort, sweat from fear. Do it every day, wherever you are. Recreate it in writing so that readers sense it too.

Making it matter: Some stories arise from a theme. Some themes emerge organically from a story. Either way works and can be enhanced in rewrite. Themes are a way to give a story more layers, deepen readers’ connection, make it matter to them, make it memorable. You can write a good novel with no theme, but why would you leave out this dimension?

Does all this seem familiar? Probably. Pick up any book on writing and you’ll find these topics covered somewhere, often prescriptively. Funny how you can “know” something – read about it, understand it intellectually – and yet not really experience that “aha!” moment at a deep, intuitive level until someone or something causes you to look at it through different eyes.

That’s what Stephen King’s On Writing did for me. I think it was because of his ability to create a story about story, to personalize it through the memoir material woven through the book. It was a hard book for him to write, every word “a kind of torture,” he admits. He began it in 1997, got half way through it, and put it in the drawer. Eighteen months later, in June of 1999, he “decided to spend the summer finishing the damn writing book.”

Two days later, he was fighting for his life after a horrendous accident in which he was hit by a van while walking down a country lane in Maine. It shattered his leg and hip, broke his ribs, chipped his spine. His story of this personal trauma in a section titled “On Living: A Postscript,” is a dramatic denouement to On Writing. The shock of it lit up the entire text of the book for me, like a bolt of fork lightning.

Five weeks after his accident, King picked up his half-finished manuscript of “the damn writing book” and began to write again:

That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes, by far the longest period I’d spent sitting upright since being struck by Smith’s van. When it was over, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up straight in my wheelchair. The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic. And the first 500 words were uniquely terrifying – it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me. I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones. There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.

And, of course, things did get better. Exponentially better.

If the story of this book does not touch you as a writer, it’s time to take up something else. It certainly touched me. While I’ve always acknowledged his great talent and loved a number of his novels – which are mostly outside my genre comfort zone – I’ve never aspired to write like Stephen King. I still don’t.

But what On Writing has inspired me to do is to be more like him. Hence, my new compass point: What would Stephen King do? I’m pretty sure I know what the answer will be nine times out of ten: just keep writing. 


This is the first in an occasional series I’m planning to do on the 5Writers blog of reviews/discussions of books on writing. Stephen King seemed a good place to start. After all he is, well, the King.

Keep your promise to your readers

Helga’s Post # 106: During our recent downsizing from house to condo I was forced to part with a multitude of boxes containing heaps of notes and articles about writing. I lovingly and dutifully collected this treasure trove over years at writing workshops and conferences. I had even hoarded term papers from writing classes of my university years.

A painful process, judging what to keep and what to shred. Most of it went to the shredder. I did not want some dumpster diver getting his hands on my early manuscripts, basic though as they were.

I still recall some of my creative writing classes at Simon Fraser University, and the first year I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Like a dry sponge I absorbed every word of dispensed advice! I made copious notes of everything my professors and workshop leaders offered. More importantly, I believed every word from my classes and conference workshops. Passionately.

Then came the second year of the Surrey International Writers’ conference, and the third, and more after that. They turned out to be still interesting, but much of the information was by now repetitive, and quite a lot of it contradictory. The most obvious that most of us are familiar with: Always outline. You can’t ever finish a novel without. Never outline. It will stifle your writing. Each camp has its devoted disciples.

Gradually, I sifted through all the learning from my early writing years and applied what sounded most practical for my style. Not only ‘applied’, but relied on it. But here’s the rub: I got increasingly stuck trying to squeeze the multitude of ‘rules’ into my writing. I tried to use them all. I spent more time trying to write to the ‘rules’ than letting my story flow. After a while I felt like getting buried in an avalanche.

Until I realized that it wouldn’t work for me. Time to change tactics. To find a better way.

I am not suggesting that new writers should disregard writing rules. Every writer needs some rules. But the key is to be selective. Just as some writers absolutely have to outline, it would stifle the writing process for others. We need to apply the rules that suit our individual style and preference. Cherry-picking, rather than one-size-fits-all.

Nonetheless, some cardinal rules apply that have stood the test of all writing styles. Take those related to starting your story. Mountains of books have been written about the pivotal ‘First Chapter’. If it doesn’t start right, nobody will read your novel. Those rules are ironclad. Ignore them at your peril.

Some of the cardinal rules that have been most useful for me are also the most basic. They continue to serve me well. Here they are, in a nutshell:

Start your story with an action scene. That applies to all genres from romance novels to thrillers. Start with the ‘real’ tension and conflict. Don’t start with the main characters reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing something.

First chapters are a bit like speed dating. A reader knows within a few minutes if they will be interested enough in your story to continue. They might hold a really good book in their hands, but your story has to grab them or they’ll drop it and never buy another book you wrote.

Avoid backstory on your first pages at the fear of torture. Don’t spoon feed your reader with detailed explanation. Let them guess – less is more. Use dialogue instead of narrative. And by all means, use conflict. Ideally the main conflict of your story should be clear at the end of the chapter.

In my early attempts at writing I made the mistake of introducing my protagonist in a way to ‘force’ my readers to like him/her. I did this either by ‘telling’ a heroic quality early on, or by giving her/him some kind of flaw, counting on the reader’s empathy. Reading through my first manuscripts I notice how hard I tried to have my readers ‘like’ my main character in the first few pages with all kinds of backstory, when instead, I should have focused on an action scene to keep my readers turning those crucial first pages.

Consider this: Your first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they can expect to get. Without going into details, or worse, backstory, the reader should know the main conflict of the book and have some sense of the main character’s personality.

headhunters

Headhunters: How did we get from this…

Keeping the promise to your reader is of utmost importance. We can all think of a book or movie that broke that promise, and we feel cheated at having wasted our time. For example, I watched ‘Headhunters’ on Netflix the other day, a movie based on Jo Nesbo’s book by the same name.

I was intrigued the way it started: Stylish Scandinavian setting and actors, beautiful house and art exhibits, great theme (high-end art thefts to support a lavish lifestyle), all the right things. Our protagonist gets in trouble, finds his wife cheating him, etc. But then the theme gets derailed and confused.

.... to this ?

…. to this ?

Suddenly I find myself watching a horror movie, with some disgusting scenes including when he has to hide inside the dump hole of an outhouse. All the way, deep down, and then we are forced to watch him emerge in glorious detail. And on it goes for most of the film. So where’s the theme? Suddenly the lavish lifestyle is gone, and all we get is blood and disgusting other stuff. To me, this is a good example of a broken promise. If the film had started differently, fine, I knew what to expect. But that way I felt kind of cheated. As an aside, book reviews praise this standalone work by Nesbo. I assume the filmmakers used his theme as a platform for the gory version.

After all the lectures and conferences I’ve attended over the years, the first and most useful rule then, is this: If you’re writing a murder mystery, don’t start your first chapter like chick-lit. Or vice versa. Set the tone and stick to it.

Once you got your first chapter down and you haven’t lost your reader, things will get easier. And more fun.

(Until you get to the sagging middle)

Making writing fun

Joe’s Post #130

writers tearsOr rather, making it fun, again.

When did I lose the fun of writing?

Being me, I want to quantify, analyze, decipher why. I want to get to a solution and a haul my sorry butt back into that magical place where I loved sitting in a chair and making sh*t up.

So I go back in time (in my head, not a hot tub). Back, long ago, when the earth was not yet formed and there were no cell phones, when the Canucks had those horrible yellow uniforms and when I would sit down and actually write for fun.

You know, to tell a story.

I had no delusions of being published. I didn’t have a critique group. I didn’t even have a fancy-schmancy laptop. I just had a story in my mind that I needed to write about. Needed to tell.

Looking back, I see myself sitting at my desk, listening to Every Rose Has A Thorn (or secretly bobbing around to Straight Up), and I realize I had one thing that I don’t have now. I had faith in myself.

I think that’s where it’s all gone wrong. I’ve not only lost the fun, but faith.

Perhaps it’s not surprising. I can see how I got there. The first rejections led to me wanting to know more about writing, to do better. That led to books and conferences and workshops and exercises and rewrites and critique groups and…

elements of fictionI worked on plot, pacing, voice, character, theme, structure, description, and setting. I learned how to writer better dialogue, to hook readers in and out of a chapter, to create tension and suspense. I tried my hardest to be the best writer I could possibly be.

And yet, I still failed to get published.

It’s bummed me out, man, and I lost faith.

Oh, hey, don’t get me wrong. All those things taught me to be a better writer. But the simple truth is, that’s not enough. Certainly not enough now.

One key ingredient was missing. A good story. Something that would grab other people’s imaginations. Something that they’d want to read about.

I remember pitching a book I loved, the book I wrote for the 5/5/5 challenge. No one was interested. Not even a little. No one cared if I could write a great paragraph or had all sorts of tension. The decision was made quickly based on how well I sold the story idea.

But that didn’t stop me. I went back to the drawing board and tried to learn how to write EVEN BETTER, to write a story everyone would love to read and one that would have all sorts of plot and themie-things and epic dialogue and steamy sex and wonderful descriptions and all of that.

And therein lies the problem. You can probably see it.

I got too much into my head. Too many voices. I was trying to do too many things. Trying to satisfy other people.

Back in the day, long ago, I wasn’t in my head thinking, gosh, I need to make sure my character arc is complimented by the theme. Or that I need to make sure I have a whammo opening line.

I just wrote.

For fun.

For myself and a few friends.

IMG_2145It’s why I love to blog so much. I just write. I make mistakes in grammar or spelling and I’m not even convinced anyone but my friends are reading the blog, but I do it because I love it. I love exploring my life in the justjoe blog. (Oh and please, please, please check it out!!!) I love writing about writing in the 5/5/5 blog.

So I haven’t really lost the love of writing, have I? What I’ve lost is the love of novel writing.

I’m still not sure how to get back there, but I do know one thing.

Writing, for me, is only fun when I’m not over-thinking it, when I have faith in myself.

Now, how do I get back to that place?

**********

saulBest show last week – OMG, so many great shows on this week. But the winner had to be Better Call Saul. It’s from the writers of Breaking Bad and it does not fail to impress. It’s horrific, funny, intelligent, and engaging. I wish I could write this well.

Book that I’m reading at the moment – Just about to start a book. For fun. Not to learn from or study or pick out details. Brent Weeks. The Way of Shadows.

Pages written on new book  50? (I know I need to start adding these pages up. They’re all in chapter folders, but it’s progress, right?)

Social media update – I did not feed the beast at all this week. It is angry and feeling forgotten. I suspect it’ll try to get back at me somehow.

Health  Crappy. Ok, who has a cold for 3 weeks straight? Anyone? Anyone?

Best thing last week  Bought new hockey gear for the youngest boy in my new family. Being me, I blogged about it.

Worst thing  Can’t seem to write a good query letter for my last novel. (Can you say, ‘stuck in your head, again?’)

Until next week, please check out these websites…

Elizabeth Lyon – some great books on writing

Alison and Don’s Amazing Travels – Oh what an incredible nomadic life they lead.

bev's booksBev Cooke – A link to her books!

 

 

 

 

 

Does theme matter?

Karalee’s Post #78

How gossiping makes you a good friend.  #deviousmaids

When I first started reading books on the craft of writing, theme seemed to be a distant concept to consider once the first draft was written and you could contemplate what your story really is trying to convey underneath all the plot and characterization.

For years I’ve put theme on a shelf like a pretty ornament to be looked at and dusted off once in awhile.

But, as I continue to struggle pulling my stories together I’m finding that for me, theme has become a concept that needs to be addressed up front. What is my story really about?

Oh, I’ve done my outlining and character development, leaving plenty of room to allow a new character to pop up from under the covers or the exploration of a different subplot that pulls my characters in interesting directions. But no matter how much I think I’m writing ‘my story‘ somehow I don’t seem to tell the story in the way my mind feels it.

What I’ve concluded is that I need to know the theme of my novel before I start writing. What is my story really about? What pulls everything together and makes all the characters act the way they do so that together the story not only makes sense, but feels the way it should?

I need to go and explore themes.

I find it very interesting that a blog I’m following is doing just that. You may want to check it out too:

livewritethrive.com

Happy writing!