I finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing a few weeks ago and have been meaning to write more about the things he says that terrify me.
Last time I talked mainly about the impossible goals he sets for writers and how badly they stressed me out. But almost as soon as I posted, I realized that there were other things that stress me out even more than being required to write for 4-5 hours a day.
Here’s a biggie:
Stephen King does not believe in outlines. And he doesn’t much like plot.
He has this wonderful, mystical belief that stories are like fossils that already exist somewhere, buried deep in the earth, in a lost canyon or maybe in your backyard, and it is the writer’s job to unearth it.
“The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible,” he says. “No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anti-creative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.”
I plotted out my first book, Room for Love, meticulously. I spent months hammering out the plot before I started writing the actual book. I also plotted out every screenplay I’ve written. Plot is the hardest part for me, much harder than character or dialogue, which come relatively easily, so I figured it was best to work out the plot beforehand, create an outline that I could use as a map, and the story would flow. And it did: The story flowed.
“I’m a plotter,” I told myself and the audiences at my book readings. “I’m an outliner.” And I’ve always been perfectly comfortable with that. Until now.
“The good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice”? How can any self-respecting writer be comfortable with that?
He goes on:
“I lean more heavily on intuition, and I have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story… I want to put a group of characters in some sort of predicament and watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are the jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down…
A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What if question:
What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot)
What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)…
These were all situations which occurred to me, while showering, while driving, while taking my daily walk and which I eventually turned into books. In no case were they plotted, not even to the extent of a single note jotted on a single piece of scrap paper.”
Nice, right? Listening to Stephen King wax poetic about his process makes me want to write like he does: intuitively, spontaneously, without overthinking, from the heart, as they say.
As if all that weren’t enough, King also stresses how important it is to write a first draft in total isolation without showing a word to a soul. Once the draft is finished, you’re allowed to show it to one trusted reader, preferably a spouse (if there’s one chomping at the bit), most certainly not a writing workshop, the whole species of which he has not-so-nice things to say about. (I’ve been sharing my work with a writing workshop every 2-3 weeks for the last 2-3 years.)
While hubby is reading (and keeping his opinions to himself), you (the writer) are supposed to stick that precious first draft into a drawer and keep it there for at least six weeks while you work on something else instead.
“Resist temptation,” he says, lest you get drawn into rewrites (and the self-loathing and/or self-congratulations that come with them) before you are ready.
“When you come to the correct evening (which you well may have marked on your office calendar), take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready. Sit down with your door shut… a pencil in your hand, and a legal pad by your side. Then read your manuscript over…
If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.”
There is much in Stephen King’s book that inspires me. Truly, the book fired me up. And yet there is also much that made me feel bad about my process. That would not be the case if my process were working. Criticism only gnaws at you if there is truth to it and for me, there is truth to what King says.
I avoid writing by instead planning to write, i.e. writing notes, outlines, etc.
I get derailed by my writing group’s notes.
I reread and rewrite, rather than giving myself the time and space necessary to gain objectivity about what I have written.
It’s time to sit my ass in my chair and write for 3-4 hours a day. Or at least 2.
Consider my wrists slapped.
After completing On Writing, I took a deep breath and made some decisions. I polished the outline for my current book, but left the plot in broad strokes. I needed a time line for this particular book, because there are some tricky chronology issues that need to make sense, but I left large plot questions unanswered. I also told my writing group I wouldn’t submit any more chapters until this draft is complete.
I feel good. I feel ready.
And I end with a quote that simply inspires me (as opposed to scaring the shit out of me):
“I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.”