About a week ago, I told you guys how a friend of mine suggested that I flip through Stephen King’s On Writing to refresh my memory that it’s wise to take time off in between drafts of a project. Last night, I decided to reread the craft section of his memoir – really reread it – to see if there was some little bit of advice I might have overlooked or forgotten.
Or maybe I just wanted to compare notes to see if his methods might have rubbed off on me. It’s certainly been a while since I’ve read On Writing cover to cover, long enough to let it sink in. For those of you who haven’t read it, this will be the super-condensed version (that doesn’t excuse you from not reading it).
Here’s what I’ve got…
Read Heavily: King’s been emphasizing this in nearly every interview I’ve read or seen him do. Reading exposes you to different styles as well as see what works and what doesn’t in any given genre. Now, I’m a child of television, so reading is something that I didn’t do for fun growing up. As such, I want to commit myself to at least thirty to sixty minutes of reading a day. King says he goes for four to six hours, but like a fitness routine, it’s best to start slow and ease into it.
Write Heavily: As much as he recommends heavy reading, King also demands a lot of writing, which is a no-brainer; you can’t expect to be a writer if you don’t do the physical act of it. But more to the point, the question he’s been asked is what’s considered writing a lot, and this goes on a person-by-person basis. You have to trust your gut on what’s the right pace. For King, that’s a couple of thousand words a day. After participating in NaNoWriMo last November, I’m happy with around 1,500 words. It’s not as much as King, but it’s enough to assure myself that I’m making progress.
Workspace: Again, this varies according to the writer. Some of them have pretty odd preferences. Ben Franklin wrote in the bathtub. King noted that Truman Capote wrote in motel rooms, and King himself prefers to shut the door and block out as many distractions as he can to ensure that that work is the only thing capable to grabbing his attention. For me, the workspace is my bedroom. This is a habit from my pre-laptop days. With a desktop computer at home or in my dorm at college, I basically had an office and couldn’t take my work with me. Even now that I’ve got the option to go to a library or at least another room of the house, the bedroom is still where I’m most comfortable. Plus, it’s got a CD player, and while I’ve got music on iTunes, the sound comes out much richer on the CD player. And yes, it’s still the same ten bands: AC/DC, Aerosmith, Alice in Chains, Eagles of Death Metal, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Motley Crue, Nirvana, The Offspring, and The White Stripes. I can listen to perhaps a few others, but these ten bring out the best in me. It’s just how my mind works, and I think the habit of choosing loud music might have come from King to begin with.
What to Write About: When it comes to deciding what you should write about, I think King would prefer to replace “write what you know” with “write what you love”. Personally, I love my science fiction, especially alien stories. Call me a geek, but that’s never left me since boyhood any more than old horror comics grew stale for King. And by and large, I love my aliens served up Giger-style. To me, the universe is filled with one intergalactic bastard after another from the Martians of The War of the Worlds to the Bugs of Starship Troopers. And while I enjoy other kinds of fiction from horror to mainstream, my heart inevitable comes back to the old invasion story much like salmon returning to their spawning ground.
Story vs. Plot: This is where I think I’ve had some problems before. I think a lot of writers do, thinking that story and plot are the same thing. King’s rule of thumb is that story is intuitive and unplanned (much like life itself), while plot is a writer trying to force his will on the project. He said that the only novel he plotted that he liked was The Dead Zone, and furthermore, plotting should be the weapon of last resort. Instead, King’s equation is “situation plus characters equal story”. I find this very encouraging because as I wrote the first draft of Ain’t No Grave, I trusted my gut more than I did with any project before.
Description: How King deals with description is pretty straightforward. The more important a character, place, or object, the more words you invest in describing it. You’ve got to use all of your senses, too, not just what you see. You’ve got five senses, sight being just one of them. There’s still sound, smell, taste, and touch where they apply. Don’t go overboard either. Two or three descriptors is a good average, and perhaps four or five for the more important ones.
Dialog: With dialog, King’s a follower of the belief that you have to be a good listener, and that belief is a good one. I listen to people all the time, more to pick up their verbal rhythm and pace than for the substance of their conversations. While in grad school, I wrote a short story that started with Craig Ferguson interviewing a guy who saved the world. I’ve never met Ferguson, but I watched quite a bit of The Late Late Show and that paid off; one of my fellow students in workshop said she could imagine him saying what I wrote.
Characters: The main thing to bear in mind when writing characters is that everyone is the star of their own story, doing what they believe is right. It’s a constant, protagonist or not. You have a story about a genius college student dealing with family over Thanksgiving break. The guy brings his girlfriend home to meet the family. The bachelorette sister acts like a bitch, but from her viewpoint, she’s protecting herself by being cynical towards something she doesn’t have.
Revisions: Here, King and I agree on some parts and disagree on others. King does two drafts and a final polish. I work a little differently. I feel comfortable aiming at a hundred thousand words per draft, which is about two months of work, with a month-long break in between. Going with a yearlong schedule, that’s four drafts and a fifth if I need to do any polishing at the end. This is for novels, and I’m not even sure how successful it’ll be; I just started doing it with this novel I’m working on now. Shorter fiction, obviously, goes by at a fraction of the time. My new short story Grind took just a couple of weeks to write. I got through a draft in a day and took a day off in between; a week was the longest amount of time I took off.
Research: The bane of my existence. Research is always necessary, but the trick is to know when to stop. When I took my first real crack at an alien invasion story, I built up my own library of materials, tons of books and documentaries on biology and space technology all for the purpose of trying to imagine a realistic alien race. It’s understandable. If I were rewriting the John Carter stories, I’d first want to learn everything I could about Mars. Nothing wrong with that, but what King would suggest keeping a voice in the back of your head reminding you that you’re writing an entertaining story and not doing a massive research project.