Page One: 'On Writing'

Page One: ‘On Writing’, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

Steven King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is the writing book I return to the most often. (In fact, looking at my shelf of books on writing, On Writing is the writing book I pretty much return to at all, anymore.

It’s not a long book, by any means, but King puts so much into it…half the book is biography, in which King is not afraid to make himself look like an ass when merited (his frank discussion of his various addictions, for example), and only half the book is given to discussing actual writing. The book is half-memoir, half-craft, but the ‘craft’ stuff is so neatly folded into the ‘memoir’ that you can’t really have one without the other. And that is certainly King’s point. Stephen King is one of those people for whom to talk about their life without talking about their vocation would basically reduce to a list of times they went to McDonald’s for breakfast or popped into Target because they needed socks.

One of my favorite parts of the book deals with plot and plotting, an area where my own notions tend to line up with King’s.

The situation comes first. The characters — always flat and unfeatured, to begin with — come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

In the early 1980s, my wife and I went to London on a combined business/pleasure trip. I fell asleep on the plane and had a dream about a popular writer (it may or may not have been me, but it sure to God wasn’t James Caan) who fell into the clutches of a psychotic fan living on a farm somewhere in the back of the beyond. The fan was a woman isolated by her growing paranoia. She kept some livestock in the barn, including her pet pig, Misery. The pig was named after the continuing main character in the writer’s best-selling bodice rippers. My clearest memory of this dream upon waking was something the woman said to the writer, who had a broken leg and was being kept prisoner in the back bedroom. I wrote it on an American Airlines cocktail napkin so I wouldn’t forget it, then put it in my pocket. I lost it somewhere, but can remember most of what I wrote down:

She speaks earnestly but never makes eye contact. A big woman and solid all through; she is an absence of hiatus. (Whatever that means; remember, I’d just woken up.) “I wasn’t trying to be funny in a mean way when I named my pig Misery, no sir. Please don’t think that. No, I named her in the spirit of fan love, which is the purest love there is. You should be flattered.”

Tabby and I stayed at Brown’s Hotel in London, and on our first night there I was unable to sleep. Some of it was what sounded like a trio of little-girl gymnasts in the room directly above ours, some of it was undoubtedly jet lag, but a lot of it was that airline cocktail napkin. Jotted on it was the seed of what I thought could be a really excellent story, one that might turn out funny and satiric as well as scary. I thought it was just too rich not to write.

I got up, went downstairs, and asked the concierge if there was a quiet place where I could work longhand for a bit. He led me to a gorgeous desk on the second-floor stair landing. It had been Rudyard Kipling’s desk, he told me with perhaps justifiable pride. I was a little intimidated by this intelligence, but the spot was quiet and the desk seemed hospitable enough; it featured about an acre of cherrywood working surface, for one thing. Stoked on cup after cup of tea (I drank it by the gallon when I wrote…unless I was drinking beer, that is), I filled sixteen pages of a steno notebook. I like to work longhand, actually; the only problem is that, once I get jazzed, I can’t keep up with the lines forming in my head and I get frazzled.

When I called it quits, I stopped in the lobby to thank the concierge again for letting me use Mr. Kipling’s beautiful desk. “I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” he replied. He was wearing a misty, reminiscent little smile, as if he had known the writer himself. “Kipling died there, actually. Of a stroke. While he was writing.”

I went back upstairs to catch a few hours’ sleep, thinking of how often we are given information we really could have done without.

King goes on to describe the writing of Misery, which in King’s original concept would have ended very differently from the way it eventually came out: Annie would force Paul Sheldon to write the final book in the ‘Misery’ series, just for her, and then…she would kill him and use his own skin as the binding for the only existing copy of the final ‘Misery’ book.

But what happened as King was writing is that the two characters, Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes, took on new life in his mind, and the story took a new life as well for all that, eventually coming out in a very different place indeed. This wouldn’t have happened had King created a plot outline and forced the characters to act within its confines.

I tend to approach things the same way. I rarely ‘outline’ my stories, although I have done some outlining for Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title). Not a lot of outlining, to be sure, but just a few notes here and there to help me kinda-sorta keep my way. But even as I’ve been writing, I find the characters saying and doing surprising things, and I find myself learning things about my own universe that I had never planned until the moment that I wrote them — including one idea that just popped unbidden into my head at once, but which I now see could very well drive the stories of a number of future volumes in this series.

Conversely, some time ago I was grinding along for several chapters, the book feeling increasingly lifeless, until about halfway through Chapter 13 I finally could no longer ignore the chorus of my characters screaming at me, “This isn’t what we should be doing! Go back, and we’ll show you what actually happened!” So I scrapped three whole chapters and went back to Chapter 10 — retracing to that missed left turn at Albuquerque, as it were. Now I’m on Chapter 18, and so far, no signs of having taken a wrong turn.

So, it’s always cool to reflect that I’m approaching things in a similar manner to Stephen King…even if I don’t have any of his success. At least the process feels right to me.

(And, like King, I hate adverbs and do whatever I can to not use them!)

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One Response to Page One: 'On Writing'

  1. mad photog says:

    This can be used in many fields. I first heard about it in a photography magazine. As I remember, it said "just substitute 'photographer' each time King says 'writer', and it'll work." And it does.

    Main points:
    1) Learn your craft.
    2) I mean it. Really learn your craft.
    3) Read a lot. (For photographers, look at a lot of pictures.)
    4) Write (or take pictures) a lot. Every day, if possible.
    5) Keep it up. Persevere. You won't be an overnight success.

    Every once in a while, I reread "On Writing" and get freshly inspired.


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