Week 14

I’m reading Stephen King's On Writing, which I'd been told was a good take on writing as a craft by a seasoned practitioner. I've never read any of King's novels (though I've seen a few of the films), and took a snobbish view that a purveyor of horror fiction wouldn't have much to offer me in the way of advice. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery

The book, however, has given me a new admiration for him and his funny, straightforward style, and makes me want to seek a few of his books out, especially Carrie and Misery, the germ and cultivation of which he describes really well.

His approach is direct and no-nonsense. There are great, thought-provoking rules - only ever use "said" in dialogue attribution, never use adverbs - and an unswerving dedication to character and story.

He's also one of the "don't plan, just write" school of thought, which usually makes my heart sink, but he described it in a way that was a little less obscure.

Rather than start cold, he focuses on a situation first (something I've heard Graham Linehan say as well), then works out a backstory, and starts writing. A situation could be a scene, or conflict, or just plain weird circumstances, something that starts with the phrase "what if".

He admits to having an idea of where he's going, but nothing's set in stone. "Please remember," he says at one point, "that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honourable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest."

I like that phrase 'shifty'. Plot shifts while character develops; it should always come second. I also like this distinction between story and plot, as it makes me a bit more comfortable when I struggle with an issue that's likely to come far later in my story. I have an idea of the points I’d like to hit, as my friend Tom put it in a comment last week, but not an unwavering list of scenes.

King is surprisingly spiritual when it comes to the notion of inspiration too, talking of muses ("the boys in the basement") and an external force that pushes his pen along. I suppose it's shouldn't be surprising that a writer so concerned with the supernatural and inexplicable side of life should think like this. "...If you do your job," he insists, "your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own". Spooky.

I've read it before, and even studied it as a theory, this idea that fiction isn't directed by one single imagination, doesn't have one single meaning.

I'd heard writers talking about their characters as independent from them, as if they didn't invent everything they did, type every sentence and piece of dialogue. They're suggesting their characters live somewhere beyond the story, that it's the characters who control the story, not them. I always thought they were being cute, or pretending to be modest.

Without getting too carried away, it's only by writing long-form over the course of a few months that I've come to understand what writers mean when they say stuff like that. Things come out as you write and you have no idea where they come from. Sometimes they're perfect, like you must have been thinking about them all the time. Sometimes they're a bit far out, and only make sense later. Sometimes they're no good, but give you another idea.

This is fun.

Word count this week: 2,070 Running total: 25,916 First draft: 12,158