It is week three of 2019. Have you returned to a comfortable writing routine? Or are you still on pause, waiting for a reason to begin? Perhaps your story just hasn’t found you yet. As Stephen King points out in On Writing, you can’t just go out and dig one up:
“There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
His advice for what to do while you are waiting for that story to come sailing up to you? Read. Read and read and read, especially in the genre in which you want to write: “The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order.”
This is sound advice, as is King’s advice for what to do when that idea does arrive: write with the door closed, he says, and then revise with the door open. This is another version of Anne Lamott’s wisdom about really shitty first drafts. Keep the door closed, keep the writing private, and find out what is going to happen to your characters before you start showing your work to others.
And how does King start the writing itself? “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.” It’s the characters who tell him where the plot of the piece will go, not the other way around. The situation may come sailing up to you, fully formed, but what comes next, during the narration, is slow and painstaking: “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. 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.”
After that excavation is complete, King puts the draft aside, still without showing it to anyone. (“Give yourself a chance to think,” he says, “while the story is still like a field of freshly fallen snow, absent of any tracks save your own.”) King advises letting it rest for at least six weeks, so that when you come back to the draft, it will be “like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps.” This gap will allow you to see holes in the plot or in the character development, and it will make it easier to kill off characters or plot points or excessive description. (The famous advice to “murder your darlings” is often attributed to King, but King himself cites Arthur Quiller-Couch, who was one of the first professors of English literature, at the turn of the twentieth century when the subject was just becoming a formal academic discipline.)
Only after King has uncovered the story does he begin looking for “underlying patterns” – the symbolism, the theme, the meaning he wants to make of the story – and bring them out in subsequent drafts. At this point, King advises, you can open the door and start showing the manuscript to people you trust, who can tell you when something has missed the mark.
Let’s go back to that toolbox King mentioned – the one writers have with them when they are excavating their story. King has an actual toolbox in mind to anchor this metaphor, a huge, heavy, custom-built toolbox that belonged to his grandfather, Fazza: “It had three levels, the top two removable, all three containing little drawers as cunning as Chinese boxes.” Your common tools should go on top, King tells us, and these include vocabulary and grammar. He gives us a few tips about how to use these tools: use active rather than passive verbs; allow yourself an occasional sentence fragment; restrict yourself to simple forms of dialogue attribution (“he said”); and “the adverb is not your friend.” (King is, I imagine, responsible for the slaughter of untold manuscript adverbs.)
And then, the metaphor dwindles away before we get to see past that first level with the common tools. We never get to peek inside the cunning drawers where King keeps his customized tools. I was disappointed at first when I realized this, and attributed it to what King tells us in the last part of the book – that this section was written while he was, with great difficulty and pain, finding his way back to writing after being struck by a van and almost losing his life.
But when I thought about it further, I realized that it wouldn’t help you or me for King to show us his tools in any greater detail. The ones that work best for him are those he has made his own – the ones that fit just right in the customized compartments hidden away in his toolbox. This is something I want you to remember throughout this year as I lay out a veritable hardware store of shiny new tools in front of you: the tool is not your own until you use it.
I want to leave you with one more long passage from On Writing:
For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room—no more child’s desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole in a rented house. In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study (it’s a converted stable loft at the rear of the house). For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.
A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity and put in a living-room suite where it had been . . . . In the early nineties, before they moved on to their own lives, my kids sometimes came up in the evening to watch a basketball game or a movie and eat pizza. They usually left a boxful of crusts behind when they moved on, but I didn’t care. They came, they seemed to enjoy being with me, and I know I enjoyed being with them. I got another desk—it’s handmade, beautiful, and half the size of the T. rex desk. I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave. . . . I’m sitting under it now, a fifty-three-year-old man with bad eyes, a gimp leg, and no hangover. I’m doing what I know how to do, and as well as I know how to do it. I came through all the stuff I told you about (and plenty more that I didn’t), and now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job. As promised, it won’t take long.
It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.
I think we all have our fantasy versions of that giant desk in the giant skylit space – that place where the words will just flow onto the page like magic. It’s a place that is just for us, our room of one’s own, and it has a door that’s shut. But closing the metaphorical door to your first draft shouldn’t extend to locking yourself away from the world. When you close yourself off from the life and world around you and seal yourself inside your own brain – which is one way to think about addiction – you also seal yourself off from seeing the human beings around you, and they are the ones who will show you what your characters will do and what your book is about and why you are writing it in the first place.
Here’s to sitting down at that desk in the corner, y’all,
PS: What’s your version of the desk in the corner? Tell me about in the comments or send me an email with a picture or a description – I’d love to see where you do your writing. I’m planning a blog post on the topic too, so if you reply please let me know if you’d like your photo, description, or name included in the piece.
Next week: Lisa Cron, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence