Stephen King

If you don't have time to read ...

... you don't have the time (or tools) to write. So sayeth Stephen King in his most excellent memoir and writing guide, On Writing (Pocket Books 1999)  

I began the summer with such grand writing goals and by the middle of August, I was nearly there: I'd written one of two short stories; completed two flash fiction pieces; created a database of literary agents to query and finished my query letter (or at least revised it 684 times); drafted one-, two-, and four-page novel synopses; I blogged and book reviewed. In between were two revisions of my first novel, Refuge of Doves—undertaken after receiving story and copy edits from my editor. I was determined to dance through my writing project list and take a bow on August 31.

 

Draft 2: Novel 2, begins September 1.

 

The second short story wasn’t going to happen. Writing the first story, and then trimming it from a bloated 8,500 words to a civilized 6,000-something, took weeks. That one story and the two flash were about all I had in me. I accepted I couldn't start fresh on another story in the final two weeks of August—a period that included a lovely visit with out-of-state guests, when I stepped away from writing for more than one day in well over a year—and have something worth sending out for submission by the end of summer.

 

Saturday afternoon, after our guests had gone, and I’d emptied the dishwasher and brought up the last load of laundry, I poured myself a glass of Saumur rouge and opened Francesca Marciano’s short story collection, The Other Language (click for my review).

 

The next morning I sat down to write. By Tuesday evening, I’d completed the first draft of a 5,100 word short story. Several revisions later, it lives and breathes at 4,800 words. I’ll give it, and myself, a bit of a rest before a final edit and proofread, but it’s solid. Complete.

~

 

A few weeks ago, I landed in the middle of a discussion with a few writers about routines and patterns, the things we must or cannot do at certain stages of our writing process. I was baffled by the number of writers who stated they read nothing, other than what they might be using for research, while writing new material. Several fiction writers commented they could read no fiction because they feared losing their own writing voice, imitating another writer, or being otherwise influenced by his style. Another commented how she feared comparing her work to other, published authors and losing heart. Still others cited lack of time, energy, interest.

 

I thought my head might explode.

 

If I stop reading, it means I've stopped breathing. Reading brought me to writing; from the first eager devouring of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy at the age of six, I ached to wrap my hands around a pen, smooth open a spiral-bound notebook, and scribble. Something. Anything. The words. All the astonishing words.

 

It had never occurred to me that a writer could be anything other than a helplessly voracious reader. I can’t fathom silencing other writers, or emptying my ears and eyes and brain of beautiful language, of precise structure, of rhythmic flow.

 

But hey. We each have our own processes and systems and conditions by which we work the best. Some need near-silence to hear their own voice. I have never—tap wood—lost my voice in the presence of great writing. Instead, I overflow with inspiration and feel a sense of release and possibility.

 

My ear for music and language turns me on to a writer’s cadence and I find myself playing along in my own sentences, discovering new ways to structure my thoughts. It’s an invisible collaboration with another writer, a jazz riff played in admiration and homage in a quiet room, or in my case, in the front seat of the car, where I get most of my writing done. No wi-fi, you see. There are other voices I need to silence, to hear my own. But as for reading, it’s what sustains me as a writer. As a human being.

 

Grazie cara, Francesca Marciano. Your gorgeous stories, your strong and confident voice, restored me. You made me crave to write. The words gushed out. I had one more story in me this summer, after all.

 

Shedding Light

Flowing with the Go: My Writing Process Blog Tour

Understanding must move with the flow of the process.” ― Frank HerbertDune For the past several weeks, a lovely meme has been spreading around the blogosphere, nurtured by a generous community of writers. It's a forum to share what we're working on and how we do it. If you follow the meme backwards, set aside a few hours. You'll wander through a world of writers and emerge dazzled and inspired.

The meme goes a little something like this: accept an invitation to the blog party, show up in your party dress, thank your host, answer a few questions, and extend the invitation to three more writer-bloggers.

Since this is the season of activityeither harvest for my friends below the equator or planting for those aboveI'll simply tag a few authors whom I'd be delighted to see in their Friday night best. Folks, if you have the time and the energy to carry on with the blog tour, let it roll when you can!

Virtual hugs to Edith O Nuallain, an Irish writer and poet blogging at In a Room of My Own, and Bianca Bowers, a South African writer and poet, living in Australia. Read her at B.G. Bowers Thank you both for inviting me to participate in the #MyWritingProcess tour, and for sharing your words and writers' journeys with me.

The Main Event

1) What am I working on?

Rewrites of my first manuscript, Refuge of Doves. My goal is to finish the rewrites by the end of May, send it off to a developmental/story editor, and perhaps have a manuscript ready for the agent/publisher search by early fall. I received some very wise counsel in recent days about the relative value of critique groups and beta readers, with whom I've had decidedly mixed experiences. It's time to turn my words over to a professional. That's the other thing I'm working on: deciding whom to use. If you love your story editor, do let me know.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Perhaps the biggest difference is that I'm working outside of genre. Taking a page from Deborah Harkness, I choose not to pigeon-hole my fiction. It's literary in style, but commercial in content. How's that? There are elements of mystical realism woven through contemporary lives, but at the heart is an exploration of women's emotional journeys. In Refuge of Doves, a young widow works through her grief; in Crows of Beara, addiction and recovery are themes. My short stories have addressed miscarriage, war, and isolation. Dark stuff, to be sure, but I write in light, not shadow.

A sense of place is one of the strongest elements of my narratives. My settings become characters in their own right.

Ebb and Flow ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

3) Why do I write what I do?

Ah jeez. This is a tough one. Following the advice of Stephen King, I write what I want to read. I try not to overthink inspiration, I just try to stay out of my own way. As my confidence grows, it becomes easier to release the story to my characters and allow them steer the narrative.

4) How does my writing process work?

As the writer evolves, so does her process. I wrote here Fast and Furious: First Drafts how my approach has changed from Refuge of Doves to Crows of Beara. 

Since I began writing fiction in 2011, I've been a serious student of the craft. Part of my process is to read about and absorb as much as I can from other writers, and to experiment with different ways of approaching the craft of writing, while still respecting (and discovering) my artist's voice.

I write every day. What I'm working on determines how much. With first drafts, I let it pour forth, no revising or editing.

Now that I'm in rewrite mode, I have no word count goal, but I do have a time frame. Some scenes and chapters are trickier than others, so I just keep working and pushing ahead.

My Work-in-Progress and I are together five to six days a week, several hours a day. I set aside one day for other writing businessresearch for the book, researching agents, editors, publishers, working on my business plan. I work on blog posts or book reviews at any time. I don't plan rest days, but if I need one, I take it.

I regard my writing as a small business and I'm the sole owner and employee. It's a more-than-full-time job and if I'm to reach my ultimate goal—to earn a living through writing—I feel obligated to pour every spare moment and a not-insubstantial amount of cash outsourcing those things I cannot do on my own (e.g., editing, book design, e-pub formatting and distribution) to make it happen. And if it doesn't happen, at least I'll know I gave it every chance.

And now for the writer-bloggers whom I invite to pick up the meme and run with it:

“You came here because we do this better than you and part of that is letting our creatives be unproductive until they are.” 
― Don Draper

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

11/22/6311/22/63 by Stephen King My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's such a funny thing when you tell someone you are reading Stephen King. Eyebrows arch and the voice pitch is tight and high when they respond "Oh, really?" You know what they are thinking.

One of the last King novels I read was "It". Winter break, freshman year of college, 1987. I had the flu and this terrifying and intoxicating story filled my feverish nights with horrific dreams. I had already worked my way through the King oeuvre during junior high and high school and after "It", I lost my taste for blood-spattered spills and thrills. In fact, King's are the only I've read of the horror genre. It's never been my thing.

But Stephen King deserves a category all his own. He always has. He is a freakishly brilliant writer. That he has made a name (and fortune) terrifying generations of readers will probably always keep him apart from the scions of literary fiction, but no one, no one can can deliver the goods - the story, the characters, the pacing, the originality-like SK.

I didn't know much about what SK had been up to since "It", until I read "On Writing" last year. I suffer my way through books by writers about the art and craft of writing, but this one - a combination memoir and fiction-writing instructional - I couldn't put down. King shows us it is the story that matters. He tells us that writing what you know is a rotten old chestnut. Rather, you should write what you want to read, what you love to learn about. So, he succumbed to his intellectual and emotional destiny and set out to write the best horror/speculative/fantasy fiction he could.

11/22/63 brings me back to the writer that I discovered in The Stand. A dense, detailed, thickly-plotted "What if?" There are heaps of reviews if you care to learn more about the plot, the characters, the drama. I won't do that here. It's not horror, so don't let that possibility scare you away. It is a fantastic read with characters who will pull at your heart and suspense that will hold you fast to the page.

First-rate writing from a stand-up guy. "I just want to tell you. I'm your number one fan."

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Just A Homework Assignment

I'm currently enrolled in an essay writing course taught by writer and journalist Amy Paturel. Our first assignment was to craft a profile of ourself as a writer. How's that for a stretch of the imagination? Profile of a Writer-in-Progress

I ran my tenth half-marathon three weeks ago.  I completed my first long-distance race in November 2003 and I have run at least one half-marathon every year since.

So yes, I run. But I stumble when calling myself a runner. Runners are sleek, long-legged creatures who speak of fartleks, negative splits, performance shoes, PR's. Runners are "A" personality types who train to qualify for Boston, layout their gear the night before, and eat meals calibrated to maximize protein and carbohydrate loads.

Me? I've got ten pounds I can't seem to outrun, no matter how fast I sprint on interval days. I've followed several Runner's World training programs, but in all these years I've never broken out of the Intermediate Category. My running togs are crammed into a dresser drawer; early mornings find me cursing quietly as I sort out black shorts from dark blue shirts. I finally sprang for a fancy Garmin GPS sports watch a few months ago. Now I have an accurate-to-the-footfall accounting of how slow I am. Yes, I run. But I feel ridiculous saying "I am a runner."

I was in my early thirties when I first felt compelled to cross a finish line. Yet,the desire to write has been in me since I could tie a pair of tennies on my own. I have wanted to write since 1975, when I read Louise M. Fitzhugh's classic "Harriet the Spy," at the age of six. But the intent faded over the years to a "Wouldn't that be lovely?' dream as I pursued graduate work and created a career developing study abroad programs. I traveled, I schmoozed in various ivory towers, I had articles published in Transitions Abroad, a chapter in a textbook, and I contributed to our department newsletters.

But that was work; it didn't make me a writer. Writers attend Tuesday evening writer groups; they have bulletin boards covered in Post-Its that detail characters and plot threads; they have MFA's, manuscripts, agents, and a folder full of rejection letters that prove the prodigiousness of their efforts.

Two years ago I stopped keeping a journal, a practice I had started in 1975, inspired by Harriet and her notebooks. After a year's hiatus, I was aching to write. I wanted to be free from recording the minutiae of my day, yet be accountable to an audience. So last summer, I began this blog. I construct essays and book reviews and my reward is a writer's rush such as I never experienced scribbling in my journal. It's like a runner's high. Even when it hurts, and I suck, and I'm injured, and it rains, and I'm just not in the mood, running feels ridiculously good. Similarly, once the page begins to fill with words, the literary endorphins flow.

I am a self-taught writer; my classroom is the endless library of fiction and non-fiction that I live to read. I can conjugate the past conditional of irregular ˆre verbs in French, but I can't keep straight when, in English, to use a semi-colon or when a simple comma will do. I absorb the advice of the accomplished: Stephen King makes me think twice before employing an adverb; Natalie Goldberg fills me with guilt for not writing enough; William Faulkner compels me to murder my darlings; William Zinsser just scares the crap out of me.

Returning to the page in this blog has given me the courage to find my voice and to pursue fiction writing. I enrolled in a two-year, non-residency fiction writing program late last autumn. My writer-mentor critiques my assignments. I bask in or shrink with her feedback. I rewrite and carry on. I attend the occasional workshop at The Richard Hugo House, a writing center in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. I soak in the amazing writer juju and soothe my sense of inadequacy when we read our efforts aloud with the knowledge that I am taking essential risks. By risking, I will learn.

I find myself using the essay to mine my memory for inspiration. I search for sensations, images, encounters, even fragments of conversation that I can pin to my mental bulletin board. I am learning to listen and to look for the smallest details that will spark my imagination and ignite a new story. Based on the work I have submitted as part of my writing program, I am now working on a series of short stories inspired by my experiences living in Appalachia, the Rockies, central Africa, France, Japan, and New Zealand. And I dream of a stone cottage in the Languedoc where I would write to the sound of goat bells in the garrigue.

My first short story - and I mean first, as in written and submitted - was published last month.Thirty-six years after a precocious eleven year-old from Manhattan's Upper East Side - sporting black-rimmed spectacles, with a penchant for tomato sandwiches, and mentored by a Dostoevsky-quoting nanny - entered my life and inspired me to write, I have published my first story. Just don't ask me to call myself a writer.

N.B. I am now four weeks into Amy's essay writing course and preparing a couple of non-fiction pieces to submit to magazines in the coming months. The class been hugely beneficial - I highly recommend it - Amy is an amazing writer and teacher. And I'm keeping a journal again. 

 

Book Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King My rating: 4 of 5 stars

96.9 percent loved this. I may even knock it up to "It was amazing" as its treasure trove of advice sinks in.

Here's the thing: Stephen King knows how to tell a story. From the early to late 80s- junior high through mid-university- I read nearly everything he'd written. His novels are the only of the horror-genre that I've read; it's never been my cup of tea, either in print or film, but King's writing is a cut above. He is the literary equivalent of Bruce Springsteen. I don't own a Springsteen album, but when I hear one of his songs, from any era, I know I am hearing pure genius. Story-telling genius.

I believe King's mainstream success has little to do with his ability to scare the bejesus out of his readers and everything to do with the emotional chords he twangs with his characters, his dialogue, his everyman dilemmas that arise from the most bizarre circumstances. As he counsels in On Writing, don't worry about writing what you know, write what you love to read. So, King loves sci-fi and scary stuff. And he is able to write about with such astonishing skill that even the most avowed detractor of popular fiction is held captive by his pen.

This writing guide is divided in two parts. In the first, King takes you through his hard-scrabble childhood, focusing on the events that shaped him as a writer. I enjoyed the heck out of this. He recounts his past in a sweet, sad, funny, and completely natural voice. I didn't know anything about his personal life, which included years as an alcoholic and coke addict.

Then he turns to offer practical writing advice, which can be summed up as: Read A LOT; Write A LOT; Create a space of your own; Blow up your television; Use the active voice; Limit adverbs; Watch out for dialogue attribution; and, above all, Write stories. Not plots. Not themes. Just Stories. King believes that if you have a good story, the rest - character development, plot, theme- will take care of itself. King presents his advice with such clarity and conviction that you believe it's all possible.

I have to contrast this concise set of advice with another masterful work on the art of storytelling: Robert McKee's Story. McKee's guide is 466 pages. I took a couple of months to read Story and used a ream of post-its to mark the meaningful passages. McKee's approach is the antithesis of King's. He advocates careful plotting and sub-plotting, character studies, outlines, and a tried-and-true structure that respects the desires of the audience. True, McKee writes about the craft of scriptwriting, but his directives are relevant to literary stories, as well.

As different as these two approaches are- King's organic, McKee's structured- their bottom line is identical: Write stories that people want to read.

King loathes adverbs. This hits home because I am decidedly guilty (see!) of using adverbs copiously (see!!). I've just finished reading James Joyce's The Dead, which is often cited as the best short story ever written (and lauded by King). Here is its last sentence:

"His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Delicious irony. Well, to adverb or not to adverb? Only one way to find out...

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