Tag Archives: Creative writing

Learning from Stephen King

If you read this blog with any kind of regularity you know I’m a Stephen King fan. Not so much of his recent works—Duma Key is one I have a hard time remembering the title, let alone the story, and Under the Dome was something of a disappointment as well—but when it comes to his older stuff… well, that’s where my heart is.

The-Stand-Book-CoverFirst off, there’s The Stand, probably his magnum opus, at least in my opinion. It is a close second, and a novel I love to revisit on occasion. And ’Salem’s Lot will always hold a special place in my heart as it’s the first Stephen King novel I ever read—after seeing the second half of the miniseries back in the day and wanting to know what happened in the first half. In our book-poor county, I had a heck of a time finding a copy, but once I’d read it I was hooked.

There’s no way I can count up the pleasurable hours I’ve spent lost in Mr. King’s worlds, from his Dark Tower series, to The Dark Half and his short story collections (he’s one of the few authors I’ll read when it comes to shorts), his words played a big part in my decision to be a writer.

Now, whatever you may think of Mr. King and his works, I think we can agree on one thing: he’s a good benchmark when it comes to a writer’s dreams of success. He’s a regular bestseller, and even he has lamented on more than one occasion that he could probably publish his laundry list and it’d be a hit.

Mr. King is good for inspiration, and I won’t dissuade you from reading him. He knows how to string words together in a way that usually makes you want to keep reading (I’m in the middle of Finders Keepers, his newest, as I write this, and it has me reluctant to put it down), andfinders keepers his nonfiction On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is pretty much at the top of my list when it comes to recommending books, well, on writing.

But you don’t want to follow Mr. King’s methods too closely.

As Inigo Montoya said, let me ’splain.

Stephen King began his writing career in a day when the standards were different. For instance, author intrusion was an accepted way of storytelling that it would be hard to get away with today. The literary landscape has changed, and I won’t get into an argument as to whether it’s for the better or not, because I can see it from both sides (note to self: this might make a good post in the future).

Back in the seventies, when Mr. King and his contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and Peter Straub (neither of which I’ve ever been able to get into nearly as much as I did Mr. King) started their careers, author intrusion was normal, even expected. Let me give you an example from page 126 of Finders Keepers:

Pete lay awake for a long time that night. Not long after, he made the biggest mistake of his life.

It’s that last sentence I want you to pay attention to, because it breaks deep POV, and that’s a no-no these days. Writers like Mr. King can get away with it for a few reasons. His readers expect it. It’s how he learned to write, and he became a bestselling author writing that way, so why fix what ain’t broke? And probably most important, see the aforementioned reference to his laundry list. It don’t matter what the boy writes, his fans is gonna buy it.

Why change?

But I have a news flash: You’re not Stephen King. Or Dean Koontz. Or Peter Straub. You don’t have decades of bestselling books on your résumé. Your name isn’t a virtual guarantee of being on the bestseller list.

You don’t got clout, man.

foreshadowingI know, too, why Stephen King does things like he did in the example above. It’s a form of foreshadowing that heightens the tension a bit. You’re given a tidbit that bodes ill for the character, and that’s why we read books, isn’t it? To see what happens to these poor people and how they deal with it. And we really want Mr. King’s characters to get out of their predicaments because his strength is in his characters. Story is almost second in importance in a Stephen King book. We care about the characters because Mr. King rounds them out so well we can’t help but care about them—even the bad guys, in a lot of cases.

But in today’s publishing atmosphere, if this was his debut novel, an editor would tell Mr. King to go back and find another way to tell us that foreshadowing detail, one that doesn’t tell us something Pete couldn’t possibly know. Because, as much as that little detail heightens the tension, Pete can’t know it, so you can’t tell it to us that way. Mr. King can, because he got that clout I mentioned above.

The clout you ain’t got none of.

And that means you can’t get away with it, unless you find some old-school editor, and I think there must be a lot of them out there, from what I’m seeing in some published works.

And here’s the thing: if you use deep POV properly, the fact Pete doesn’t know he’s about to make the biggest mistake of his life can be used to heighten tension just as much as Mr. King’s little snippet of author intrusion does. One method might be to drop little hints, small clues, that the character (and, by extension, the reader) would see as signs of danger if only he were paying enough attention. And even if the reader sees these things and Pete doesn’t, it still heightens the tension because the reader is screaming at him to wake up and pay attention already!

There are some other authors who break these rules as well—James Clavell and Mario Puzo come to mind, as they do what is commonly called head-hopping, a huge no-noShogun these days—but you’ll notice they, too, are from the seventies.

I’m not suggesting you can’t learn anything from these authors. You can learn from any author, and there’s some merit to the argument you can learn more from a bad author than from a good one (if you can get through the book, that is), because a good one makes fewer mistakes. But you don’t want to mimic them too closely (for one, that would be plagiarism) or you’ll be making mistakes that won’t fly with most publishers these days.

And, hey, like I said, Finders Keepers is a good book so far. Last thing you want to do is ignore pleasurable reading, and there are a lot of good things you can learn from Mr. King. Such as excellent characterization.

Just don’t follow in their footsteps exactly.


I Wanna Do That

The novel I’m currently reading is entitled Japantown by Barry Lancet. Japantown is a section of San Francisco to which our protagonist, one Jim Brodie, is called as a consultant to view a murder scene. There he finds an entire family of Japanese tourists killed with gunfire—two children and three adults. While he is there, he notices a hanji—one of the characters Japanese use in their writing. It’s exactly like the hanji that was outside his home in Los Angeles a couple years earlier when his wife and in-laws died in a house fire.

I’m still in the early stages of the book, so I won’t go into all the details. I just needed to give you that much of the story (in my opinion, anyway) so you’d understand it when he realizes later—after an altercation with a rather disagreeable fellow who pulls a knife on him—that, even though this murder was done in a public place and has the SFPD investigating it, for some reason whoever did this crime is more worried about him than they are the entire police department of a major city.

I wouldn’t say Barry Lancet is an exceptional writer—at least not so far—but he’s good enough to hold my interest. Our protagonist grew up in Japan, so he knows the culture, and he’s also a specialist in Japanese art, and owns an art/antique store in San Francisco as well as runs his late father’s private investigation company in Tokyo. He straddles both words and that makes him uniquely qualified to consult with the police on this case.

So the writing is good enough to keep me interested, and I always like reading about characters in Jim Brodie’s position of more or less bridging two worlds while never quite fitting into either. But the passage where Brodie realizes that the person who committed this crime fears him more than the entire SFPD—I really liked that. Made me wish I could write a passage like that.

How many times have we as writers done something like that? Read something from an author—whether new or an old favorite—and wished we could do that?

It occurs to me that we probably do. And I don’t mean that in some arrogant way.

Look, I get lots of folks tell me I’m a good writer. Some even say I’m a very good writer. But it doesn’t change the struggles I go through to put words on paper, or how much I wrestle with getting plot elements to work just right. Maybe it’s that struggling and wrestling that, in the end, makes my writing good, I don’t know. I certainly hope so, ’cause if not, I need to find another method.

But all of us are unique writers. I’ve read passages by pretty much every writer in my group that I wished I coulda written. And if it’s not particular passages, it’s a concept or storyline. We all see things we wish we would have done or thought of ourselves.

So if so many other writers are doing that, it stands to reason we’re at least occasionally doing something that those other writers wish they’d come up with. It’s a far too common occurrence for it to be otherwise.

Things is, we’re too close to our work to see it.

We start out imitating. I’ve got an old short story still hanging around that reads like somebody imitating Stephen King. We have to start out imitating someone else to find our own voice. It took me years and switching genres to find mine.

It’s the same with every writer who sticks with the craft. We find our own voice, make our own mark in the world. We do it every time we sit down at the keyboard. Maybe the passage we write today won’t be the one that makes another author go, “Gee, I wanna do that,” but then again, maybe it will.

Either way, it’ll be in your voice.

So next time you see a particular passage and think I wanna do that, realize that you are. For somebody out there. Just as they’ll someday do it for somebody else.

And so the circle turns.


Prim and Proper

Okay, so I guess you’ve guessed from my post last week that I’ve started school at Northwest Technical Institute here in Springdale. I’m taking their Network/Computer Technician class, and I’ve already decided that I’ll add an extra semester for early next year and take their Web Programmer course. It’s only six more classes, and it makes me much more marketable to a potential employer.

Here’s the interesting part: I’m taking a class called Technical Communications this semester. It’s another name for business writing. You know, how to write letters, memos, that kind of thing.

Ironic, huh?

The instructor said that the people who have the most problem with it are creative writers. We’ll see. But I can’t say that I’m gonna enjoy it. Sure, I might need those skills in my professional life, especially since I plan to try to get a degree in the IT field, and that means I’ll be dealing with business types all the time. Doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it.

I gotta wonder if it’ll have an effect on my creative writing. We’ve already had what I would consider some disagreements where I think she’s wrong. If you’re a regular reader, you know that I abhor the word alright, that I don’t even really consider it a word. Properly, it is all right. And yet she seems to think it’s, um, all right.

I won’t change my thinking on that one. I’ve seen too many references that say alright is at best nonstandard, and I will argue with any editor who tries to change it in my stories. I hate the idea that it’ll make me look like an idiot because they want to follow the latest trend (and I see it more and more in published books).

But can this course help my creative writing? Another question I’m waiting to see answered. I mean, I’m gonna have to use proper English for this stuff, not the more informal writing I’m used to. Heck, you see my most formal writing here on my blog. My fiction prose is even more informal than this.

In technical communications—or tech com, as we call it—everything has to be formal. We can’t even use pronouns! When she first said that, I wondered how in hell you could write anything that another person is gonna read without sooner or later running into a pronoun or two.

But if you look at any random business letter, I’m sure you’ll find pronouns are rare as hen’s teeth.

Should be interesting to see where this takes me. Luckily, it’s only a semester. I can take a semester of tech com.

It’s that semester of technical mathematics that I’m truly worried about.



Writing as a Business

Though I haven’t taken anything like a scientific poll on this—I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of how to do that—it seems to me there is a general consensus among writers that there are two things we all dislike, maybe even hate: writing synopses and doing self-promotion.

Hating the synopsis is understandable: we didn’t get into creative writing to do product description, and that’s what a synopsis is. We have to take our wonderful story, with all its twists, turns, character development, wonderful prose (at least in our opinion), and nuance, and turn it into this soulless piece of writing and hope a total stranger will actually find something redeeming in it. When we think every single redeeming thing about it has to be taken out for the stupid synopsis.

Sure, there are writers out there who like writing a synopsis, or at least don’t hate it like so many of us do, but they’re probably the exceptions. Most of us hate what it makes our stories look like, and, for me at least, it seems as if it actually decreases the chance that an agent/editor will actually bite. How can he or she actually exhibit an interest in this thing? It’s got nothing going for it this way.

We forget that the agents/editors who want a synopsis are aware of this, that, somehow, they take this into account. I’m not sure if I could sit around all day looking at dry, boring synopses. But, I have to say I’ve read a few well-written synopses that made me want to get all the juicy details that are in the actual story. A good synopsis is like a good newspaper headline: it has just enough details to tease the reader into wanting to know the rest of the story.

And let’s face it: the synopsis is an unavoidable part of the business. Not every agent/editor wants one. In fact, I’d have to say most of the agents I’ve submitted to (I haven’t submitted directly to any editors) only want a query with a one- or two-paragraph plug, rather than a synopsis. Synopses are becoming almost as rare as the first-fifty-pages rule that used to be the industry norm. I know of only one agency, Ethan Ellenberg, that still wants a full fifty pages. Most that want a ms want three or five. One—I can’t remember the name off the top of my head—wanted the first three chapters.

So, while we hate synopses, they’re not the general rule that self-promotion is.

We’ve been having once-a-month marketing classes in my writing group on the last Thursday of the month. Last time, one of the members asked something like this: “If we have to do all this, getting Facebook accounts, and LinkedIn accounts, writing blogs, how in the world did authors like Isaac Asimov and Harper Lee make it? Did they have to do all this?”

No, Isaac Asimov and Harper Lee did not have to do all this. Besides the obvious fact that there was no Internet to do it on, back in their day, the publishers handled promotion. They set up the book signing tours, they approached the book stores, arranged for the ads, all that stuff. They were set up to do it, and could almost manufacture the next bestselling author.

Things are different now. Publishers expect the author to do self-promotion. They’re already putting a lot of money out there upfront, risking a lot of cash on you as an unknown. If you want to be the next (insert name of favorite bestselling author here), you have to get there largely on your own. You need a blog. A Facebook page. A website. A LinkedIn account. You gotta get out there and comment on other people’s blogs as a subtle way of putting your name in front of people. You gotta learn to play the Amazon promotion machine—assuming you have a book on Kindle—in order to make people buy your book by, strange as it may sound, giving away copies.

And the sad irony is, if you do all this and manage to reach bestseller status, the key to the kingdom will be handed to you. All of sudden, your publisher will start promoting you on their dime. Why? Well, Stephen King has often complained that his critics say he could publish his laundry list and it would be a bestseller. That fact that they’re probably right bugs him, and I can’t say I blame him. You reach that point, you gotta wonder if they’re buying your writing or your name on the cover.

And the publisher doesn’t care. As long as you’re selling books, who cares why customers are forking over their hard-earned moolah for your books? You’re a bestseller. As long as you retain that status, the money they’ll spend on promoting your book is well worth the return they’ll get.

The irony is that, now that you’ve reached the point where you don’t need them doing all this marketing for you, they’re falling all over themselves to do it.

Where the hell were they when you were trying to get your debut novel off the ground? Why didn’t they put this kind of effort into getting you established? I did all the ground work to get this thing off the ground, and now you want to stand around with your hand out?

It’s enough to piss you off.

Most of us are raised to be humble. You don’t front yourself. You elevate friends and family members, while downplaying yourself. And, besides, who has time to do all this marketing crap? I’m a writer, not an ad man. Let the marketing department take care of that stuff. I’ll sign some books, sure, but if I’m updating my Facebook page and writing blogs, when do I have time for my book?

All legitimate questions, but here’s the rub: how many other professions spend the bulk of their time doing their actual job? How many other jobs entail attending endless, seemingly meaningless meetings and web-conferences? How many times, in your line of work, have you attended the so-called productivity meeting, the one that makes you wonder how important it’s gotta be if you’re stopping production in order for you to attend.

Much as we hate it, writing is a business. You are that business.

Compare it to musicians. How many times a day do you hear that little promo piece on your local radio station that features a famous artist saying that this is so-and-so and you’re listening to such-and-such radio station? That’s not just promo for the station. It also keeps the artist’s name out there, on your consciousness. You hear it and you might just think, I hope that means they’re going to play the new song now.

It seems like an insurmountable task, especially when you consider you still have your day job to contend with, not to mention family life and other day-to-day problems. Your budget’s already tight, and you have to fork over money for a website? What’s up with that?

There’s an old axiom: You have to spend money to make money.

I don’t particularly look forward to doing all this. I’ve had a blog for a couple years now, I guess, and a Facebook page for about as long. I just opened a LinkedIn account this week. Haven’t had a chance to do much more than finish the profile and, with my schedule, all this will take longer than I’d like. I also have to save up the money for a website from what little I make selling plasma. And, I’m going to make a concerted effort to write more short stories and get them published online and in local anthologies.

These are the kinds of things you gotta do if you want readers outside of family and friends to see your work. If you want your work out there and known, you have to make yourself known first. No one else is gonna do it for you. Yes, fellow writers will help as much as they can, but you have to return the favor.

Writing is a business, and that means we gotta become business people. Yes, it’s the antithesis of writing. Writing is creative, fulfilling. Business sucks your soul out, or that’s how it feels to me.

Just keep your eye on the goal: a book on the shelf of your favorite bookstore, the opportunity to log onto Amazon just to see your book there.

Writing is a business. You gotta make it your business to be good at it.