Tag: writing advice

Stephen King’s “Shut Door” Policy

I began responding to On Writing by Stephen King in a post a few weeks ago. This week I’ll discuss his “shut door” policy, wherein the writer writes the whole first draft and lets no one see it until it’s done.

I think the entire matter of writing is so personal that there’s no one right way to do it. There are things every writer should try, and the “shut door” policy is one of them–when you’re green, and you’ve not yet hit the magical 1,000,000 words of writing mark, write an entire book in a vacuum and get it done. This is a huge milestone in a writer’s development: having finished a book. It’s necessary to do, and it’s necessary to not get bogged down in edits before you get there.

I myself had to go through this stage. I wrote two of my first three books this way, not letting anyone see what I had written until it was over, lest they derail me. But for me, this was just a stage of writing I had to go through, to understand how to write so much, and to get a bunch of practice in, including practice finishing a book. On my current book, I am letting people read it whenever I get to a milestone (about every 25,000 words). I listen to what they say, edit what I have so far, and then continue writing.

Let me defend this method by listing its benefits. First, it is easier to fix a plot hole when there’s 50,000 words to comb through and alter than when there’s 100,000. You’ve halved your work.

Second, so long as you have the right people reading your unfinished manuscript, they give you ideas. “Hey, wouldn’t this be cool?” And as with fixing a problem, laying a new thread in the story is a lot easier if you haven’t got the braid all the way done, yet.

King says not to let people read your book while you’re writing it so that you don’t get bogged down in questions such as “Why was that character wearing green? What does that signify?” But so long as those you allow to read your work aren’t the sort of person to ask such nonsense questions,  this is not a concern.

Thanks for reading! See you next time.

On Revision

Continuing my thoughts on Stephen King‘s book On Writing (which began here), I would like to talk this week about revision. King says “I think it’s rare that incoherence or dull storytelling can be solved by something so minor as a second draft.” As with the previous posts, I have a different take.

I think revision can cure almost any ailment in a piece of writing (so long as there’s something worth saving about it, of course). Let me tackle the “dull storytelling” aspect with a specific example from my own writing (which will probably carry very little weight, seeing how little I have published, and with no way for readers to see the result of my current example at present).

I wrote a character who was completely lifeless aside from his sob story. This character was the only person in the story other than the main character for a good four chapters or so. My husband, on reading this part, said he hated this section of the book and wanted the character to die.

I love painful honesty.

I see painfully-honest criticism as the grit that eventually polishes a rough story. Rather than becoming dismal about it, and declaring the book a failure, I cheerfully wrote “Give Thibault a passion!” on a paper I wouldn’t lose and mulled it over in the back of my mind for that evening and the next morning. Then it came to me–a solution which would change everything, reverberating out through the whole story; it would increase the character’s presence in the first part, give him some way to contribute in the second part (and not just be a food-sink who endangers the main character), and would flesh him out into more than just a Person Who’d Been Hurt.

I believe revision can make all the difference–a flat character can gain a whole new dimension and change the whole story, all in “something so minor as a second draft.”

Saying “Do Such-and-Such EVERY DAY”

I began responding to Stephen King‘s book On Writing in my post last week, and here I go again.

I never understood authors who said they wrote (or read) a specific number of hours per day, every day. Perhaps I have a particularly undisciplined mind, but I do everything in spurts. I binge-read, tearing through a 500-page novel over the course of twelve hours spread over a few days. I binge-write, going several days where time melts away as I’m lost in my story. Then one day I need a break and I do something else while my creative juices recharge. I binge-watch TV, spending a whole day getting through most of a season of a show I like.

I typically binge-watch TV during unbearably stressful times. This habit originated not with TV but with movies, almost ten years ago during the darkest month of my life when I was almost 18–almost is key here–and I was removed halfway across the country against my will and left at my aunt’s house to keep me from the father of the child I was pregnant with. I was too distracted by my distress to engage in reading books–I tried, but my aunt had very different tastes than I did when it came to books, and besides, my anguish kept rising up and breaking me out of the stories. But movies–stupid, brainless movies that I would have never watched otherwise–could be turned up loud enough to drown out the awful racket of my despair. And my aunt had a portable DVD player and a wall full of DVDs. Thus, I mostly drown out the vast tracts of time in my imprisonment with a load of garbage.

I try to keep away from the garbage these days, though I do fall into it on occasion (less and less often, though, I like to think). But when life has done a good job beating me down, whatever the show is, it’s useful to sit and let the stress fall off me for a few hours before trying to focus on more important matters. Allowing myself to do this is my way of staying sane.

Writing takes a lot of focus, and focus is not something I can typically force myself to have. But when I’ve satisfied my need to relax and I’ve filled up on reading and feel ready to create my own story, dangit, I write with abandonment. Not a specific amount of time per day or a specific number of hours or words, but as long as the ideas are hot and I’m immersed in the story. The moment I pop out of the story, I step away, sometimes for only a few hours, sometimes for a few days, to figure out what popped me out, and how I might fix it. Otherwise–if I charge ahead full-throttle and force it to keep coming even when it’s clunky and unnatural–I’ll end up with large tracts of crap.

Time to think, letting the ideas simmer until they’ve matured, like leaving meat in a crock pot, is what allows me my most well-developed writing.

Perhaps that’s why it takes me so long to finish writing books. Or perhaps the blame for that can be claimed by children, my school, and my day job. Mental energy is easier to come by when I have some kind of free time.

Finally Reading Stephen King’s “On Writing”

Stephen King‘s book On Writing is possibly the most lauded book of writing advice (Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is also up there). Even so, I’ve been writing since I was eight, and I am only now–at age 26–getting around to reading it. (For recommendations on writing advice I have already pursued and liked very much, see Brandon Sanderson‘s Write About Dragon series, Donald Maass’s The Fire In Fiction [particularly the chapter on dialogue], and Jeff Gerke‘s book Plot vs Character.)

I have a lot of respect for Stephen King–he’s more successful an author than I’ll ever be. And this book does have a lot of good information in it, as well as plenty of fun narratives about his past (it is called a Memoir of the Craft, after all, as I failed to notice before reading the first several pages). I would definitely recommend the book to aspiring writers.

There are also things he says which I disagree with based on my loyalty to Brandon Sanderson’s thoughts on the same subject. For example, I don’t think plotting should be avoided at all costs–Sanderson does it tons, and his books are fantastic.

There are also things King says which, though I am a novice in the field myself, with only a single, measly self-published book under my belt, I have some objections to based on my own experience’s behalf.

You’re probably laughing at me right now. I’d have to be pretty pretentious to think I knew better than Stephen King, right?

And I’m not–not really; not quite. He’s obviously right in that his advice works from his perspective, from his worldview.

But what about for aspiring authors who don’t think the way he does?

But I’m sure you’re much more interested in what I have to say about specific suggestions of his rather than what I have to say about what I have to say about nothing specific. Right?

Stephen King says writers should avoid watching television. I call bull. Television was written before it was performed, and there’s a lot to learn from it–both from good and bad TV. Good TV can show you a well-laid character arc, engaging hooks, good timing, and snappy dialogue. Bad TV can show you bad storytelling devices you’d like to avoid in your own writing just as surely as reading a bad book shows you these things. Unbelievable dialogue which was obviously written with a moral agenda in mind is one I’ve noticed.

And TV is what drove home my pet peeve of cliffhangers. I realized they do not make satisfying endings, and satisfying endings are necessary for satisfying stories. I’ve come to view cliffhangers as the sledgehammer tool to force you to care about what happens next–in the next episode, in the next book. I appreciate a writer that doesn’t feel they need to club me over the head. Besides that, cliffhangers drive me batty when I’m only expected to wait a week for the next installment–most authors take 1-5 years between books. Do you want to leave your readers in suspense for that long? Wouldn’t it be better for them to want to read your next book because they care about your characters and what happens to them rather than because you haven’t yet given them a conclusion?

Sorry. As I said, it’s a pet peeve. I’ve thought about it a lot.

I am not, of course, saying that television has any business replacing reading as a means to learn the craft. After all, TV has a layer of separation between the consumer and the written word. If you want to deal in the written word, you need to get immersed in the words directly. Reading a lot is essential for writing well. All I’m saying is that television is not without its own merits.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on the matter! See you next time.