Ideas and Writing – Pt II with Stephen King

“Your best work is more like being a secretary than being a creative person—you just take the stuff down.” Stephen King in an interview by BDN Maine. Stephen mentions that he never knows how his novels are going to finish. He waits until he gets there before choosing the end—much like choosing dessert after you have finished the main course. John Grisham disagrees and must have the last chapter figured out before he starts a new novel. Me? I have done both and can see merits in either approach. I love the freedom of seeing where the writing will take me, but also appreciate the discipline of plotting a novel before beginning. My first novel, 3 WISE MEN, was like following a string through the darkness. Even I was surprised how it ended and readers loved the spontaneous events that shocked them on the way through. In my second novel, I knew how and where it would end, but still had to fill in the details. The conclusion to Ideas and Writing? Both approaches work fine. It is up to the author. However, have you ever noticed some authors using a formula for their plot development? It gets boring! I’m one who likes to mess it up and surprise readers, as well as myself! I remember the strange experience of sitting down during a break in my teaching and the words poured out, and included an event that even shocked me. It might have been subconscious, but it was real and many commented that they “never saw it coming.” If your writing never sees an event coming, then your shock is magnified for readers!

The Math of Writing: subtract to add!

Here’s the scenario: a sentence in my paragraph doesn’t work, no matter how much I change it. When this happens, I use the subtract rule. That is, take out the problematic sentence and see if the shorter paragraph is any better without it. Most times, it is. I call this the “subtract to add rule“, and I have used it more than a few times during editing of my latest novel. I know what you may be thinking—such a move reduces the word count. Yes, it does, and thank goodness! Think of this sentence culling like the fruit picture. If you take some of the fruit away, do you still have a tree full of inviting fruit? If yes, take away the ones that don’t add. The power of a novel can be in the words and sentences taken out, not in the ones that are left in! Happy fruit picking.

John Grisham makes writing error, but does he need an online checker?

From my own experience, I have enjoyed using online grammatical aids, to a point! Here’s my humble take on them:

+ve: picks up repeated phrases, checks sentence length, and overuse of adverbs, etc. Psst, here’s where it would have helped John Grisham in “The Guardians”—on page 157, he writes, “He takes a drink and studies the ocean.” Then, on page 159, John writes, “He takes a drink and studies the ocean.” Well, software would pick that up.

-ve: does not help you develop your own writing style, nor flow or ‘voice’. There is often a cost.

Ask yourself this question: would Hemingway, et al, use an online writing tool? They might in their early days of writing, but I am convinced they would go up the wall after a while and stay their own course through the rough editing waters. Good writing and editing software are destined to call off their romance after just a few dates!

Good Judgment and Hard Work

I came across this quote during research for my new book:

“Putting a book together—really putting a book together—is a laborious, handcrafted process requiring years of experience, good judgment, and conscientious hard work” by Jonathan J. McCullough in ‘A Tale of Two Subs’.

How well put and a difficult target for any writer to aspire to. John Grisham echoes these sentiments when he talks about the discipline of his writing routine—three hours each morning, five days a week for six months. I wonder how many budding authors fail to appreciate the amount of hard work it takes to craft a novel? I am learning fast that it is a slow, painstaking process. Coffee helps!

Write Drunk, Edit Sober

This quote by Ernest Hemingway has an element of truth, although I certainly don’t ‘write drunk’. What rings true for me, though, is that you don’t have to be fully ‘with it’ when getting the rough story down. It might be a matter of grabbing a few minutes between meetings or, in my case, while waiting to teach a class. Some of my better writing seems to happen when I am mulling a plot or ‘what’s next’ while trying to sleep. In this case, I have to put the light on, get up and type the inspiration, just in case I forget when I wake up in the morning.Or, I might overhear a conversation while out and about and need to jot a thought down, ready to take back to my computer to bring into the story. For my second novel, I also set aside regular, early morning times to write. And, in the most part, I have kept to this schedule, even if the word output varies. On a good day I will type up about 800-1200 words and, on a bad day, 400-500. But, even the bad days can be good writing!

However, the editing needs time and concentration, plus a critical analysis of words, sentence structure/length, etc. Therefore, Hemingway is right—it is best done while ‘sober’. Incidentally, Hemingway also has a cameo part in my new novel, when two ladies meet an old man on the Croatian coast in a bar in Dubrovnik—the kind of place that Hemingway would, I am sure, have enjoyed!

How is the Discipline of Writing Book #2 Going?

I wasn’t really envious – well, a little! A friend was now writing his 3rd book and I was struggling to make progress on my #2. But, I reassured myself, Rome wasn’t built in a day and, besides, mine was more technical – requiring considerable research. And, I had no research assistant! The funny thing was, although about half-way through novel two, I had the last chapter sorted. Then, smug, smug, I was sure that I had gone well past the middle when a word count (hate that tool) revealed that I had only completed 32,000 words. Dang it! Still, this wake-up shook me into being more disciplined and, I am proud to say, my writing has improved. I am now into a routine of morning writing, followed by a quick evening review. I also determine to try and keep my weekends free – in the same way as I did when teaching.

The Art of Connection

It was a great conversation with a colleague over a recent lunch. We had both studied Geography at university and he mentioned the value of being able to view the world through a geographer’s eyes – looking at the landscape and how it was formed. I suddenly realized that this training had helped me connect different events to help construct the background details for 3 WISE MEN. Here is one example:

My wife and I were enjoying a late lunch in a piazza in Florence when we noticed a priest hurrying past. I could not resist a picture (below). When constructing details for the wider plot, it occurred to me that this innocent priest might play an important part.

“I had just left the Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, and was crossing the piazza outside the church when a priest approached me. He was obviously in a hurry as his cassock was waving wildly behind him. When he reached me, he paused and whispered, ‘I must see you urgently at the Statue of David at 7 o’clock tonight. Be there!’ Then he took off, heading for the hotel nearby. I was taken by surprise.” [extract, pg 192]

I am sure that readers will be equally surprised when they discover what the priest wanted to say to Pierre when he met him at The Statue of David!

 

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