On Writing by Stephen King

Revelatory.

I first read this ten years ago, when I was first trying to take my writing seriously. It was inspirational then, and inspirational now, though I’ve discovered different lessons in it this time.

From the autobiographical section, I got a strong sense of the struggle King went through to become the successful writer he is. There were multiple points where he could have stopped, where people wanted him to stop, but he didn’t. Success in writing wasn’t something he was born into, it was built out of hard work over decades that finally paid off and lifted his family out of poverty.

From the section on the writing craft itself, I’ve pulled three new techniques to try:

  • Write the story first, and do the research later. The desire to get things right in the first draft is something I struggle with. King emphasizes getting the story out, and then doing the research needed to make it feel true.
  • Shoot for a second draft that is 10% shorter than the first. King insists this will push you to not only eliminate pesky adverbs, but also take out anything that is not story.
  • Rely on your characters and the situation they’re in to tell you the story, not your outline. I’ve been using this last technique to push my current novel forward. Instead of thinking through each action to its consequences for the outline in my head, I’m just writing out what the characters do and say, letting it evolve on its own. It’s helped me overcome the stress and blockage I had two weeks ago, and made writing much more enjoyable.

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

One of those books I tried several times to read, failed to get into, and finally just plowed through.

I’m glad I did. Stross has created a fantastic updating of the Lovecraftian mythos, blending it with computer science, government bureaucracy, spy thrillers, and comedy (yes, all four).

The result doesn’t have the creepiness or the horror of the source material anymore, but is much more entertaining.

(Incidentally, this is the third novel in the series. Yes, I started with the third one. No, I didn’t feel lost, but I did feel silly for not starting at the beginning.)

Three things I learned about writing:

  • You can still get tension from a narrative told as a memoir. When your characters can go insane or become disembodied spirits, terrible things can happen to them but still leave them able to narrate.
  • Writing what you know can give you interesting twists on old material. Stross was a programmer for a while, and that kind of thinking is what makes his take on Lovecraft’s old gods feel new.
  • Even in a first-person story, you can still show non-POV character scenes by cheating a little, and having the narrator imagine how they would have gone.

Back to Work

Novel’s at 29,068 words: I’m back to working on it, and it feels great.

The week off really helped me relax, as did spending time with my friends, getting out of the house and forgetting about the stress of moving for a while. I was only able to write a few hundred words on Saturday, but it felt like a victory.

I’ve kept up a moderate pace since then, carving out enough time to write at least 250 words each day. I’m keeping the word goal low for now, letting myself go over it but also giving myself permission to stop when I hit 250. It’s a small number, but it’s more than zero, and a target I can hit.

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman

A rambling, overly-long book. Spends so much time digressing from his core topic — dipping into cognitive theory, the history of Standard Oil, and Greek mythology, among others — that he doesn’t find time (in 700+ pages!) to tie anything together.

The final section is the biggest offender, becoming just a parade of names and quotes with no background, no context, and no focus.

The one point he hammers on constantly is that any attempt to resolve conflicts by playing up the common interests of the parties involved is an “anti-strategy,” as he labels it. This quirky obsession puts him in some odd positions, like when he spends some time talking about the amazing Jane Addams, only to disparage her thinking on conflict by slapping the “anti-strategic” label on it. Many of the women he discusses end up dismissed in a similar fashion, making his attempts to undermine their thinking seem motivated by something other than rational thought.

Even though I felt like putting it down multiple times, I did learn a few things:

  • Chimps not only compete politically, they use coalition building within the group, and engage in raids and genocidal warfare outside the group.
  • Clausewitz is more famous today, but the most popular writer on military strategy in the 19th century was Jomini.
  • Martin Luther King wasn’t originally committed to non-violence. Only once some of Gandhi’s followers joined his organization — and after Rosa Parks’ successful boycott of buses — did he commit to nonviolence as a strategy

How to Fix Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service is an uneven movie. It’s trying to both subvert and exploit spy movie clichés, and it doesn’t always work.

The easiest way to fix it is if we just swap Roxy (the female Lancelot) and Eggsy’s roles, making Roxy the protagonist.

The opening scene becomes Galahad giving the medal to his comrade’s daughter, not his son. The daughter grows up watching men abuse her mother and feeling powerless to stop it. Galahad plucks her out of poverty and brings her in to train for the Kingsmen.

We make one more change, and make her the first woman they’ve ever had compete for a spot. Now she’s got two things to prove: that both women and lower-class people can make it into this elite service.

Eggsy can be the supporting character, one of the other competitors that’s also lower-class. He cracks self-deprecating jokes about it being positive discrimination, that none of the lower-classes ever make it, etc. Roxy can give him confidence, teach him to believe in himself, and help him reach the #2 spot. When her mentor (Galahad) gets killed, and everything goes “tits up”, he’s the one she calls, even though he failed the dog test (Roxy still passes that; there’s a great character scene to be had there).

By reversing the two characters, we move the movie away from the clichés that it tries and fails to subvert, and into “I’ve not seen this before” territory. Every emotional beat gets stronger, every fight becomes more interesting.

Time to Breathe

I haven’t written anything for the novel in a week.

More importantly, I haven’t let myself work on the novel in a week. I’ve been following Vivien Reis’ advice, giving myself time to step away from writing and focus on what’s happening right now with my family.

It’s turned out to be exactly what I needed. I’ve been able to focus better at work, I’ve been more relaxed about all the house showings and paperwork and myriad other little things I’ve had to deal with as we prepare to up sticks and move.

I still feel guilty, though. Like I’m shirking my homework, which is fine for a little while, but eventually you sit down for the final exam and you haven’t a clue what’s going on.

So I’m going to try writing again this weekend. Not much, just an hour or two at most, and with no word count in mind.

Perhaps this way I can use the novel to keep me busy, to keep my mind off things, on days when I’m not at work. And assuage some of the guilt I’m feeling.

8 Brief Comic Reviews

Ms Marvel (Wilson, Alphona): Well written. Not written for me.

Captain Marvel (DeConnick, Soy): Not as well written. Also not for me.

Superior Spider-Man (Slott, Stegman): Amazing concept and writing. Art confusing and slightly cliche.

She-Hulk (Soule, Pulido): Its cancellation was a tragic loss. Easily my favorite superhero comic.

Five Ghosts (Barbiere, Mooneyham): So well-done, it’s use of women as just damsels in distress sticks out like a splotch of mud on an otherwise perfect painting.

Saga (Vaughn, Staples): Perfect.

Wicked + Divine (Gillen, McKelvie): Awesome concept. Disappointing that they take it to such a mundane place. Emotional heart of the story is strong, though.

Superman: Red Son (Millar, Johnson): A very 50s take on an alternate Superman. Fascinating, especially the Epilogue.