Putting it into Practice: Reading Around Part 1

A few posts back, when I wrote about house-hunting and the artistic temperament, I mentioned Stephen King as a model of a writer who seems to maintain a positive, grounded life while he writes about dark, disturbing content. I’m not such a fan of Mr. King’s novels. I don’t really do vampires  (though he gets points for writing ‘Salem’s Lot before it was cool to write about  vampires) or psychotic dogs, but then I did say I was going to read work outside my taste and come back bearing gifts of interesting craft techniques. I’ve also heard so many good things about his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that it definitely seemed time to take a look at his memoir.

On Writing would make an absorbing read even if one weren’t interested in hearing King’s thoughts on novel-making; his transformation–from a kid who liked copying comic books verbatim to a teen troublemaker selling black-market stories printed his basement to an underemployed young father living in a trailer in the armpit of the country–sketches out a fascinating profile of an artist’s growth and development. King emerges as a figure who has needed to write, and whose fulfillment and joy as an individual emerge from his work, not from his celebrity.

But a main point of interest in terms of craft was his recommendation to write quickly. Very quickly. King says he wrote The Running Man in the space of one week–that’s roughly 30 pages of prose per day. One week was a bit quick even for King, though, so we mere mortals can relax a little. He says his novels generally take him about three months, and he cautions other writers not to take much more time than that. “Any longer” he says, “and the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.”

I’ll admit, I had a moment of feeling profoundly–and undeservedly–pleased with myself for writing a first draft of a novel in four months (hey, it was my first. I think I get an extra month as something like a golf handicap). I’d heard from many people (teachers, my now agent, writing friends) that a four-month crusade of noveling was likely a bad idea, and that I ran the risk of burning out, forcing ideas, or, worst of all, writing poorly. I’m happy to say I ignored that advice. I made a plan and a commitment to the four-month extravaganza of writing, and I enjoyed nearly every moment of it. The book came out with a kind of honesty and rawness of action that I’m sure a longer interval would have attenuated.

Of course, revising the novel took another three months. There was plenty of work to do in bringing that rawness and honesty up to a readable level of execution. But I’m inclined to agree with King (or perhaps use King to promote my own idea) that there’s a truthfulness to be gained from a telling that comes fast (that’s not to say spontaneous–that’s stuff of another blog post), fresh and unhindered.

Does this mean I’ll be able to produce a 450-page tome like The Shining in three months next time? We’ll see.

8 Replies to “Putting it into Practice: Reading Around Part 1”

  1. Great things can come from writing a very quick first draft, and I’m all for exercises like NaNoMo. But if you don’t plan on taking the time to revise heavily (dare I say, properly), you’re choking the potential of the piece. In my experience, a novel tends to be like a good bottle of cab. Be patient. Let it age. Compare what you had then to what you have now. It was good, but now it’s delicious.

  2. I’m so glad that you enjoyed King’s memoir on the craft–I knew that you would! Knowing a little something about rushing through the book-writing process myself, I have to say that it works both ways: that rawness that emerges in the frenzied pace we’ve both attempted can’t be duplicated–you are right about that. But this time around, I am catching so many more details by taking my time–things that would otherwise remain hidden. I can’t wait to see what you come up with for the next book!

  3. Good thoughts. I find that some books almost rush me, and others are dragged out one syllable at a time – not even one word. But, no matter how they begin, I need to re-write daily anyway.


  4. Appreciate how you’ve paralleled writing advice from a genre master with your own experiences, Kelly. You provide a strong example. Thanks!

  5. I’ve been meaning to read King’s book on writing for ages. I think I might even own it already. The message is the same in Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Draft. Some people do this automatically. I come more from an editorial background and it’s harder for me to just let go. I’m learning, though, that writing and revising are two completely different jobs requiring two complete different skills sets. I’m also learning that these jobs cannot be done simultaneously.

    On my new WIP, I’m tackling a whole new genre in a whole new manner. I’ve sketched out the cast of characters with brief backstories. It’s an interesting process.


  6. I’ve heard so many stories about how it took a writer years to produce a novel (first novels, usually), such as Junot Diaz spending 11 years, on and off, on TBWL of Oscar Wao. It’s refreshing, encouraging, intimidating to hear the genesis of Jacob Wrestling. Perhaps the difference lies in the planning and the ability to conceive of the novel in is entirety. Those novels that take years are often the ones where the author reaches a certain point and then is unsure of how to continue. That’s certainly the case with my novel in progress.

  7. King’s book just keeps coming up again and again and again. I gotta read it!

  8. I was dubious at first, Sharon, but it really is a great read. It’s entertaining and substantive…something I hope to one day be able to do!

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