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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Stephen King and me

A 5-page day. Not only that, but I'd finished them before 11:00--a near-record. I should be happy, but in fact I'm only so-so. There's a certain anticlimactic feeling associated with finishing a rush of writing. And also, for me, a certain guilt at finishing so early, even though I have expressly given myself permission to enjoy some extra free time when I finish early, as a reward for fast work. Part of my mind criticizes me for slacking off when I could be getting more done--in theory.

It's not about speed. It's not about speed. It's not about speed.

Three years ago, when I was returning home from Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton (I'd been temporarily ordained as a Buddhist monk for 5 months, and left early because I'd ruptured my left Achilles tendon), I searched the Halifax Airport for airplane reading and found only one book that even faintly interested me: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I read a good chunk of it on the flight back to Vancouver. It was engrossing.

I'd read very little by Stephen King before (I'm not a horror fan), but I knew he was a good writer. His style is fluent and confident--not schlocky, simple-minded, or uneducated, as I find many "bestsellers" to be. The first third of the book was just a memoir of his writing career. Fascinating. I munched on his little 1-page microchapters like potato chips. He is a natural-born writer; so am I. Maybe I could (sort of) do what he did.

King wrote 5,000 words a day, 7 days a week. When he was young and on top of his game, he could crack them off by lunchtime. But some days they came "slowly," and he'd be "fiddling around till tea time." Did he take Christmas off, or his birthday? No. Why? Because writing was what he liked to do.

Oh boy. My gut kind of sank when I read that. King believes in writing from the unconscious. You set up the situation, then you jump in and start. The unconscious feeds you with better, more creative ideas than you could come up with in a more laborious, controlled process. Sounds great. Could I do that? I'd done writing drills: timed exercises in spontaneous writing in which you simply scribble whatever comes into your head, as fast as you can. I'd written some good stuff that way, poetic--but chaotic. Could this be turned into a "controlled fusion" approach, to produce actual readable prose?

When I got home and read further, King gave an exercise in this technique. He set up a fictional situation, titled Dick and Jane, about a young man who had recently endured the trauma of his ex-wife attempting to kill him. (King had switched genders on the familiar plot of psycho-hubby-stalks-wife.) Now she has just escaped from jail. King's instruction:
Narrate this without plotting--let the situation and that one unexpected inversion carry you along. I predict you will succeed swimmingly...if, that is, you are honest about how your characters speak and behave.

King gave a few more details to set the scene (the father is just dropping their daughter Nell off at a birthday party). Before I could let my mind get polluted with thoughts, I jumped in. Where would I set it? Quick. Here in North Van, where I grew up. I'd set it right in the house where I grew up, the old 1916 shingled house on the steep upper reaches of St. Georges Avenue. Cheap enough for a single mother back then, kind of pricey now. Oh well, don't think--write!

I opened my binder, uncapped my Staedtler ballpoint pen, and started writing. Go. Don't think--write! Faster! Here's most of my first foolscap page:
"Okay, bye-bye, have fun--"

Richard Charteris made a move toward kissing his daughter's head, but she was out of range, swept into the exciting vortex of the party.

"See you in three hours," he said, abandoning further effort to hold her attention, more for the benefit of Monica, mother of the birthday-girl, who acknowledged him with eyes that were laughing crescents and a big goodbye salute. Little Nellie, extrovert, was already drawn into the growing action on the decorated lawn, now a venue for well-dressed five-year-olds.

Man, how kids can shake off worries, Richard thought. He stood watching her for a few seconds more, reassuring himself that she did not show obvious signs of being dressed and groomed by a man (nope: twin pink barrettes in her brushed sandy-brown hair, pink gingham dress, white socks--fully competitive, Richard thought). Making their daughter look beautiful was another thing he'd learned from Jane. She had a lot of good qualities--a fact that had become lost in the ordeal of the past months. Now, presumably, there would be breathing space to reflect on Jane and their life together, the good as well as the bad. He was conscious that a daughter had to have a positive image of her mother, even a mother who had just been found guilty by a jury of her peers of attempted murder.

I cracked that off in just a few minutes. Getting into it, I wrote on for another 6 pages. It really was fun. The honesty that King talked about was easier when you weren't thinking. When you just grab for something, it's honest (as long as you want to be honest). I didn't complete the exercise, which was to develop the action after the point when Jane unexpectedly shows up in the house, escaped... I develop action slowly, so I only finished the setup. But I still got the feel of the exercise.

I was not displeased with the result. For a cracked-off first draft, it was pretty good. It was fun to do, and it read well. Cleaned up and published, it could be in a decent paperback, I thought.

But it's not me. It's not my type of story. Just thinking up a nifty setup and then letting 'er rip is not my way. I'm not really interested in stories that can be conceptualized that way. In screenwriting, it's death to simply roll a sheet into the typewriter (as it were) and start typing. Stories need to be structured. Revelations need to happen. I'm guessing that those higher-order events must come into the work in subsequent drafts.

And another thing: Is a story about an escaped-convict ex-wife going to say something that's important to me? What will the theme be, what McKee would call the controlling idea? What value will be brought into the world? Of course, writing like this, part of the excitement would be discovering this for oneself as one went along. That might be exciting. Maybe I should try it.

But even though I'm fluent enough to write off the cuff (as with this blog, for instance), it's not my approach for a serious work. King's method was to take a stock idea, twist it, and go. For me, it's taken decades to arrive at the subject-matter of The Mission. I spent well over a year just outlining it. Writing, like almost all other human endeavors, benefits from planning. Hence I find King's writing fluent and readable, but a bit thin: it's not the work of a writer who has struggled to unearth his theme--at least, that's how it strikes me.

And I just can't do anything 7 days a week--except relax. I can do morning coffee and teatime 7 days a week, but for the task of actually building my Great Pyramid, I need breaks, and I take them.

I'm not Stephen King. Big surprise.

The last two-thirds of a page of my exercise read as follows:

Richard suddenly knew that it had not been intuition that had sent fear through his bowels downstairs; it had been a faint trace of perfume: Escape. His heart hammered, accelerating, punching at his throat. Fear swarmed through his groin. He heard a sound: the stairs. She appeared in the doorway, quiet, unhurried, calm. Their eyes met across the room.

"Hi Dick."

She wasn't in prison clothing. She wore shorts and a pink sleeveless top. Her multicolored sandals Richard recognized as his mother's. And hanging limp at her side was her pale arm, casually gripping a black automatic pistol. Her greenish eyes were mild.

"I said, hi Dick."

Richard did not respond. He stared at her, paralyzed, mouth dry.

"Turn that shit off," she said, pointing the gun briefly at the TV....

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