Oh, the horror! This mid-list hack is calling out the master of the writing universe. Well, this mid-list hack can tell you precisely why Stephen King is full of shit, at least on one count. In his memoir On Writing, King tells us how we should write our stories. Because that’s how he writes them: get a story idea, then just start writing it, see where it takes you. Millions of great writers and writing instructors do it this way. But that doesn’t make it a good idea, and certainly not the only way to write a great story.
As I’ve said in an earlier blog, this is like Tiger Woods telling a wannabe professional golfer to learn the game by grabbing a club and just start swinging. Never mind about the mechanics, the infrastructure of the game, the criteria for excellence and the nuances of form and function. Just do it. You’ll figure it out as you go.
Well, that’s just plain bullshit. Lunacy, or at least inefficiency, in the first degree.
Why It Works for King
First off, allow me to acknowledge that such an approach may indeed lead you toward the ultimate creation of a brilliant story. In King’s case, that usually happens, but what’s not obvious is that it happens because King has mastered the mechanics, the criteria for excellence and the nuances of function to the extent that he thinks about storytelling on those terms. It’s just how he rolls. Just like Tiger Woods doesn’t have to think about mechanics when he tees off. Which means, King’s first drafts come out of his head in nearly publishable form. Every creative decision he makes along the storytelling path hits the page already in context to how it needs to look at the end of process.
If you have that level of talent and experience, then you and King and about four other people on planet are very blessed, and you’ll be fine with your just do it approach. The rest of us, however, will find ourselves in a paradox of ulcer-inducing proportions, and the temptation to simply stop before the book is as good as it can be.
Why It Won’t Work for You
If you just starting writing your story, without doing any groundwork, you won’t know how the book will end until somewhere in the middle. Which means, you won’t be able to set up that ending, to foreshadow it, and to create the character arc required to make it work. Your story will wander (fact: King’s 1000 page tomes wander all over the place; if you or I submitted that manuscript we’d get a wing full of editors to chop it down).
If you just start writing, you won’t be able to create a proper structure because you won’t know your plot points until its too late, you won’t have a subplot or any subtext, you won’t have a thematic landscape, and you won’t have a character backstory, arc or any inherent heroic appeal. At least, you won’t have any of this until somewhere in the middle of the process.
And when that middle of the process comes, you’ll realize that everything you’ve written thus far needs to rewritten, because you’ve missed all the opportunities to make your story race briskly along toward the right destination, with all the right elements in the right place, and with the best possible reading experience along the way.
Jeffrey Deaver, the accomplished thriller writer, does it Stephen King’s way. He also brags that he writes about 22 drafts before he’s happy. Which for most of us, is several years of our life. And Deaver is one of those four other guys who knows this stuff.
A Better Way to Roll
I say life’s too short. I say there’s a better way. In fact, I know there is. A way that gets you to the same, King-recommended and Deaver-endorsed destination, a way that can create a manuscript that is great and publishable on the very first draft. One that contains every bit of creative excellence that draft after draft of experimentation and creative wandering yields.
Same result, different process. It’s called The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling. Not a shortcut, but a bonafide development model and takes the guesswork out of your first draft. That allows you to engineer your story before you write, by laying out a criteria roadmap beforehand.
Stay tuned. That’s what this blog is all about.