How to Write: Chair, Door, Goal . . . Truth


photo: Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes how this mega-best-selling author became a writer. Along the way, he gives common sense advice about writing that benefit anyone seriously interested in becoming a better author. The process he follows is just the start, and here it is.

Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of writing every day, despite the pull of other responsibilities and distractions. Otherwise, he says, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” The excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed every morning before six.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page. In my case, cats.

Goals are important, King thinks, and he tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. I’m a fan of powering through and getting a completed draft. I try not to get mired in all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems, but fix them in rewrite. Maybe make a note of them, if I see them, so my mind lets them go, and I can move on.

Ass-in-chair, closed door, goal. Adhering to these basics, King believes, makes writing easier over time. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, write. So many would-be authors talk to me about needing inspiration, as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

By the time we’re adults, lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains from books, tv, and movies. When a phrase or scene comes too easily for me, almost unconsciously, my mind is simply replaying someone else’s words—they’re not original any more. In my story, they’re false.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we feel satisfied when we turn that last page.

Despite how hard it may be to find and express a story’s truth, King says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”

Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

woman writing

photo: Nick Kenrick, creative commons license

Data journalist Ben Blatt has used his quantitative approach to analyzing classic novels and 20th century best-sellers to test whether some of the common advice writers receive is reflected in successful books. (Yesterday, I reported some of his findings about differences in writing by and about men and women.)

Numerous authorities—most notably, Stephen King—advise against using –ly adverbs. King goes so far as to say the road to hell is paved with them. Instead, these authorities say, find a more robust verb that can carry your meaning on its own, unaided. Blatt’s example is, instead of “He ran quickly,” say, “He sprinted.” Saves words too.

As it turns out, Blatt’s research reveals that more accomplished writers do tend to rely on good strong verbs instead of adverbial modifiers. In a chart, he shows that Hemingway used 80 –ly adverbs per 10,000 words, where as E.L James (author of the 50 Shades books) used almost twice as many, 155 per 10,000. Here’s one of hers: “Mentally girding my loins, I head into the hotel.” A bit hard to visualize there.

Another precept Blatt tested was Elmore Leonard’s avoid-the-banal advice: “Never open a book with weather.” Yet best-seller Danielle Steele starts her books with weather about half the time (46 percent), and even Leonard has done it, maybe twice in 45 novels. By contrast, many literary authors (Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and others) never do so, across dozens of books.

Parlor Game

Here’s a parlor game for you, based on Blatt’s findings (his book has many more). What are the three favorite words of these authors? Can any of your erudite friends come close?

  • Jane Austen
  • Truman Capote
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • K. Rowling
  • Mark Twain

And here are the answers: JA (civility, fancying, imprudence); TC (clutter, zoo, geranium—bet you didn’t get that one!); EH (concierge, astern, cognac); JKR (wand, wizard, potion); and MT (hearted, shucks, satan).

You can order the books below (affiliate link):

Further Delight

While researching this article, I ran across this fun list of 100 Exquisite Adjectives.

Finding Your Story

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, banned books


Whether you think of yourself as a plot-driven author, a character-driven writer, or one who relies on creating a compelling situation, stuff has to happen on your pages or readers will stop turning them. Stuff that truly tests your characters.

In an excellent recent online essay about plot, novelist and former literary agent Barbara Rogan cites Mark Twain’s advice: “The writer’s job is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Think Huck Finn and Jim on the raft. In other words, keep the problems coming. Readers want to see characters succeed, fail, change, and grow, but, she says, “Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes.” I would append this thought “and overcoming a wildly unrealistic challenge doesn’t work, either.” It’s the author’s victory, not the character’s.” Some thrillers cross that line.

Maybe an author starts with an exciting, possibly (fingers crossed) film-worthy opening scene. That and its aftermath are dealt with, then there’s a slog to the skating-on-the-edge-of-disaster conclusion. What happened in the middle? Not enough, very likely. A saggy middle is the bane of new authors and people over 40 alike. Says Donald Maass, another widely respected literary agent and author, “For virtually all novelists, the challenge is to push farther, go deeper, and get mean and nasty.” Plot-driven novelists do it with incident, character-driven ones by ramping up internal conflict. Stephen King doesn’t rely on plot at all. He starts with a situation, a predicament, and then watches his character “try to work themselves free.”

Tellingly, King says, “my job isn’t to try to help them” free themselves, but to observe them and write it down. That’s such an important point. You can’t go easy on your characters, however attached you are to them. Rogan says when authors “smooth the way for their protagonists”—making clues come too easily or difficulties to easily overcome, giving them a midtown Manhattan parking place just when they need it (!), authors are behaving like “benevolent gods”—a trap my own writing sometimes falls into. I like my characters, even some of the baddies; but I cannot be their mum. What characters learn, they must learn at a cost in physical or emotional pain—preferably both. That makes readers care about them.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran FoerExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the protagonist, precocious nine-year-old Oskar Schell, has a mysterious key belonging to his dead father, and he want to find the lock it will open. He believes someone named Black knows what lock that is. Lots of people in the New York City phone book are named Black, and Oskar visits them all. If the key had belonged to Aaron Black, this would have been a short story.

As in real life, Oskar and other successful fictional characters have to work hard to find their answers. As do the writers who create them.


Mama’s Boy

Mama's Boy, Michael Goldsmith, Betsy Aidem

Michael Goldsmith & Betsy Aidem, photo: T. Charles Erickson

First up in the George Street Playhouse (New Brunswick, N.J.) 2016-17 season is Mama’s Boy, by Rob Urbinati. It’s a family drama about a very particular family—that of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the period leading up to and after the events of November 1963. Directed by David Saint, the play runs from October 18 through November 6.

The assassination of President Kennedy continues its dark fascination. Already this year I’ve read two thrillers that riff on the case, and Hulu televised a terrific 11.22.63 (starring James Franco, Chris Cooper, and Sarah Gadon), based on the even-better Stephen King time-travel book, 11/22/63.

Mama’s Boy probes the assassination from the viewpoint of Oswald’s monomaniacal mother, Marguerite. In real life, she did try to put herself at the center of the story, and Urbinati capitalizes on her obsession to great dramatic effect. Marguerite (played beautifully by Betsy Aidem) is convinced—or claims to be—that Lee’s defection to Russia, his U.S. return 32 months later, and the plot to kill Kennedy, were orchestrated by the State Department or FBI, for whom he was working as an agent.

Oswald himself (Michael Goldsmith) doesn’t give her theories the time of day. He is preoccupied with finding a “clean” job to support his baby daughter June and wife Marina (Laurel Casillo) and, subsequently, getting to Cuba. He refuses help from his mother—not an easy job, that—but older brother Robert (Miles G. Jackson) provides some support.

Marguerite says Lee is the only one of her boys who ever loved her. (They shared a bed until he was 12.) She is manipulative and distrusting, overbearing and intrusive, wildly jealous of Marina, and believes the “little people” will never receive any help or support from the government, the media, or other social institution. She rails at the fact that Jackie Kennedy is escorted to and from Parkland Hospital, where the President died, whereas she—equally deserving, she thinks—gets nothing. Her domestic drama plays out as tragedy writ both small and large, at the level of the living room and on the world stage.

Urbinati’s vision of warped mother-love is as powerful as that of Gypsy’s Mama Rose, and Aidem has called Marguerite “the role of a lifetime,” and the skewed vision thrust upon Oswald (who was barely 24 at the time of the assassination) may make you think somewhat differently about him.

Mama’s Boy premiered in Portland, Maine, in October 2015, with Aidem and Casillo in their current roles. It’s clear they inhabit these characters totally. The men, newcomers to the play, are fine. Also in the cast is multiple Tony-award-winner Boyd Gaines, who plays one of Marguerite’s interviewers in voiceover.

Saint and the production staff have made the most of George Street’s capacity, using projections in combination with the revolving stage platform. Admirable use of technology!

For tickets, call the box office at 732-246-7717 or visit the box office online. The theater is an easy 10-minute walk from New Jersey Transit’s New Brunswick station.

Spooky Reads

haunted house

(photo: Sean MacEntee, creative commons license)

The book-obsessed websites haven’t overlooked the opportunity to capitalize on the scary underpinnings of the Halloween season. A reader poll by the folks at BookRiot yielded this top 10 list, with The Shining scariest of all:

  • The Shining by Stephen King
  • It by Stephen King
  • Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
  • The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
  • Pet Sematary by Stephen King
  • House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • The Stand by Stephen King
  • Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
  • Bird Box by Joshua Malerman

When you recall that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, that family has lock on half the fright mindshare.

Not surprisingly, The American Scholar takes a more high-brow approach to its list of “Spooktacular Books,” with the only overlaps House of Leaves and The Haunting of Hill House.

No time to read whole books? Jonathan Sturgeon, writing for Flavorwire, has assembled 30 of the scariest moments from Western literature—going all the way back to 760 BCE. Once again, Shirley Jackson and Hill House make the bloody cut.

“Come in, Sit down . . .

cafe at night

(photo: wikimedia commons)

. . . Let me tell you a story.”

Like the author of this recent Gawker post about novels with compelling opening sentences, which includes many relatively recent books, I was inspired by Joe Fassler’s 2013 Atlantic interview with Stephen King, in which King talked about the first lines of his books and why those first words are so important. His all-time favorite opener, from Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.” King says he spends weeks, months—years sometimes—getting them exactly right, so remembers them well: “They were a doorway I went through.”

Analyzing King’s Approach
The opening line of King’s 11/22/63 is “I’ve never been what you’d call a crying man,” and the reader immediately and correctly anticipates a fair amount of crying before the last page is turned. The opening line of It: “The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”

Fassler’s interview made me think, “He’s a big success, right? Maybe I can learn something here.”

So I visited my library and pulled all the King books they had on hand—18 different novels. I sat at a table and wrote out the first few sentences of each. (If you’ve never done this, try handwriting passages from a book you admire. For some reason, possibly in sync with research on how people learn, the act of hand-copying a text puts you—well, me, anyway—in the author’s mindframe much more directly and powerfully than reading the same words or typing them out.)

What the First Lines Contain
What I found out by doing this is that the opening sentences of many Stephen King novels have certain characteristics in common. They:

  1. Put the reader in a precise location and time
  2. Identify the protagonist, usually by name
  3. Address the reader directly – “you”
  4. Use simple language and quotidian details, which create an easy tone (nice rhythm, too)
  5. Include something to provoke a vague anxiety
  6. Put the protagonist’s experience in a larger context
  7. In some way invite the reader to “sit and listen to a story.”

Three Examples
Recently I read King’s Mr. Mercedes (2014), which does 2, 4, 5, 6 and to some extent 1—at least he gets the reader into the geographic and temporal ballpark:
“Augie Odenkirk (2) had a 1997 Datsun that still ran well in spite of high mileage (1-ish), but gas was expensive, especially for a man with no job (4, 6), and City Center was on the far side of town (1-ish), so he decided to take the last bus of the night (5).”

And, another example, from The Tommyknockers (1987):
“For want of a nail the kingdom was lost, that’s how the catechism goes when you boil it down (5). In the end, you can boil everything down to something similar—or so Roberta Anderson thought much later on (2, 3). It’s either all an accident . . . or all fate (6). Anderson literally stumbled over her destiny in the small town of Haven, Maine, on June 21, 1988(1, 4). That stumble was the root of the matter; all the rest was nothing but history (7).”

A look back at King’s very first novel, Carrie (1974) shows he used these methods from the start, though his technique has grown in subtlety and creativity over time. Carrie begins:
“News item from the Westover (Me.) weekly Enterprise, August 19, 1966 (1):
“Rain of Stones Reported
“It was reliably reported by several persons that a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky on Carlin Street in the town of Chamberlain on August 17th (4). The stones fell principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively and ruining two gutters and a downspout valued at approximately $25 (4). Mrs. White, a widow, lives with her three-year-old daughter, Carietta (2).
“Mrs. White could not be reached for comment (5).”

These examples invite the reader in like a cafe’s bright lights as dark is coming on. They say, “Sit down, listen, let me tell you about this.” I wouldn’t describe King’s approach as a “formula,” because his books begin in such different ways, but rather a discipline. Early on, he gives readers a clear sense of “who, what, when, and where,” and the rest of the book provides the “why.”

In My Own Writing

So what did I learn from this exercise? I rewrote the beginning scenes of my two novels with these thoughts in mind, making several tries of it, and was sure to name the books’ protagonists and place them precisely in time and location, use simple language, and forecast the larger context of the action. And I’m happier with the result. We’ll see what comes of it.

If you have some King sitting on your bookshelf and look for these 7 points, I’d be interested to know what you find.

Famous First Lines

  • A list emphasizing the classics, starting with Herman Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.”
  • Writers reveal their favorite first lines in this list.

****Mr. Mercedes

car, Mercedes

(photo: commons. wikimedia)

By Stephen King. I’d resolved to read some Stephen King this year and picked this one up in the San Diego airport. I see that the Mystery Writers of America have nominated it for the Edgar Award—“Best Novel” category—for 2014. Five more nominees to go.

King fulfills all the standard thriller conventions—ticking clock, protagonist who must act outside the system with aid only from clever, but unofficial sources (in this case a black high school student and a woman with a serious mental disorder), a diabolical threat against a passel of innocents, and an opponent with sufficient intellectual- and fire-power to keep the stakes stoked. With characters from the crime novel version of Central Casting, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the plot–despite its interesting set-up–is more than a wee bit predictable.

It’s an artful page-turner, if you don’t think too hard, and King fans may love it, but it breaks no new ground. (Read about the “King for a Year” project, which so far revisits some of his more innovative works.) And perhaps it’s no surprise then, that Mr. Mercedes will be turned into a television series, with the script to be written by David E. Kelley (Boston Legal and Ally McBeal), and Jack Bender (Lost and Under the Dome) to direct.