On Writing

This morning I finished re-reading Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’.  Like I’ve said previously, I don’t reread books too often, but this one I read a couple of years ago (maybe it was just a year ago), and I remember getting a lot out of it then.  That was before I discovered that there was more to writing than just letting your fingers dump words onto the screen like a sinking supertanker dumps oil into the water.  I learned that you can’t be careless about your words in a story.  Every single one of them is important.  So I went back to this book because I was sure I would learn something new from it, and I was sure that I had misread or missed parts of it all together.

First, I had a direct recollection of Stephen King saying that a good sized book was 180,000 words, and a vague recollection that he also often wrote first drafts in the 380,000 word range.  I talked about this with people at the PNWA conference last July, and people thought I was misremembering.  I wasn’t.  King does say both things.  I blame Mr. King for making me feel like the first draft of the original ‘Nowhere Home’ was woefully insufficient at 139,000 words.  Little did I know it was almost twice as long as it should have been.

He also rails against laying out the plot of a book ahead of time.  The book is the book.  It will go where it goes.  Yes, to a point.  Writers with 50 publications to their credit can say that, and people will read it.  But for a new writer, writing without a plot can be deadly.  Not just for the book, but for the writer’s morale.  If a hundred pages into the first draft, you have no idea where it’s going, it’s crushing.  That said, I’ve written all three of my novels without a plot outline.  My next one I am outlining, because I want to write faster and better.  That’s not to say I won’t deviate from the plot if the story changes direction.  I actually hope to God it does.  But the outline is at least my fallback to keep me going when the ‘muse’ is taking a day off.

King also says he reads about 70 books a year.  That’s 1.35 books a week.  A very impressive number.  I would almost bet he didn’t read that much when he was working a full time job (or two).  I know I don’t have time to read that much, unless I am not writing.  However, it did point out to me that I still suckle from the ‘glass teat’  (television) far too much, and yes, there are bits and snippets of free time that I can use to get more reading done, or more writing, or more marketing for my work.

Those issues aside, I loved this book, and it is a must read for every writer.  In fact, anyone who likes Steven King at all should read the ‘CV’ and the ‘On Living’ sections.  The ‘On Living’ chapter brought tears to my eyes.  King puts you on the shoulder of that road in Maine after getting hit by the van in 1999, and you can’t help but to BE him while you are reading it.  After reading The Dark Tower Series earlier this year, the scenes are doubly powerful and interesting.

But the critical question I came out of the book with is ‘Why do I write.’   I would love to say I am as altruistic as King and I write because I can’t stop.  Sure, I have those moments.  But there are many other reasons.

I write in the hope that I may someday be able to do it for a living.  As a child I always wanted to be an astronaut.  That dream was given up sometime around 1994 when I squeaked through my last finals in college and realized I just didn’t have ‘The Right Stuff’.

Around the 5th or 6th grade, I realized that not only did I love to read, but I loved to write stories as well.  I plotted grand adventures inspired by Farley Mowat (Lost in the Barrens) and Robert Arthur, Jr (The Three Investigators)  and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan).  When I say inspired by, a lot of what I wrote was just pure copy, with my name instead of the original author.  Ruth Ann Jensen, my teacher in Grade 7, and the mother of a good friend of mine, really inspired me to start writing my own stories.  She’s also the one who, when trying to teach the class the meaning of ‘outspoken’, said:

“For example, Joe is outspoken.”  I looked at her slightly hurt, to which she replied.  “That’s not always a bad thing, Joe.”

But from the 7th grade on, writing was always my backup plan if the whole science thing didn’t work out.  In high school, when it came time to apply for colleges, I actually applied to a journalism school, but chose science instead.  Probably better for my pocketbook in the long run, and a better lifestyle for me, but there will always be part of me that wonders, what if I had gone the other way?

So writing is something I’ve always enjoyed.  It gives me power over the worlds I create and the ability to have adventures I will never have.  It allows me to escape from the mundane and to escape from a physical body that has been limited over the years by a progressive disease that will probably cripple me complete by the time I die.

Writing also allows me to feel productive.  I work hard at my job, but, by and large, the work I do is not Important, with a capital ‘I’.  It pays the bills (very well), and allows me to care for my family.  I don’t have any worries about not making next month’s mortgage, or putting food on the table.   I ride the train back and forth to work every day, and if I were to sit there day after day and do nothing but  read or do crosswords, I’d feel like both my life and my talents were going to waste.  Five years from now, most of the work I have done will be irrelevant.  No one will remember it, except that it has sustained the people who used it for that time.  There just won’t be anything of it left.  There are days where I go to work so I can ride the train and write.  If I ever become a full time writer, I sometimes worry that I’ll still have to get up at 5:00 AM and catch the train, because that’s the best place I’ve found to write since I was living in a crappy apartment in North York, Ontario while in college.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t want the fame and the money that goes with breaking out.  But that would be part of enabling me to write full time, and sometimes I fear that a rash of sudden celebrity would steal key years from my life with my kids, or destroy my desire to write.

But what writing really gives me, is a chance to leave a legacy.  A mark on the world, or to influence the reader in such a way that they feel better for having read my stuff.  I am supremely jealous of those who have done that in any art form.  I look at the Beatles, and the songs they created, and I wonder if they knew, way back when, what an effect ‘Eleanor Rigby’ would have fifty years later.  Did Beethoven know how long his Symphonies would be played?

So I write so I can write more.  I write to make me feel like I am inspiring the next generation of adventures.  Hopefully someday, as mankind is setting out for a new planet, or a young boy (or girl) is deciding that they want to do something with their lives, that one of the stories I wrote somehow influences them for the better.  Hopefully, one of those kids is my kid, or my grandchildren, and they’ll have pleasant memories.

For now, I’ll just settle for people enjoying my stories and recommending them to friends.  Maybe someday, I’ll see some stranger reading my book on a train or an airplane, and I can smile to myself, open up my laptop, and be inspired to write the next page.

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