I don't believe any novelist, even one who's written forty-plus books, has too many thematic concerns; I have many interests, but only a few that are deep enough to power novels. These deep interests (I won't quite call them obsessions) include how difficult it is - perhaps impossible! - to close Pandora's technobox once it's open (The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Firestarter); the question of why, if there is a god, such terrible things happen (The Stand, Desperation, The Green Mile); the thin line between reality and fantasy (The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, The Drawing of the Three); and most of all, the terrible attraction violence sometimes has for fundamentally good people (The Shining, The Dark Half).Obviously, such novels also need a story/plot/action, because otherwise we're not really writing fiction at all, we're writing thinly-veiled diatribes. But at this moment in my not-yet-really-begun writing career, I need to start from theme, and let the story build from the things that fascinate me. Because otherwise, why would I care enough about the damn story to bother writing it in the first place? And if I don't care enough about the story (and its underlying themes) to put not merely my time but also my heart into drafting and editing, I can pretty much guarantee that no one else will care enough to want to read it, even if I do manage to craft some technically proficient language on the surface.-On Writing (emphasis mine)
Thursday, November 12, 2009
In which I finally disagree with Stephen King
He seems to be handling it well.
As I have likely mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Stephen King's On Writing. It's a fun read, it shares some fascinating personal history, and I think he's spot-on about the use of language, about how one should write first drafts "with the door closed," and about how art and writing support life, not the other way around.
Furthermore, I don't think you need to love his stuff or write like him to appreciate his insights. First of all, any time an author as successful as King talks about why writing is important to him, how he got started, and what his inspirations and motivations are, it's probably worth a read. Second, his recommendations are fungible across a wide variety of genres and styles -- I don't write horror, and I tend to underwrite rather than overwrite. If someone who struggled to get her novel over 60K words thinks she's getting good advice from a man who averages 2K words a day* and consistently puts out novels that are in the 300K-plus range, his suggestions are probably pretty darn universal.
But, as part of my November Big Think Project (which is increasingly replacing my NaNoWriMo efforts), I'm starting to realize that I must depart from King's advice about something very fundamental, at least as far as my own writing is concerned.
King says that writers should always start with story first, then progress to theme. That theme is something that can -- and should! -- be enhanced during the editing process, but that starting with these questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction.
I'm not a plotter. Nor am I someone who starts with a nice, clear "what if?" story question like King does. I started my first novel with a character and a life-changing event. That's it.
Now, this indeed could have made for some very crappy fiction. There are plenty of life-changing events happening every day in the world (marriage, birth, death) that do not in any way support a 200+ page story arc. But, underlying this fictional life-changing event is what King himself would probably call one of my "deep interests." It's what got me started writing the story, it's what first breathed life into my main character, and it ended up being the basis of an entire book that, damn it all, I think is really good. That is because, for me, theme IS enough to power a novel:
Right now, theme is my engine, but that doesn't mean that story and language need to be passively riding in the novel's back seat. Story and language are the novel-car's frame and body, the beautiful lines and shape that make you want to get in and go. But theme is what drives the car, what determines how far and how fast the story can go.
So, Mr. King, I'm sorry, but I disagree. I think that for some writers, thematic concerns can and should be front and center during the first draft of a novel. Because that's what I care about, and ultimately, that may be what makes my writing worth reading.
I hope this doesn't change things between us -- I love your novels, and your short stories, and I own every audiobook you've personally narrated, plus Ron McLarty's reading of Salem's Lot and Jeffrey DeMunn's reading of Dreamcatcher... did you know that Jeff and I were in a movie together? I'm so glad you and/or your associated casting agents keep hiring him for your movies -- The Mist, Green Mile, Storm of the Century -- because he is just a spectacular talent and all-around nice guy, and he deserves far more fame and fortune than he's ever going to get... but I digress.
In short, I'm still your #1,429,517 fan. Next time you're in town for a Red Sox game, come on over, and I'll buy you a coffee.
AUTHORS, BLOGGERS... WHAT DRIVES YOUR WRITING?
* That's right, he lives every day like it's NaNoWriMo.