I finally wrapped up my book, Rurally Screwed, on Wednesday, giving a final polish to the 315 page manuscript and scanning final changes back to my editor in New York. I’ve been working on this book seriously since 2009, even earlier if I count the god-awful, stilted chapters I tried writing as early as 2006.
This is by far the biggest thing I’ve ever accomplished professionally and I’m alternately elated and terrified. Elated for having finished this sucker! Booo-yahhh! Writing a long-form narrative is difficult, lonely and sedentary work and can feel, as Stephen King once described, “like sailing the Atlantic in a bathtub.” More about Mr. King in a minute.) I’m constantly shadowed by self-doubt (“Is ‘covetous’ the right word here? Or ‘greedy?’ Wait, what does covetous even mean? Damn it, I suck!”) yet I try to ignore the YS voices — the You Suck voices — and plow ahead. Though I’ve been having a hard time sleeping lately over the thought I just wrote the most laughable drivel of my life (and laughter not in a good way) and will be run out of town upon publication.
Since handing in the book, I’ve been walking around in a daze, not really able to think of much else other than the craft of writing. Specifically, how to become a better writer. My dad, also a writer, lent me a great book over the holidays called, succinctly, On Writing by Stephen King. Usually I avoid books of this type since it seems the only way to become a better writer is to write religiously, day in and day out, not by reading through someone’s tedious imaging exercises (“Now picture yourself in a green field. That’s it. Hold it in your mind’s eye. Now what do you see?”). I make the exception at King, who, love him or hate him, is one of the most prolific, most successful writers of our time. It would behoove me to listen to what this man has to say about the craft. And because it’s written by Stephen King, you can bet it’s a page turner. It’s also surprisingly laugh-out-loud hilarious. (Who knew Stephen King was so funny?)
According to King, writers are classified into something of a food pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most abundant class — the bad writers. Above them are the competent writers, then the good writers, and finally, the great writers, who King classifies as the Faulkners, Shakespeares and Dickens of this world–masters of the craft, visionaries from the beyond, word deities. King states that it’s not possible to go from a bad writer to a competent writer — if you’re bad, you’re bad for life. Ouch? (Maybe time to consider that career in public relations?) He says it’s also impossible to go from being a good writer to a great writer (Tolstoy), in the same way it’s not possible to turn a good basketball player into Michael Jordan. King says the only mobility between classes of writers is to go from competent to good. Not great, just good. I get the sense King lumps himself into the “good” category.
I appreciate King’s lack of pretension about his own craft. The guy makes millions of dollars a year yet he likens himself to a brick layer or long haul truck driver; he builds stories, one word, one brick, one mile at a time. I really like this analogy; it’s one I need to absorb. So many writers (*cough, cough*) get so far up their own ass about their words, as if every phrase they write is a pearl dropped from heaven. The writing becomes precious, self-aware, bloated. It might read like poetry but is also boring as hell. And story, according to King, is the most important thing, more important than vocabulary, theme, symbolism and everything else in a writer’s bag of tricks.
I was also mesmerized by King’s process. He says gets up in the morning, goes into his study and writes 10 pages (or 2,000 words) each day. He doesn’t leave his study until he’s finished, usually around lunch time. (TEN PAGES BY LUNCH?!!!?!?! Why do I even bother?) Then he spends the rest of his day taking walks, running errands and thinking about the story. He never plots. He never structures. He never begins a story with a grand theme, only a situation and/or characters, then lets his imagination take over. Funny to think King is as clueless about where the story is going as the reader. The only way he is able to accomplish such a hefty word count each day is by not looking over what he’s just written, which opens the door to self-doubt and hand-wringing. This, he says, is the key to a prolific career as a word smith (at least if you’re Stephen King!) — building words like a brick layer, not a dainty cherub plucking a word harp in heaven.
I have tried — emphasis on tried — to do the same thing with this lengthy (apologies to the two readers remaining) blog post. Finish or bust! Tally ho!