It's the Story, Stupid

on November 8, 2007

I’m listening to Stephen King’s ON WRITING on my iPod in the car. It’s not something I can listen to while writing–too interesting and distracting. For writing, I mostly listen to rock-and-roll or Irish folk music. I have my iPod divided into music “tone” by that I mean “hard” (Led Zeppelin, Lynard Skynard, Dropkick Murphys) to “medium” (U2, The Police, The Who) to “soft” (Elvis Costello, the Beatles, Pink Floyd.) I have an “Irish” group, dominated by Celtic Storm, Enya and Tommy Makem, and a “Faves” group which is quite eclectic and mixes my groups around.

But for driving, I like books on tape, or rather, books on iPod.

Though I’ve read Stephen King’s writing epic, listening to it is a wholly new and useful experience. He is not only the writer, but the reader–his cadence and emphasis as if he were sitting across from me in a bar, sharing his thoughts about writing. I’m loving it.

I am learning a great deal and being reminded of things I’ve forgotten or chosen to ignore. At times, I think I’m brilliant, such as when King says that usually, when he’s done with the first draft, he re-reads and finds gems partially hidden, ideas or allusions that keep the story together that he didn’t consciously add. I do that! I exclaim.

Then, I realize that I have a lot to learn. Like going back and fleshing out those nuggets.

Sometimes, I think I take the easiest path. The story is “good enough” because I have a half dozen other ideas clamoring to be written. Sometimes I fear I rely too much on my editor to find the nuggets for me and then write in the margins, “This is good–more like this.” But, frankly, that isn’t her job, it’s mine, and I’ve become lazy. I procrastinate. Not in the writing–I love the writing–but in the thinking.

Writing isn’t easy. It’s hard work–and times like tonight, when I’m behind on my revisions, I realize it’s not just putting words on paper. It’s not just getting the story out. I did that. It’s out there. But listening to Stephen King has me searching out those gold nuggets and polishing them up. And that takes time. A lot of time.

One of the most important ideas to take from King is that the story is what matters. The story is first. Everything else, all those tools in our writer’s tool chest, are there for the story. Story, story, story.

I’ve always believed this, from when I first read the phrase “story is character” coined, I believe, by Robert McKee. Story IS character, and character becomes the story . . . if you let them do what they need to do.

So I’ve been listening to King in the car, then sitting down and re-writing and in the back of my mind I’m thinking about story and fossils and seeing something good, but not quite clear enough . . . and spending time pulling it out.

Every book writes itself differently. FEAR NO EVIL, for example, practically wrote itself. Everything poured out, the characters took over, and I just went along for the ride. Easy? So it seemed. I thought I had found a direct connection to the muse, no more of this wasting time with pondering this or that or searching for the nuggets. No, I was now a REAL writer.

But real writers work hard, as TEMPTING EVIL is teaching me . . . in spades. This story is not coming along quick or easy. I see it all there, open for me, but as I get closer I realize I’ve put the bones together the wrong way. The damn rib is where the femur should be, and the knuckle replaced a knee. I’ve had to rearrange all my carefully excavated bones and WHAM! Halfway through the book something major happens. Majorly different. It was there all along, I should have been able to see it. But instead, I didn’t listen to my characters and pushed them where I thought they needed to go.

Why? Because I wasn’t paying attention to what the STORY was telling me.

Right now I’m cursing King for a variety of reasons. For reminding me that I have a lot to learn and the more I learn the more I realize how much I don’t know. That everything he says is making me work harder for a story I thought would come easy.

I won’t know if all this angst is going to make TEMPTING EVIL a better–or worse–book than the seven books I’ve written for publication. I won’t know until I read the page proofs and see if the story still holds together. I’ve heard from other authors that some books are “easy”–Roxanne St. Claire I believe calls them “gimmes.” And some books are from hell. TEMPTING EVIL definitely falls into the latter category.

Wish me luck. The story has gone off with a mind of its own and I’m just trying to save scenes that have already been written.

As for Stephen King’s ON WRITING, I think I’m going to listen to in one more time. Because sometimes, we need to remember that we still have a lot to learn if we are going to continue to grow as writers, and also, it’s all about the story.

Karin likes us to ask questions at the end of our posts. You know, to stimulate conversation 🙂 So I ask, on a completely different subject, what was your favorite book of 2007? Mine was Bobbie Faye’s Very (very, very, very) Bad Day by Toni McGee Causey, a regular visitor here. INNOCENT IN DEATH by JD Robb and TRYPTYCH by Karin Slaughter were two runner-ups. But because I write dark, I find my favorite books tend to be something I can’t write, like Toni’s caper.