Writer’s Desk: Find a Group

In his great literary guide and memoir On Writing—read it now, if you haven’t already—Stephen King unpacked many secrets of the scrivening trade. Among the more salient was this:

Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.

Finding a writers’ group helps. So does suborning your friends and family to read what you’re working on. Feedback is never a waste, even if you end up ignoring it completely.

Writer’s Desk: Keep Trying

There is almost no greater cliche in publishing than reminding aspiring writers that even Stephen King got rejection letters by the basketful early in his career. But it is still worth repeating.

To that end, here’s a few notable bestsellers that were originally considered unworthy of publication:

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Screening Room: ‘The Dark Tower’

A mash-up of elements from the novels in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower fantasy series, the movie of the same name is hitting screens tomorrow after a long and convoluted production history. Theoretically, it’s the kickoff for a TV series to follow next year.

My review is at Film Journal International:

According to what little mythology the script provides, the title’s looming structure isn’t just a tower, it’s a linchpin holding the entire fabric of reality together. If anything happens to the Tower, then the hosts of ravening Lovecraftian beasties lurking beyond the Tower-guarded boundaries of the universe will destroy everything. At least, that’s how Roland the Gunslinger (Idris Elba), a stoic warrior tasked with protecting the Tower, explains it to Jake (Tom Taylor), a New York kid whose parents thought he was insane because of all his visions he was having of Roland, the Tower and a frightening Man in Black…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Write Anything Down

notebook1There are a couple salient moments in this interview with Stephen King. The first is when he gives some counter-intuitive advice about ideas for stories:

I don’t write anything down, any ideas ever, because that’s a good way to immortalize really bad ideas. The bad ideas fall out. It’s a natural Darwinian process. They go away somehow. It’s like throwing a bunch of crackers in a sieve. Some of those ideas shake out because the crumbs get too small, but the big ones stay…

It could make for an interesting experiment. Let the ideas come and if they’re still there by the time you’re ready to put them to page, then those are the keepers. How many of us have gone back to a notebook, looked at a scrawl that seemed amazing at the time, and wondered what the hell we were thinking?

The second memorable quote comes in his response to the interviewer’s question about what is driving King’s current prolific phase: “I’m not as a prolific as I used to be.”

Weekend Reading: October 9, 2015

 

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Writer’s Desk: Writing Too Much

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For the average writer, turning out new pages and finishing stories, articles, or (if we’re so lucky) books isn’t a problem. It’s the whole reason they’re doing it. Productivity counts. Quality, too, of course. But in the end, finished pages are nicer. Since the best way for most of us to be better writers is to do it as much as possible (feedback, feedback, please), then the more the better.

For some writers, though, being prolific is seen as a problem. As in: If they’re so good, why are they publishing so much? Shouldn’t they be taking their time.

As somebody who knows a few things about over-publishing (four books in a year) Stephen King has some thoughts on that topic. In discussing one of his pet peeves, the belief that productivity exists in inverse proportion to literary quality, he pulls out the expected trump card: Joyce Carol Oates.

But then King talks about Donna Tartt and Jonathan Franzen, whom he considers two of America’s great living literary treasures, and have just eight books between them. That minimal output, he admits, drives him crazy:

I understand that each one of us works at a different speed, and has a slightly different process. I understand that these writers are painstaking, wanting each sentence — each word — to carry weight (or, to borrow the title of one of Jonathan Franzen’s finest novels, to have strong motion). I know it’s not laziness, but respect for the work, and I understand from my own work that haste makes waste.

But I also understand that life is short, and that in the end, none of us is prolific. The creative spark dims, and then death puts it out.

We are only here for a short while. So get cracking.

Writer’s Desk: Stephen King on His Muse

Calliope -- she was the muse responsible for those writing epic poetry. (Library of Congress)
Calliope — she was the muse responsible for those writing epic poetry. (Library of Congress)

There are writers who like to talk about their muse. They don’t have to necessarily be thinking about one of the classical nine Greek muses, just trying to personify that indefinable thing which is inspiration. It’s an easy thing to wax poetic about because, well, most writers don’t truly understand this thing that we do.

Stephen King has his own way of describing his muse, when talking about his writing room:

My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all. She gives me the words. She is not used to being regarded so directly, but she still gives me the words. She is doing it now. That’s the other level, and that’s the mystery. Everything in your head kicks up a notch, and the words rise naturally to fill their places. If it’s a story, you find the scene and the texture in the scene. That first level — the world of my room, my books, my rug, the smell of the gingerbread — fades even more. This is a real thing I’m talking about, not a romanticization. As someone who has written with chronic pain, I can tell you that when it’s good, it’s better than the best pill.

Is that helpful to somebody struggling with the blank page? No, of course not. What’s helpful is how King ends the piece:

My muse may visit. She may not. The trick is to be there waiting if she does.

Meaning that being a writer is somewhat like being a Boy Scout. Always be prepared.

Reader’s Corner: 100 Most Requested Out-of-Print Books

Every year, BookFinder.com compiles a list of the 100 most sought-after out-of-print books. Their 11th annual list was just released and it’s quite the read.

For our sins, the #1 title is Madonna’s oh-so-scandalous “book” Sex. Stephen King makes a few high-up appearances, most surprisingly for the little-known My Little Pony, which was released as a limited edition in 1989 with illustrations by Barbara Kruger. Some other highlights:

  • Nora Roberts (?!) – Promise Me Tomorrow
  • Cameron Crowe – Fast Times at Ridgemont High
  • Salvador Dali, J.R.R. Tolkien, others – The Jerusalem Bible
  • Ricky Jay – Cards as Weapons

 

 

 

Readers’ Corner: Hard Case Crime

joyland1There aren’t a lot of publishers around these days who do a good job of specializing in one particular type of book. Hard Case Crime is a welcome exception to that rule, churning out quality classic oldies and brand new pulp fiction since the early 2000s. Plus, they’re affordable and come with evocatively painted throwback covers.

My article on Hard Case Crime ran on the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s blog; here’s part of it:

Stephen King helped Hard Case get much of its early publicity back in 2005, when it published his throwback crime novel The Colorado Kid. King’s second book with the press is Joyland. The setup is almost more Judy Blume than Spillane. Naïve college kid Devin Jones is a self-described “twenty-one-year-old virgin with literary aspirations” stuck in a miserably unreciprocated love story: “The heartbreaker was Wendy Keegan, and she didn’t deserve me.” Finally kicked to the curb, Jones heads south to work at a North Carolina amusement park for a summer. Needless to say, he learns about much more than how to heal his broken heart…

 

 

Readers’ Corner: Homemade Audio Books

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The family that reads together … something something. In any case, it’s a common family trait for the parents to read to their kids at night. Helps send them off into dreamland so that they’re pestering the grownups lest. The family of Stephen King, though, seemed to have a different tradition. In Susan Dominus’ great feature article on them (and how nearly everybody in the family is a published author now) from last week’s New York Times Magazine, she notes that the roles were reversed in that household:

Entertaining their parents, for the King children, was part job, part enrichment. At bedtime, they were the ones expected to tell their parents stories, instead of the other way around.

King père also had an interesting job for the kids. Being a Maine guy, he had to spend a lot of him driving long distances. Like many dads, he used audio books to fill the time. However:

…he sometimes could not find the books he wanted on tape — or maybe he just did not bother. He had three children: Naomi, Joe and Owen. They could read, couldn’t they? All King had to do was press record. Which is how his school-age children came to furnish their father, over the years, with a small library’s worth of books on tape.

One of their jobs was Anna Karenina; one would hope that meant a decent allowance bump that week.

Readers’ Corner: J.K. Rowling and Pseudonyms

jprowling-popupThere’s a piece of mine that published at PopMatters today about the recent kerfuffle over J.K. Rowling being unmasked as the real author of the little-noticed mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Clock, previously credited to one “Robert Galbraith.”

It’s called “What’s in a Pseudonym?“:

It’s not as though Rowling hadn’t branched out from her Harry Potter success. Last year’s novel, The Casual Vacancy was set in real-world Britain, with nary a spell to be found. Why would she put that out under her own name and not The Cuckoo’s Calling? The easy answer probably goes back to the old literary / genre divide that one would have thought had disappeared in a time when people aren’t embarrassed to be seen reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the train and adults happily own up to reading YA fare like The Hunger Games

Previous to this news being broken, The Cuckoo’s Clock (well-reviewed, by the way) had sold 1,500 copies when attributed to Galbraith. The publisher just ordered a rush printing of 300,000 copies.

Writer’s Room: The Tricks We Use

I'm telling you, this chapter is killing me...
I’m telling you, this chapter is killing me…

There are writers who don’t need a system to get their work done. They can go with what one could term the Stephen King method: Read a lot and write a lot. Sometimes, though, that straight-out approach doesn’t hack it. You’re blocked, you’re uninspired, you just don’t want to do it. That’s when writers resort to tricks and hacks to force themselves into productivity. Some need solitude, some need noise, some use a particular kind of writing software, some have a program on their laptop that doesn’t let them waste time on the Interwebs… The ever-precious Jonathan Franzen writes with:

noise-canceling headphones, on which I can blast frequency-shifted white noise (“pink noise”) that drowns out even the most determined woofing of a neighbor’s television set…

It goes on.

One other thing writers like to do (besides procrastinate and read their own reviews while claiming they never do so) is read or listen to more successful writers go on about their methods. The idea being, well, if it worked for Joyce Carol Oates, maybe I should try it out.

Novelist Ben Dolnick has a sharp essay about this in the New York Times called “Stupid Writer Tricks,” where he talks about his not-exactly helpful obsession with gleaning tips from writer interviews. Reading that Philip Roth likes to write at a standing desk or Hemingway always kept a small notebook on him seems like the sort of thing that might work out … until it doesn’t:

I had, for a long time, a profound vulnerability to hearing about these sorts of routines. Of course I knew that writing was terrifically hard work, and that there was no secret code, as in a video game, that would unlock Tolstoy-mode, enabling me to crank out canon-worthy novellas before lunch. But I persisted in believing that I might one day come upon some technique, some set of tricks, that would vault me irreversibly onto the professional plane. I didn’t have a working printer, but I agreed wholeheartedly with Joan Didion that I needed to be sleeping in the same room as my manuscript, so as never to lose touch with it. It would be years before I’d written so much as a single chapter of a novel, but I knew that when I finished a book, I would, like Anthony Trollope, begin my next one on the very same day.

Dolnick doesn’t chuck the whole idea of writing techniques, finding them to have their purpose. But he decides it’s ultimately more about how you approach writing than your technique; calmness is key:

If, though, you can reach out from a position of calm, as a swimmer reaches out for a kickboard before turning to begin his next lap, then you might find yourself feeling what all the tricks and tips are finally pointing toward: freedom. You might surprise yourself — roll onto your back, do a flutter kick, or just float for a while. The water, after all, is the point, and not how you scratch away at it.

Some of us might at times write more lucidly and energetically in a state of great agitation and nerve. But in the end, doesn’t it flow better when you’re actually enjoying the process? Write with joy, in other words. Unless you’re blocked, in which case, do whatever you must to make the words come.

New in Theaters: ‘Room 237’

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room_237-posterStanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining is many things: Creepy, deliberate, fiendishly jokey, way over-reliant on Jack Nicholson, and perhaps the last interesting film that Kubrick did. But to some people it was far more than that. The documentary Room 237 weaves footage from the film in with interviews from its many dedicated viewers who have analyzed every single frame…and found things there you wouldn’t believe.

My full review is at Film Journal International; here’s part of it:

If it wasn’t The Shining, it would have been something else. That’s the first conclusion reached while watching Rodney Ascher’s all-enveloping head-first dive into the world of diligent obsessives who have parsed and filleted Stanley Kubrick’s horror film for deeper meaning. Many of them go so deep into each frame that it’s a wonder the many hypotheses hauled up in their nets, wriggling and wild-eyed, weren’t even further out on the fringe. “I admit,” one interviewee says in a rare sober moment, “that I am grasping at straws”…

Room 237 is playing now in limited release.

You can watch the trailer here:

 

Reader’s Corner: 50 Essential Science Fiction Novels

neuromancer-gibsonEvery now and again the good people over at the online used-book emporium AbeBooks put up collections of grand book covers. Those who like this sort of thing enjoy just trolling through all the glorious old designs, with their funky and outmoded typefaces and abstract illustrations. But every now and again they do more of a curated thematic listing. That’s the case with their recent “50 Essential Science Fiction Novels.” As Richard Davies notes, it’s a fairly impossible task:

I wanted to show the unbelievable breadth of this galactic-sized genre and, of course, I failed because this is just the tip of the spaceberg – there are probably 500 essential science fiction books, not 50.

hitchhikersThe list covers everything from William Gibson (pictured) to Jules Verne and J.G. Ballard. It’s not just a piece of literary eye-candy, but a welcome reminder that there’s plenty out there still to be read. (Note to self: need to add more Theodore Sturgeon to the must-buy list.)

Davies notes that selecting these books “was a virtually impossible task.” Still, there are worse tasks out there in the universe…