The Writer’s Journey of John Earl Stark 02
R. L. Saunders
– – – –
John Earl Stark problems were far from over. He was up to his neck and now his stories were running his life.
All he wanted was to improve his book sales. But what he got was too many stories to write. And now he wasn’t sleeping as a result.
There were just too many and they wouldn’t stop coming. He simply couldn’t write them fast enough.
Worse, the stories were getting jumbled, the characters mixed.
If he didn’t do something soon, he’d probably go insane.
Focus. It’s a matter of focus.
And staying awake.
– – – –
It’s been a week of too much and too little.
All delivered through dreams, or just after waking.
John got way too many. He’d find himself awake with a story sitting there, but it would be 2 or 3 am. So he’d turn over, and then at 4am he’d be woken with another.
You know the one’s he writes – mysterious supernatural situations only a human can save them from. So he was right in to these opening scenes, like a movie running along through his mind. Dumped right in the middle of the action and all the characters shouting out their lines in 3D Cineramascope.
But the other stories that woke him up that early morning seemed gone.
If he just lay there and close his eyes, they’d be back, though – either starting over or picking up where they left off.
Rolling over tended to help.
By the time it was light enough to see, he was still exhausted and now had all the chores of the farm to take care of. Dogs and cats to feed, a milkcow to relieve, cattle to check. Those things aren’t just put off. Real live creatures needing his care.
So he’d be up and at them, somehow keeping his eyes open enough to not burn himself during breakfast. Slogging through the weather and the routines. Then he’d come back and shrug out of his outdoor clothes and collapse on his couch for “just a few minutes” – only to find himself with yet another story waking him and demanding to be written into existence.
After a few days of this, he finally got a pad and paper by his bed, and turn on the light to write down the opening scene and any details – something he could use later to hopefully pick up that story again.
Didn’t work out. He did have 6 or 8 new opening scenes he could mine. But where they went from there was still another problem.
At last, he did just force himself to sit down and write one of them all the way out. But it was a mystery from the start. He only had a scrap of a line to write from. But write he did – and it turned out OK. 6K words where this team of his spooks go and take on the entire government to get them to stop hunting people with “extraordinary abilities” just so they could do their genetic research and experiments. Happy ending, an all that.
For me, it was worse.
I took his idea of getting that pad and paper, but I only wound up with lists of phrases. And spent most of the night tossing and turning to get back to sleep again.
Then daylight would make sleep impossible – and I’d trudge over to John’s cabin for some of his to-die-for coffee with honey.
I don’t share his love of watching cattle graze, so pretty much I’d sit out on the front porch with his farm dog and pet her if she wanted it. Otherwise, just relax. Maybe with one of those books. Sometimes dozing off again.
When John came back, we’d hit the books again.
So here’s where we picked it up:
On your “read me first” note, you told us to take your “How I Survived” book and use it as the backbone to the rest of these others. They all take off from it like ribs. Or so you say. All we know is that we’ve got about half the table filled with stacks of books that we don’t dare get out of order. Because having to hunt through to find a book defeats the reason for stacking them. And we soon found out that the way we took them out put them into the order you suggested we read them.
(Besides, you also gave us digital versions of these, so that left us tons to do in our “spare time.”)
As usual, we salute your cleverness and foresight.
The first chapter of “How I Survived” took up your “Nine Lessons.”
Of course, the first one started to explain both John and my problems.
“No One School Has All the Teachers”
Too true. Both of us have read and swallowed all sorts of data. And most of it conflicted with at least one other author or authority.
But that then rolls into your first rule – of Sturgeon’s Law that “90% of everything out there is crud.”
And we both had to hand it to you – stating and repeating that anyone and everyone reading that book simply needed to test everything for themselves. Once they found out what worked for them, then they’s be on easy street.
It hit both of us that you are actually asking us to test these datums in this book as we read them, to argue both for and against them until one side proved to us – at least temporarily – to be more workable than the other.
That’s bold, boss. Nobody does that these days. Certainly not the media, definitely not the government. They only test against their supporting their own agenda, not whether something helps them write fiction more efficiently.
So, thanks for the vote of confidence. We won’t let you down.
Now, just because you studied that long list of 227 books you winnowed through to find a dozen really good ones doesn’t mean we have to. In fact, I noticed that you didn’t even include that list anywhere. Saving us some pain? Or wanting us to get through this faster?
It doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. Because both Stark and I still have quite different writing styles. And approaches.
Stark gets an idea for a story and says, “… and then what?”
I get an idea for a story and say, “…oh yeah?”
– – – –
I just talked that idea over with Stark, and maybe that explains why he has endless stories and I have a list of pithy statements.
Stark figures he’s there to write entertainment. I rather think I’m hear to explore the world we live in to find out why we need distractive entertainment – but write what I find in an amusing format. (That then gives us a reason right there for his greater success. Free ice cream is more popular than free liver pills.)
You Can Only Compare Yourself with Yourself.
That figures. But did I just violate that with my last statement? Not so much, I think. It’s more that I’m saying that Stark isn’t me and I’m not him. We don’t write the same way or about the same things.
So saying that some general approach has to apply to both of us is probably like trying to find the plot in an Edgar Allen Poe story. Isn’t really there – not at least by the current gold standards about what is a plot. For some editor to state that the points of Campbell’s Monomyth are in all plots is a bit far-fetched. For one, a short story doesn’t have room for them. You’ve got three or maybe four characters, tops. And only two of them with any depth.
Of course, I skipped to the back of your book – and we can readdress this once we get through this book – that there are no plots in writing, only story elements that are essential to that story.
There is a general plan for a short story – hook, rule of three try-fails, round-up, and teaser – like any decent TV story. Otherwise, it’s just “problematic character(s) somewhere.” Three words. Simple.
So, you go right back to the point that the way you write, and what you find that works for you, can only really be compared to how well you wrote before and what made that possible. Too simple.
It also goes back to your first rule – do you like what (and how) you’re writing? If not, then try something different. And also, how can you make this next one better than the last one?
Then you get a brain sneeze when I write something out like that – how about accepting something on trust from a story that’s coming to you? Not that I’m trying to be popular, but you don’t generally keep up polite conversations by attacking everything someone else says. Especially not right off the bat.
I think John needs to simply tell his stories , “Thanks, but I’m busy with this one right now, please take a ticket, or go over and ask R. L. in the next cabin.” Or maybe he should just get up and write it out when he gets that 3am wake-up call. Then go take a nap if he gets too tired later.
For me, it’s just going ahead and writing, but with my jaundiced eye out, looking for a barbed comment I can put in somewhere. Needed or not. But that is a matter of style and voice, not some “pure golden truth.”
Your next lesson really hit us both:
Writing is Regular Work. Regular Action Forms Habits.
This is probably more for me than John, although he nodded when we went over this. John pretty much does this on his own. He’s basically prolific. And now that he’s got endless stories to write, there’s a different problem waiting for him. He has his schedule of farm chores. And fits his writing in between.
So this works out for him.
I was only writing when then angst got too bad. And then would spiel it all out in some sort of “cathartic” story. So my work only ran once in a while. My habit was a weak one. Then I took a long sabbatical/detox and quit writing altogether. Means I at least need to get into some writing and reading daily, regardless of how much. Just start lining up some stuff I want to read, and then sitting down and cranking stuff out – regardless. Even if they are just 500 word essays, or less. Maybe like Hemmingway’s “Baby Shoes”.
Here’s one for you:
Everyone was sitting around the campfire.
Someone asked, “Joe, tell us a story?”
Thought you’d like that. Not original in the slightest.
But writing very short is said to be harder than writing long.
Your point of marketing was noted. Once I get back to writing and publishing regularly, it will be tested, you can believe me. Stark has done some tests at this, so he’s further along than me. But still feels his sales are flagging. To me, that just means more tests.
Prolific Writing is Easy. Making a Living at It is Hard.
Sure, if you simply write the story like a movie rolling off in your head, then it’s really simple. Taking the idea that stories are alive and come to you to be churned into a published work – great.
All on top of only writing what you love. Means you stay in that constant feeling of joy. (A bit of something for me to chew on. But yes even satire is fun when it comes out right.)
But you also say that you’ve taken out the business articles you wrote as they weren’t tested. So what we’re really doing here is to just re-learning our writing. (And John’s sales – and his minimalist life-style are keeping us both fed while we study these stacks of books.)
Writing in All Long Haul Work – “Overnight Success” is Just More Fiction
This is more down my alley boss – attacking conventional wisdom as they are hoisted by their own petard.
Decades of writing? I’ve barely been at this a year and quit partway through. It was chewing up my gut. Stark has it better, as he’s only gotten faster at writing.
So we both have a lot to look forward to.
I did look up “prolific authors” on Wikipedia and found that to be true. Also the point of Erle Stanley Gardner and H. Bedford-Jones writing over a million words a year – and selling their stories straight across, way before we had ebooks. Decades of writing is right.
Enjoy What You Write and So Will Your Readers.
Sure, you’re repeating yourself here. But I figure that you told us those four things first to get us going. (And boy did they get us going – Stark is still hollow-eyed, but recovering.)
I was leafing through the rest of that book and see that you’re going to tell us more about how to start writing great fiction right off. But we’re only taking as much as we can get through for now.
John remarked that this was more in alignment with the better you write, the more you yourself are engaged in your work, the higher quality it will be. So of course, your readers will love what you read.
And I found that quote (wherever it came from) to be very valuable: “Write what you want to read.” If I want more scintillating satire stories, I need to write them into existence.
Of course, that leads into:
Writing is Learned by Writing – Lots of It.
I’d run into this problem of having to sort out a story in my mind days before I ever wrote something down. And the flipside of simply knowing that it was such as great hook that something had to happen as a result. And stories where it was just too pat – until you found out what the characters themselves were avoiding. And then you saw the problems really needed resolution – a surprise twist.
That can be a great story, and very fun to write. Because if you’re surprised, the reader’s surprised.
Still, the argument that we’ll learn writing faster if we get past the 20K per week mark – that takes a long swig to get it down. Sure, it’s simple to say that you write half of a 6K story each day. Or 6K one day and revise/proof/publish the next – and three 6K+ stories each week. (Plus a day off.)
That again goes back to organizing your life so you can.
Once I get up to that amount, I’ll be able to test this better.
Follow and Emulate Perennial-Selling Books, Not Bestsellers
I think you meant to put “bestsellers” in quotes – but that’s probably just me. I’ve seen all these ads and whatnot around that tout the “million-sellers” and so on. Of course, this rolls back to “only comparing yourself with yourself”.
Because you look up their back trail and find a huge lot of practice out there, as well as a lot of work getting a mailing list built over years. So they have their own collection of devoted fans where they can simply email them about a new release and spike the sales on release day.
But look up perennial-selling books – mostly dead authors – and you only see their polished pearls. Like Melville’s “Moby Dick”, or Thoreau’s “Walden” – that didn’t sell piddles while they were alive. That they’re selling now, without advertising or mailing lists means they are “damn good books” – and worth studying.
That did tell me to get out of the satire-writing business, though. I mean you do have “Gulliver’s Travels” continuing along, even though the satire behind it is long forgotten. But it’s good entertainment, a good story. There’s too many of these current “political bestsellers” that will be forgotten with the next election or two.
Write your best, learn from the best. Meaning that you should read the best to begin with – not the 90% crud out there.
(And thanks again for including Dorothea Brande’s essay on how to dissect stories in the appendix. Very sensible approach.)
Stories Are Out There Begging to Be Brought to Life
Stephen King saying stories write themselves is somewhat true. Still, you have to be listening, and you still have to set up a space and put the words out on the page – digital or otherwise.
Like John and I told you last week, our best days have been when we simply listen to the voices over our shoulders that told us the next sentence to fit in there. Brande does talk about the “editor mind” and the “writer mind” having to learn how to coordinate. And I recall your comments about the author being a story-wrangler and pushing the “story” to skip the dull parts and just tell you the most exciting and dramatic story they can.
All with the idea you are talking and listening to an actual being.
To that degree, we agree with you on this. Again, as you say, we need to test this more for ourselves.
So far, it seems to be a very workable truth. And one that has considerable mileage. It lends to an author using the skills of an interviewer, as Ray Bradbury interviewed the characters in his “Fahrenheit 451” to come up with a script-sequel to that book.
This also seems to be the core of your more-efficient approach to high-volume writing. Let the stories do the work – you just write down the details as best you can, insisting that they keep you entranced as you write.
– – – –
Lessons learned, then. And thanks.
The two of us have learned a lot this week. And outside of our studies, perhaps we’ll get some stories to you this next week as well.
Until next week, then.
– – – –
Editor’s Note: Just got this cryptic text from Saunders…
Your four parts to succeeding as a writer are brilliant. But you’ve mis-counted. There are five. Stark is sleeping better. Turns out we were able to take your tips – and his Internet connection – to backtrace a way. Brilliant, as usual. You, not Stark. TKS, RLS