The Writer’s Journey of John Earl Stark 01
by R. L. Saunders
The First Four Rules
– – – –
This is Robert C. Worstell, Chief Editor and Author Wrangler here at Midwest Journal Press.
Recently, I had an author return to my stable after a short dint in a “digital rehab”. He was a bit more gaunt, a bit hollow-eyed, but calmer. He seemed to have lost a nervous “edge” that he’d always carried around – along with a sharply barbed wit that had a hair trigger.
His name is R. L. Saunders. Perhaps you’ve read some of his books. Maybe not.
He said he was back and he wanted to get back into writing. We both knew it wasn’t going to be easy. That “addiction” he went off to cure was also his crutch – the one he leaned on to write his satire and parodies.
So I gave him a job. We had a bunch of works around that needed to be polished up and re-cataloged and so forth. I figured that by having to read our other author’s works, maybe their style and approach would rub off on him. Maybe he’d be able to get some inspiration from their stories to build some new ones of his own.
He gave me a weak smile, a nod, and then found himself a desk in one of the back rooms.
Not too soon after, I got a note from one of my other authors, name of John Earl Stark. He asked if I knew any one to recommend – that could help him with his flagging sales.
A light bulb went off right then. I called up Saunders and told him that he needed to go out to interview this Stark fellow, that I’d be shipping a care package of materials out there with instructions on how to use them.
Of course, I had to “loan” Saunders gas money to make the trip, and the use of my “Triple A” card in case his “beater” truck didn’t make it all the way.
Saunders was to write me a letter every week on their progress. And I sent an email to Stark saying that I was sending someone out – he just had to put the guy up and keep him fed.
By the time Stark replied, Saunders was well on his way.
Just yesterday, I got his the first report back.
Here it is below:
Thanks for this great assignment. Being able to work remotely is a blessing, especially for this project.
John Earl Stark (or “just John” as he would rather be called) has this spare cabin for any visitor, plus a third one between those like a library. That middle one was where we can discuss things, or just spread out papers and stuff.
John still prefers just to write at the small desk in his own cabin. And there’s a small desk in his visitor cabin as well.
I just can’t get used to these small spaces. Sure, there’s lots of space outside to walk and so forth. And I can always dictate through my smartphone, but these smaller digs are where I can type reports and maybe some outlines or treatments.
And thanks for shipping all those references out. I had no clue there was so much you’ve shared with me – but also stuff that John or me has never seen.
So let me set the stage though:
John was waiting at the door to his cabin as I drove up those two narrow dirt-and-gravel tracks he calls a driveway. (Of course, he doesn’t have to use them much, since his spirit-guides whisk him away when they go off to rescue a ghost or save the world.) The fact is that he spends most of his time writing and makes the trip to town every other week or so. A recluse-author. Works for him.
And in real life, just like his books, he does wear a red t-shirt stuffed into blue dungarees. I caught him in his sock feet, since he was writing or puttering around in that tiny cabin when I drove up.
Of course, he welcomed me and poured a mug of coffee for both of us – two dollops of honey in each. (And you really need to try his custom roast blend that way. Liquid Heaven. I’ll see if I can come back with some.)
So, yeah, he wants to improve his sales. (Who doesn’t – I mean he completely outsells me, always has.)
And I mentioned that fact. He only smiled. And told me about the box you’d shipped in.
No, of course he didn’t open it. It was addressed to me. So it had his curiosity going. He’d put it in the center cabin.
So once he got his boots on, we went over there.
Nice box. Big and all. Packed so tight you didn’t need any extra stuffing. And when we unpacked them, those books just kept coming and coming – like some sort of clown car at the circus.
Good thing he had a big-ish table in there. Still, the books almost filled it up, even when stacked.
So I kinda got the idea I was going to be here for awhile. And at the bottom of that box was a handful of jump-drives in their own tiny zippered pouch – about the size of a dimestore paperback.
That was a cute post-it taped to the top one: “Read Me First.”
And a funny video on that jump drive, if terse.
(You know what it said. Very funny, boss.)
I chuckled for a bit. John was more shocked than anything else. And that surprised me – after what he’s written about his “true” experiences, you’d think he was proofed up against everything.
But he also wasn’t used to my brand of humor. We’d never co-authored. Sure, he’d borrowed my idea once and gave me credit. But didn’t really ask me to side-check or even proof that book.
That “humor” of mine was why I had to take that sabbatical in a “digital rehab”.
Now, that’s a real hell for you. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just this “hell on earth” that we’re addicted to.
Anyway, like I told John. Now I was worse off than ever before. Because I used to think I knew how to write – at least the weird, dark humor I could write.
With Facebook, Twitter, and the online media outlets off my back, I was a free man again. Free to write about anything I wanted.
I just didn’t know how anymore.
That’s where I got the punchline.
And started laughing all over again. John kinda chuckled along with me, but not sure if he really got the meaning.
So we sat, and got to work organizing all this stuff you sent.
We were both going to review and restudy from scratch.
Helluva game changer for both of us.
Of course, we both recalled the first rule you told us – (that you said was one you had to shove in all your author’s faces). It’s the old Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything out there is crud.”
Your next followup statement – after the shocked looks all these prima donna‘s gave you – the ones with their MFA’s hanging out of their pockets. That statement was “So get busy producing stories, because I want you to dig down to that 10% that will make us both money.”
If they were still on-board the next week, then you’d have a story ready to work over. Otherwise, maybe somehow in the rest of their short lifetime, we might get somewhere near an outline of the first draft for the “Great American Novel.”
Right. Sure thing, boss.
You and I both know it doesn’t work that way. Or does it?
John reminded me about your follow up. Then you’d tell them the bottom line: “Turn in a million words a year and you’ll be getting close.” Out of the 100K words that weren’t crud, you’d have maybe two novel-length books. Or a couple-dozen short stories.
Didn’t matter to you. And that winnowed the field so you could pay attention to the one’s that were worth investing your time in. And those of us who decided to stick around and “grindstone” it out would get told if we asked.
You’d pat us on the back and tell us “Now you’re on the scent – keep at it and your clues will keep coming. Don’t let your trail go cold.”
Then your next advice: “Write short and publish long.” Because those MFA’s might have to take years in getting all that crud out of their system – what they’d spent years stuffing in and swallowing hard.
Garbage in, garbage out. So quit accepting garbage. Just write the best you can until there wasn’t any more garbage left.
You told us that if we concentrated on first writing short stories, then we’d be able to work on the bits and pieces of craft we wanted to improve on. Characters, settings, cliffhangers, hooks – all these things. One at a time. All in short stories, every story better than the last.
Then they’d be able to finally start writing the books they were meant to.
Us two – we’d already been there, done that. Now it was time for our PhD’s – Piled Higher and Deeper.
Right there on that table. All the books we coulda, shoulda studied and now for sure would study this time.
My idea of studying might not be the same as yours. I went out to my truck.
When I came back, I pushed a six-pack of near-beer over to John and kept the other on my side. We each opened one. Like coffee, you have to get used to the taste. And once you do, well…
Boss, it was only then I reached for that first book you listed. That one waiting on the top of that stack. Guess you piled these in according to how you want us to read them – because that last one wound up on top.
Or maybe I’m just reading more into this…
Your “read me first” list continued:
“First rule: Writing is supposed to be fun. If you didn’t like writing it, then your reader’s won’t like reading it.”
“That whole idea of ‘catharsis’ is fine in theory – and there’s some personal improvement gains to be had – but we all can’t buy those late night Tony Robbins infomercial products in order to write good fiction.”
I remembered an idea from that celebrity-author we parodied years ago.
Me, I really should have quit taking that to heart right then. There I was, trying to write all that crap out of my life that I was sucking in through the “news” media – and the “social” media – that just had to come back out again. All for “catharsis”.
And explains why my best stuff was the most fun to write all the way through, not just at the end when I finally “got it out of my system.”
Your notes then said “Writing is supposed to be fun all the way through. Of course you don’t know how the story ends until you get there.
“Readers quit at the beginning, or part way through, or just throw it down at the end in disgust. (Savagely deleting it from your Kindle probably works, too.)
“If you aren’t keeping them riveted in their chairs, or turning pages long after they should be asleep, it’s not their fault. It’s yours.
“You didn’t feel it when it left you? That’s the trick. You weren’t watching your own gut feelings while you were writing.
“There’s the next book to study – ‘Writer’s Journey’ by Chris Vogler. Skip to the appendix. Read it carefully. ‘Good stories make you feel something in your gut.'”
Then you had a reference to the old Stephen King “On Writing”. Somehow that book had gotten out of order on the stacks. There it was – tabbie stuck on the page with a hand-drawn arrow pointing to the line: ‘Stories are alive.'”
Of course, that made us both sit back. There were other slips of papers stuck in there as well. Book-marks. Clippings. Where Vonnegut would interview his characters to write the sequel. And where Bradbury just talked to his family and friends after he put them up on Mars.
That was too much for both of us.
We headed out to check John’s cows, even though it was already getting dark.
If we were lucky, we’d get the shock out of our system – and not come back with anything too smelly on our shoes.
When we got back we were thirsty, so that took another near-beer out of the equation.
At least we had left the lights on while we were out. (And no, our shoes were fine, but we left them outside just in case.)
John and I looked at each other. We thought we had it easy so far. He had a bunch of supernaturals (in his dreams) take him on adventures and all he had to do was write them up. I’d had a lot of bottled-up angst and a twisted sense of humor. Both of those were easy ways to get books out – all we had to do was to look at similar books people were already writing, then crank these out according to all their plots and “tropes” and latest “memes”, and then get a cover that looked a lot like theirs. All we had to do after that – according to conventional wisdom – was to run some ads that said our books were a lot like their books.
But one look at each other and we realized we were fakes. Him less than me. At least some of his books sold – a little bit. Heck, “Midsummer’s Night Dream” is still popular today. So is “Gulliver’s Travels”. So what.
Doesn’t mean those stories are alive – or ever were.
We looked at each other.
But just maybe…
I told him that sometimes I got the idea that somebody was just over my shoulder telling me what to write – what the next best sentence was. And that if I just started typing – then it all would work out. Of course the typing had to get faster then, just to keep up.
And I could do that for days at a stretch – unless I got interrupted or had do do something else.
John told me that that was his best writing. And the voice only quit when he started doubting what he was being told or second-guessing it. But he just thought that it was only him, only his imagination playing tricks. The thing was – if he went back to writing the way other people said in their books, writing got really hard. Like trying to build a brick wall without mortar. Even if you studied all the great books about brick wall building – you’re still lacking the one thing that holds them all together. Sooner or later, it’s going to fall down around you.
I had to nod with John. Maybe this “miracle-worker” editor we’d found was the real deal.
So I pulled up your “read me first” list and started reading again.
1. 90% of everything out there is crud (so accept everything only for checking, and test everything for yourself – including this.)
Right. Makes sense.
2. Read only what you love and write only what you love – if you don’t, your readers won’t.
OK. True enough.
3. Stories are sensed through your body. Stories are alive.
That took a big swallow (and we only had a few bottles left.) But it added up with our own experiences. Meant we could keep “testing” that idea – for a little while at least.
The next idea came to us both at the same time.
How were we supposed to find these ideas, these living things, that didn’t seem to have any “body” to talk to us?
We’d both written fiction about the author’s relationship to their stories. And read those by other authors (like J. R. Kruze) who really dove into that idea. He had stories as vengeful ghosts, as lovers, as goddesses. But that last one he published told about this special relationship with the story. To him, the story was female, the author male, and it was a kind of slow-motion seduction.
Not too surprising, that thin paperback was in the stacks as well.
To two red-blooded guys, that was a metaphor we could get our heads around.
It read fast, so we took turns.
But by the end, we were no closer to understanding what you wrote.
It was back to the list, then.
4. If you want to find stories, then look back to the first three points. When you get these down, then the stories will find you. They are always looking, always there. Open your eyes, all your senses – and your heart.
That was enough for the day. Our beers were spent. Our minds were blown.
It was dark outside.
So we each retired to our own cabin. To sleep, perchance to dream – and find a story looking for us. One that needed us to write it into existence.
And in those dreams, it wasn’t one, but several that found us.
Which only gave us other problems. That didn’t go away when we woke in the early morning light…
– – – –
That’s where the letter ends.
Of course he left it on a cliffhanger – what else is an author going to do. Yes, this looks to be a serial.
Next week, I’ll have another letter for you.
So – stay tuned…
For another continuing episode about: “The Writer’s Journey of John Earl Stark”.