Monthly Archives: November 2007

Letting A Story Write Itself

Stories sometimes just drop out of the sky. Or do they?There is a paragraph in Stephen King’s On Writing that hit me about the head like a frying pan. In it he talks about his writing process: how he transforms an idea he has for a story into an actual book.

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.

King makes it seem so easy: why ever should you have to ‘be enslaved to the tyranny of the outline and the notebook filled with “Character Notes”?’ And I must admit, it does make writing sound fun. But after giving it a try and thinking about the possibilities of this technique – I have to say that the differences in story and plot really depend on what kind of writer you are, and what kind of stories you write.


Story is what King advocates: he starts off with an idea, and instead of pulling up his sleeves and pushing characters around, he sits back and just ‘write what happens’. He alleges this is more organic and inspired, and some pretty complex books of his have come out of this style of writing (Doleres Claiborne). To his credit his arguments do make plenty of sense – and he throws in a caveat: “… each of the novels summarized above was smoothed out and detailed by the editorial process, of course, but most of the elements existed to begin with …”

Story works where there is a situational premise (Richard’s Undead Flowers, for instance: what happens if there are the undead and the living live together, side by side, in a village?). And I believe story also works when you’re writing a blook … for the reasons King gave, as well as its suitability to the medium.

Filtering The Cult Of The Amateur

A snapshot of the book The Cult Of The Amateur by Andrew KeenI’ve just finished reading Andrew Keen’s The Cult Of The Amateur, a book I’ve referred to before in some of my arguments defending the Blooker prize, and in my commentary on the quality of blooks in general. In it he talks about how today’s Internet, with its focus on user/amateur generated content, is destroying our economy, demeaning our values, and degrading our culture.

It’s a big let down, overall: Keen starts with what looks to be a convincing argument against the amateur, but he shoots himself in the foot with the extreme stance he takes on the Internet. His arguments would be easier to take seriously if he didn’t go on and on and on about how the Internet is completely bad.

Keen says we will have to filter through the dross to get to the real gems as more substandard content is produced online. The irony here is that I’m filtering through the dross in his book, to get to the relevant points that I can talk about.

The Horror Of A Liquid Library

Alright – first off, Keen refers constantly to a New York Times “manifesto”, in which Kevin Kelly, one of the founding editors of Wired magazine, writes about his dream of a liquid library.

… once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or “playlists,” as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual “bookshelves” — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information.

Kelly’s views are radical: in his vision of a liquid library all books will be digitized to make the World’s Only Book, and individual writing would be freely distributed online. Writers will no longer receive royalties from their creative work, and would earn from speeches and selling add-ons to make a living.

It’s beyond imagining, really.

Keen thinks Kelly’s vision would spell ‘the death of culture’. He then refers to John Updike’s reaction to the article, that famed:

So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.

Updike’s reaction is an interesting read, though some point out his arguments are the rantings of an old man resisting change. Personally I’m vouching for the ‘old man’, mostly because I can’t bear imagining a world without bookstores; without places to relax and mingle and read. And I also believe that royalties are one of the best ways to spur a writer to keep on writing, creating, and producing quality content.

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules For Writing Fiction

I found this through 9rules, and I thought I’ll share it here.

Eight rules for writing fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

– Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.