How Stephen King Drove Me to the Edge

You have to try out writing advice for yourself, but when it is not working you have to let go and try something else.

Photo by Hamid Khaleghi on Unsplash

I have a love-hate relationship with Stephen King. I have tried reading his fiction and found myself peering into darkness that I’m not ready to see beyond. But it is his writing advice that drove me to the edge…

On Writing

I loved reading On Writing. I’m a big fan of origin stories of writers, what motivates them, and how they do it day to day. I would recommend On Writing to anyone who wants to write.

But there is one piece of advice in there, that I tried to follow, that I should never have listened to.

“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.”

― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Discovery Writing

Stephen King famously doesn’t plan in advance. He creates some interesting characters in a fascinating situation and sees what happens. The unconscious is where the magic happens. The boys in the basement that do the work of making the ideas come.

I love this idea.

My boys in the basement

I know the power of my unconscious. When I was at university, I started a maths exam in excruciating pain. I barely managed to read through the questions. My lower back felt like it had being punched repeatedly.

I put up my hand and asked for a pain killer but the examiner took one look at me and led me outside. Whilst he phoned an ambulance, I lay on the floor groaning.

Long story short, I spent the day at the hospital with a suspected kidney stone. One of the university staff stayed with me all day.

By the afternoon I was feeling much better and was escorted back to the college to sit the exam.

I had struggled with maths that year, but when I now sat down to answer the questions, the answers flowed. Without my consciously thinking about the questions, my boys in the basement had solved the problems.

It was my best first-year result.

My experiment

When I read On Writing again last month, my writing habit was poor. I had great intentions, but without a daily goal I often failed to produce anything. So the advice to set a daily word count resonated.

And the idea of trusting those boys in the basement sounded even more appealing. Just write.

It started fairly well, and I was hitting my 2000 words a day regularly. Compared to my progress before it was astonishing. I had a niggling voice telling me that word count didn’t mean much if they weren’t the right words but by only looking forward I could keep going.

Until I couldn’t.

I reached day eight and 15000 words or so and I ran out of fuel. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t keep writing, I couldn’t do anything. My energy was low. My mood was worse. My husband knew to stay well clear.

It was the same feeling I have when I’ve tried fasting diets. Suddenly the world goes from a colourful place full of wonder and delight, to a monochrome nightmare. Something out of a Stephen King novel maybe…


So where do I go from here?

I have planned out novels in their entirety before and then lost the will to write them. Something the discovery writers say is why they don’t plan. But writing without any map seems like a car crash waiting to happen…

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”

― E.L.Doctorow

So I’m looking at a third way.

I have worked as a software engineer. Complex projects are broken down into short periods of time called sprints (not to be confused with short writing sprints against a timer, these are in the order of weeks, not minutes).

I’m working with two week sprints at the moment as a way of having some foresight without having to plan the thing to death.

So far it is working much better.

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