Sunday, November 9, 2014

What Stephen King's Misery taught me about writing by Leanne Dyck

What would you do to learn from a master storyteller?

I'd highly recommend doing what I did.

What would you do to watch your favourite author work?

What Annie Wilkes did will make your skin crawl.

How did I learn from a master? Who is Annie Wilkes?

The answers to these questions stem from the same source--Misery by Stephen King.

Usually when I read one of Stephen King's books I'm left wondering, is this horror or a thriller? (I also wonder if such genre categories matter, but that's a discussion for another time.) But Misery is a thriller from start to finish--a dark thriller. In place of a ticking bomb, we hear the clicking of typewriter keys.

If horror and thrillers aren't your thing, don't worry. I'm happy to share what I learnt--quote after quote, comment after comment.

1)Some of you develop complex outlines and are frustrated that, as you continue to write, your writing veers far off this careful path.

Author, protagonist, Paul Sheldon:  'Having a novel end exactly the way you thought it would when you started out would be like shooting a Titan missile halfway around the world and having the payload drop through a basketball hoop.' (p. 279)

And so... Learn to loosen your grip and enjoy the ride. You can still start with an outline, I do. But imagine it written in chalk on a blackboard not craved into stone.

2)Engage your readers senses--don't tell them. For example, instead of telling us that Paul opened his eyes, Mr. King describes what Paul saw when he opened his eyes. 

3)We forget, I forget, that even though we writers create the characters, they are also owned by the readers who love them.

4)I found it appalling that Annie made Paul burn the only copy of his manuscript. Now I know what to call it when my computer crashes and I lose the only copy of my manuscript.
I'll scream out, "I've been Annied", just before my husband asks, "Well, did you back it up?"

5)Playing storytelling games nurtures creativity, inspires creation as well as sharpens writing skills. Stephen King includes a storytelling game in Misery. To play this game, you need three or more players. The first player begins a story and puts her protagonist in a life or death situation. The next player's task is to successfully solve this dilemma within a ten minute time frame. If the time elapses without a successful solution, 'it' loses. When a successful solution is offered, the other players vote on how valid this solution is. If 'it' fails (time runs out or solution is deemed invalid), he must leave the game.

6)Writers are able to write because they think they can. There's no secret formula--just hard work. Writers think they can because they've put in the time. They think they can because they've done it before. They think they can regardless what obstacles they have to overcome...

In Misery, the keys of the 'Royal' typewriter keep falling out like a baby teeth. First the 'n'; then the 't'; then the 'e'. Regardless, Paul keeps on writing. If you are a writer you write.

7)What does it look like to write? Is it simply typing on a computer keyboard or is there something else involved?

One part of Paul is just sitting there. 'There was sensory input, but he was not doing anything with it--not seeing what he was seeing, not hearing what he was hearing.

Another part of him was furiously trying out ideas, rejecting them, trying to combine them, rejecting the combinations. He sensed this going on but had no direct contact with it and wanted none. It was dirty down there in the sweatshops...

He understood what he was doing now as Trying to Have an Idea. Trying to Have an Idea wasn't the same thing as Getting an Idea. Getting an Idea was a more humble way of saying I am inspired.

Trying to Have an Idea...was nowhere near as exalted or exalting, but it was every bit as mysterious...and every bit as necessary. Because when you were writing a novel you almost always got roadblock somewhere, and there was no sense in trying to go on until you'd Had an Idea...

He recognized walking as good exercise, but it was boring... But if you needed to Have an Idea, boredom could be to a roadblocked novel what chemotherapy was to a cancer patient.' (pp. 119-120)

8)Authors must tell wonderful bedtime stories and who better to take on a long-distance car trip?

[Annie Wilkes]:  ' "If you're such a rotten story-teller, how come you have bestsellers and millions of people love the books you write?"

[Paul Sheldon] "I didn't say I was a rotten story-writer. I actually happen to think I'm pretty good at that. But as a story-teller, I'm the pits... The two things are like apples and oranges." ' (p. 247)

So if you can't tell jokes or your antidotes become a tangled mess, fear not. You could still become a skilled author of a captivating story. 

9)Minimalist writing is a fine art. To keep your readers interested, many authors create character after character or take their stories from setting to setting.  But, Stephen King's Misery, all 338 pages of it, focuses solely on two characters--Annie Wilkes (reader) and Paul Sheldon (author)--and one setting--Annie Wilkes' remote farmhouse.  

10)It is tempting for me to interpret Paul's comments, thoughts and dialogue as belonging to Stephen King. But there are many reasons to create a character beyond being an author's soapbox. 

If, on the other, like me, you enjoy reading dark thrillers...

Paul Sheldon. He's a bestselling novelist who has finally met his biggest fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes and she is more than a rabid reader--she is Paul's nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident. But she is also his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated houses. Now Annie wants Paul to write his greatest work--just for her. She has a lot of ways to spur him on. One is a needle. Another is an ax. And if they don't work, she can get really nasty...

Misery appeared on screen in 1990. Here's the original trailer

If you enjoyed reading Misery, you may also enjoy reading Room by Emma Donoghue.

If you'd like to learn from a skilled storyteller, travel to Saskatchewan for Sage Hill Writing Experience 
(That's why I'm now dreaming of endless prairie skies.)

Sharing my author journey...

I woke up on Wednesday with a brilliant idea for a short story collection. Creating this manuscript meant re-writing some old stories.
"How old?", you ask 
Some of these stories were written as long ago as 2006. 
It was extremely enjoyable re-visiting this old work and realizing how much I've grown as a writer. 
I'm proud to report that this manuscript is now finished -- and in fact has been sent to two publishers. 
Fingers crossed. : )

November 11th is Remembrance Day, in the commonwealth countries (such as Canada). (In the United States, tomorrow is Veterans Day).

Here's how I've remembered the men, in my life, who have served...
Remembering them on Remembrance Day