When I was a pre-adolescent, I had an advanced reading-level. I remember my teachers in fifth and sixth grade telling my parents during parent-teacher interviews that I had the reading level of someone at least two or three years older than my age.
This was a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, in the few years after having learned how to read, I was excelling at it. This was probably because I was always getting grounded by my parents, and had nothing else I was allowed to do but read. But on the other hand, the kinds of things I was now starting to read were things no 10 year-old child should be exposed to, in this now-33-year-old’s opinion.
This was the early 90s and more than a couple of popular movies that had come out that were movie adaptation of Stephen King books. They had the title “Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers” and “Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man” and Stephen King’s “latest movie we slapped his name on so you’ll know he’s behind it and pay to see it”. I didn’t see them since most of the time they don’t let 10 year-olds in to R rated movies, anyway. Unless you grow sideburns, but that’s for another story.
But I did start reading Stephen King’s books.
At age ten.
Oh, Bremner, NOW I understand why you’re the way you are.
My dad let me get my hands on his hardcover copy of Night Shift, which was a collection of short horror stories, many of which by that time had been adapted into feature-length movies or TV movies of the week, such The Lawnmower Man, Trucks, and Sometimes They Come Back.
My parents were quite divided about whether it was appropriate to buy me books by Stephen King considering my immaturity, let alone whether to permit me to read ones they already owned. I used to own The Dark Half, Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and Insomnia (which was boring and I admit I never finished), as well as the Dark Tower Trilogy and a collection of books King wrote in the late 70s and early 80s under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.
But for those few years of the early 1990s, it was a treat getting to read such material. I wasn’t particularly a fan of horror necessarily, but Stephen King has a unique style. He was the “master” of his niche. He was the only one who could come up with such stories.
Pet Semetery scared the daylights out of me, but it wasn’t the creepiness of the movie adaptation that scared me. It was seeing a main character so desperate to bring his son back to life after being hit by a truck, and knowing that if he buried him in the pet cemetery, he would be raised to life and he would get his son back but with uncontrollable and unpredictable consequences. For those who saw the movie or read the book, you know he got his son back, but it was not really his son.
There was always a common thread to Stephen King’s books, at least the majority of the ones I read, where the characters got what they wanted. Exactly what they wanted, and they would soon find out the strings attached were never what they thought they bargained for. I’m sure there’s a sermon in there about sin always costing us more than we’re willing to pay. King’s books often would explore those unintended consequences.
In many ways to me that was more frightening than seeing the sight of blood or a scary monster on-screen.
It seemed that for a number of years, the ABC Television network produced a new mini-series every year, and even if I never read the original works, it was a huge event in our household when It, The Tommyknockers and The Stand were on TV. I recorded each of them and watched each episode of those mini-series repeatedly. Especially The Stand, which had a who’s who ensemble of famous TV and movie celebrities of the day.
M-O-O-N. That spells TV adaptation.
I liked the TV versions more than the Hollywood movie adaptations I had seen because they were more sanitized for TV, but still told powerful stories. I’ve never been much of a fan of gore. Suspense, when done right, sure. But gore was always something I felt like I had to tolerate if I wanted to enjoy the story. Stephen King knew how to scare you without that fear coming from the special effects of gory scenes, but from the actual story development.
It was also at that age when I kept getting grounded by my parents all the time. Back then, nobody had internet computers or smartphones, so the obvious thing to take away from a 12 year-old was the TV and his Super Nintendo. So, to pass the time, I would read. I remember being grounded for a whole month (not an unusual phenomenon in those days of my life) and so I read the entire 1200 page hardcover version of It that a friend’s parents lent me. I think more people were impressed with my voracious hunger to read at that age that they didn’t really take into consideration the kind of material I was reading, and what kind of impact it had on my life at that stage of impressionable development, but that’s for another post.
I eventually grew tired of reading Stephen King after reading all the books in The Dark Tower series that had been published by that time, and in early high school when I gave my life to Christ, it seemed like Stephen King, as well as all things Star Trek, became less interesting to me.
In fact, after giving my life to Christ, it didn’t take long for me to find a distaste for horror and gore as “entertainment”. To this day I am a little confused at some of the kinds of things other Christians can publish to Facebook broadcasting that they’re a fan of, but this article is a review, not a fiery sermon.
To this day I still have a deep respect for Stephen King as one of the greatest authors of our time. In fact, I knew at the age of 12 I wanted to be a professional author if I could. In those days the only thing I imagined ever writing would be fiction, which at this point in my life I still have never written and don’t know whether I truly could.
But I wanted to be like Stephen King. I wanted to create content that people would read and have their minds and lives impacted by. Blogs, podcasts and Kindle didn’t exist yet, so this was my grid for understanding.
The Book Itself
So imagine my surprise a couple of years ago, after self-publishing my first Kindle book, when I asked another well-known successful Christian author for any tips or advice for improving my writing, and he told me “read Stephen King’s memoir on writing.”
The guy who writes horror?
The guy who creates really twisted characters who do crazy things in the books?
The guy who comes up with that stuff, you want me to improve my Christian writing by reading the autobiography of the master of horror?
But I had read this friend’s book, and it was some incredible story telling and his book was a captivating read AND played a huge part in my own personal walk with Christ, so I wasn’t willing to throw the baby out with the bath water if there was something to be gained from this book he recommends. In fact, if Stephen King was who inspired me to become a writer as a kid, would it really hurt to read his autobiography about writing as an adult now that I’m serious about writing?
So, my friend Brian gifted me a copy of it on Kindle to sow into my writing, and I literally could not put the book down once I started. I have even read parts of it twice.
I now get it.
And recommend it.
Things I got out of this book
Now to get to the actual book itself. The first third of the book is autobiographical and covers more of King’s life leading up to becoming an author which I’m sure many writers and non-writers alike will find fascinating and amusing.
The rest of the book is definitely actually about writing. But all three thirds are worth the read if you are serious about improving your writing skills.
King’s “archaeological” writing style
One of the things King mentions is that his writing style is surprisingly close to what I’d call “letting the anointing carry me” when I write. Now, don’t get me wrong, Stephen King doesn’t profess to be a Christ-follower or any thing of the sort in this book or any recent interview I’ve been able to find. I’m not trying to say his writing is anointed, but I understand some things about how I write as a result of reading this book.
I didn’t highlight any particular quote I could reference, or at least not that I could find when going back over my Kindle highlights to put him in his exact words, but King mentions how his inspiration comes in a way that he likens to archeology: he finds a piece of something sticking out of the ground, and starts to dig around it to see what else is buried there. Before you know it you’re digging up a space ship the size of a city block.
He also claims that when he starts writing, he doesn’t necessarily have a plot in mind or a specific ending either. He just “starts” writing, and takes it from there and sees how it goes.
This style of writing might be frightening to some authors, but for Christians who can trust the anointing of the Holy Spirit to lead them and let Him speak through them in the written art form, this shouldn’t be too far from reality. I find that, yes, sometimes I feel I have a point I’m going to make in something I’m writing, so I just start writing, knowing that I’m going to get to that point or draw that conclusion. But from when I start to when I finish, I discover other details that come to me that I usually never thought of when I first started.
I enjoy this journey and have become comfortable with it.
Sometimes I just simply have an idea, and I don’t know where I’ll wind up when I’m done, so I just sit down and tap my keyboard and make music on the pages of my word processor (Scrivener, for those that want to know). I feel like those moments are occasions when the anointing is on me and being interrupted is very difficult when I’m in that “zone” to help you solve what’s not really an “emergency”. Non-writers tend not to understand that you can’t just take a break for half an hour and jump back in. In our missional community, living near most of the people we minister to and having people drop by practically whenever they want is sometimes stifling to that creativity and something I’m trying to make allowance for and accept. But that’s where locking my office door and putting headphones on helps. Or leaving to go to a cafe all morning with my laptop.
You rang my door bell and I didn’t answer? Huh. Didn’t hear you. You tried calling but got no answer? Imagine that.
On how his inspiration comes, King says, “what would happen if I put a bunch of characters in this situation?” and then goes for it:
I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety— those are jobs which require the noisy jack hammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down. 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.
The importance of reading all the time
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.
This is good. I have a Kindle for this very reason, and I am trying to read as much as King claims he does. I’m glad to have some confirmation that all the reading I’ve been doing for years has meant something and helped improve me as a writer.
Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books— of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving, thanks to the audiobook revolution. Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape. As for all the wonderful radio you will be missing, come on— how many times can you listen to Deep Purple sing “Highway Star”? Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
It’s not a secret that a lot of my own blogging and not book writing has come from seeing how other people do it, and attempting something similar in my own voice or style.
The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate— four to six hours a day, every day— will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already.
Well, I enjoy reading and writing, but right now struggle to find that many hours in a day to do it!
The Writer’s Toolbox
“I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged , you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”
“I work to loud music— hard-rock stuff like AC/ DC, Guns ‘n Roses, and Metallica have always been particular favorites —but for me the music is just another way of shutting the door. It surrounds me, keeps the mundane world out. When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.”
On Having Goals and How They Help:
“But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become”
In 2010 the former ministry I was a part of invited Dr Michael Brown down here to Peru for a pastor’s conference and as a result I had numerous meals with him and the rest of our team. At lunch on his last day with us I asked him a few questions about writing, the main one being “how did you know you were ready to write your first book?” In those days I was already blogging quite frequently, and I knew the time would come where this skill will grow into writing longer forms of content.
He told me you feel like it’s just going to burst out of you and you have no choice.
I knew what he meant, and that I wasn’t fully there yet. That’s when he encouraged me to set a goal like writing one hour per day or writing to 1000 words, whichever came first. This was an actionable goal I knew I could do.
In fact, it was around that time that I began writing for at least an hour, since I’m a fast typer and it doesn’t necessarily always take me that long to write 1000 words. I’ve made writing a lifestyle habit, and when it came time a few years later, writing short books and one book-length project came much easier because I have already been working on my writing muscles day in and day out for years.
So instead of looking at it like an average book is more than 40,000 words, I viewed it as “I’ll need forty days/six weeks to write 1000 words per day for this.” When you break down larger goals into smaller actionable ones that you can incorporate into your life, it becomes easier to reach the bigger goal of entire books.
It was gratifying to read that Stephen King basically does the same thing. He states in the book that he starts writing around 8 am, and commits to writing 2000 words whether it takes him all day, or whether he’s done before lunch. On average this means he spends all of his weekday mornings writing.
Of course, King has been doing this as a full-time writer and for decades, and has produced over 60 books, most if not all of which have turned into best sellers. But if you’re a beginning and you’ve stumbled across this post, trust me, writing has come so much easier to me because I’ve taken the time to do it daily. It’s a lifestyle habit.
The more you do it, the more you do it.
This particular review I’m giving you today, I’ve worked on it in pieces over the course of a few weeks, mostly so that I could find the suitable quotes to include, but sharing my own experiences and thoughts at the beginning came easy. I probably wrote the first thousand words of this in about 20 minutes. I don’t say that to brag or indicate that kind of work might take you or someone else longer. Rather, I mention it to say when I already know what’s going to come out, typing all those words is not very difficult.
But to create characters and stories and a whole world and bring it to the page? That takes work, and I have the utmost respect for King as an author and other fiction writers who to do this sort of thing day in and day out.
For this reason I wince when I listen to people tell me they will write a book “some day”. Maybe they will, but if they’re not already writing on a regular basis to exercise that creative muscle, I honestly in my gut don’t expect them to actually ever follow through on it and complete a book. If they do, I wonder in my gut if it will be any good since it’s not the same as writing an essay at the last-minute for your final grade.
Writing isn’t something that everybody can do.
I can only write books because I’ve already been blogging in shorter chunks, developing that muscle for almost 12 years. And almost daily. Hearing someone who has absolutely no writing samples to show for it claim they’ll write a book is like listening to an obese person claim they’ll compete in the Olympics but that they don’t go to the gym or do any form of exercise but they will when the time comes.
That’s just not going to happen, I’m sorry.
So again, give yourself some writing goals and attempt to stick to them, and read lots of books. Including Stephen King’s memoir on writing.