Breathing One Word At a Time

You may have heard of this writer I’ve liked since I was a kid. His name is King. Stephen King. He’s written a handful of novels that you may have heard of and he’s also penned a couple to a few short stories.

If you haven’t heard of this guy, Stephen King, you may want to look him up.

King is one of the most prolific writers, dare I say, ever. His novels have sold millions. He has inspired thousands of people to give writing a try, myself included.

Unlike most, it’s not King’s novels that inspired me, but his short stories. I love his short stories, his novellas. I devour them. Since I’m a slow reader, you have to understand my version of devour is more like nibbling on a candy bar you want to savor.

What’s this all about, you ask? Is this another article about Stephen King?

Absolutely and absolutely not.

King has been quoted as saying:

When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “One word at a time.”

That’s a good idea. One word at a time. So often, we as writers, think about the big picture without really thinking in context of how we paint the big picture. Well, if you’re going all literal, then you get your canvas out and your paints and brushes and you paint one brush stroke at a time. But when using writing to paint that picture it starts with the first word and ends with the last one. And those words come one after another–one word at a time.

Remember that next time you sit down to write. You can’t create a story if you don’t write the first word of the first line. And you can’t end a story until you’ve put a period after that last word.

Too often we bog ourselves down because we want our writing to sound intelligent or to beautifully worded, instead of just writing word after word after word. For me, it kills the process when I try to be all pretty with my writing. I’m not a pretty person and I choose not to write prettily on purpose. It’s just not me. Yes, I know I used pretty about four hundred times just now.

I prefer to let my stories breathe, to let them tell themselves and I just ride along in the passenger’s seat. It’s a lot more fun that way. I’ve often called this The Breathing Method.

That brings me to King.

In his novella collection, Different Season, he has a story called, yes, that’s right, The Breathing Method. Granted the two aren’t really related, other than titles, but in the story King writes something very important, that I think holds true to all stories:

The arch was broken in the center by a keystone which jutted out slightly. It was just on the level of my eyes, and although the light was dim, I could read the legend engraved on that stone with no trouble: IT IS THE TALE, NOT HE WHO TELLS IT.

The important part of that passage is the last sentence:

It is the tale, not he who tells it.

We all have our favorite writers. Mine has always been King and I like most everything he has written. There have been portions of books I didn’t care much for, but the way his words go together so effortlessly, so smoothly, brings me back for more every time. It makes his one word at a time statement feel real. It makes his tales feel real.

That’s how we should write. One word at a time.

Writing is easy. Writing well is difficult. But one word at a time… one word at a time is simple and effective and as long as we write that way, we will reach the end of our stories.

Ah, but wait a second. What about this Breathing Method I speak of?

Simple: if you get out the way and let the story tell itself, the story breathes and lives and develops. It may not go in the direction you wanted, but I find most of the time, that’s a good thing. At least with my writing.

I’ll back this up a little with something King said in his book, On Writing:

I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded 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… thing is going to turn out… I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety.

When I read that the first time I’m sure my face lit up. That is what I’ve always thought about writing and characters and stories. If I let the characters dictate the direction of the stories, then the stories will turn out the way the characters want them to. That’s a good thing.

So, one word at a time and the Breathing Method go together. And, as writers, we just need to get out the way. It’s not about us, but the story.

Until we meet again, my friends…

Along the Splintered Path and A Couple Other Notes

Good morning, afternoon, evening, Friday to you all where ever you may be. Today is December 30th of the year 2011. Just two days left before we ring in 2012. Hopefully the New Year will bring joy and happiness and peace to us all.

Okay, I’m done with the sappiness…

I have good news and hopefully you all will like it.

Two things happen at the beginning of this year. First, my story, In the Shadows They Hide will appear in the anthology Night Terrors II, put out by Blood Bound Books.

The second one—and this is the one I’ve been chomping at the bits for: Dark Continents Publishing will release a three story collection of mine titled Along the Splintered Path on Monday, January 2nd. It is part of an e-book launch titled Tales of Darkness and Dismay. There are ten books in this launch and I’m glad that one of them is mine.

My little collection includes the reworked version of The Woodshed (which originally came out in 2008 in the anthology Dark Distortions put out by the now defunct Scotopia Press). This version is better, reworked half a dozen times since then. If you’ve never read The Woodshed, well, you’re in for a treat.

’Round These Bones, another older tale that was originally quite flat in it’s story telling and around 2300 words has been reworked and tops out at near 10K words now, is also in this collection.

Finally, but certainly not the least of these three stories, is Phillip’s Story, about a homeless man who comes into some money that, literally, falls from the sky. Ahh… but there is more to Phillip’s Story than that. It is two stories intertwined, two destinies colliding in time. Of the three stories, this is my favorite.

At the end of this is the cover, but before I post it, I wanted to say a little thanks to some folks who helped get this collection ready for submission:

Neil Buchanan
Kevin Wallis
Gay Degani
Lucas Pederson

And a very special thanks to my friend, Paula Ray, who helped me with my bio and the collection’s title.

Also, I’d like to thank Dark Continents Publishing for the opportunity to put this out. Several times in 2011 I had collections fall through and I got really frustrated… even thought about not writing for a while. My wife talked me out of that. Thank you, Cate. (Most of you know my wife as Catherine, but she prefers Cate…)

Now, here’s one thing I need to say for certain: I’m not an avid fan of reading those ‘self help’ books, the ones that tell you the rules and tell you things that really don’t make sense. However, if you are a writer (or a reader) I strongly encourage you to read Stephen King’s On Writing. This is the only book I will ever suggest to any writer to read. It taught me more in the two weeks it took me to read it (I’m a notoriously slow reader) than anything else about telling stories.

Everything I have written since reading this book, including a novel titled, Cory’s Way, is so much better because I read On Writing. You see, King doesn’t give you a bunch of rules and crap. He just tells you the truth about writing and that truth is, well, to tell the truth in your fiction and make the reader fall into the story, make them believe that what you have written is happening.

I’ve often said that in today’s world of writing and publishing, there is not enough ‘alive’ story telling. What I mean is that so many writers these days just tell cut and dry, action oriented stories that have no real life to them. They don’t let their stories breathe. King lets his stories breathe more so than anyone I have ever read (sometimes with a bit too much breathing that borders on hyperventilating). The point is, don’t restrict yourself because you don’t think someone will pick up what you have written. Good stories find a way to get published.

Cory’s Way was originally supposed to be a novel, but I found the task of writing it extremely daunting and decided to turn it into a short story. The story didn’t want to be so short and it grew and grew and grew (and I let it) until it turned into a novel that I am proud of. Hopefully, in the coming year, I can find a home for it, as well…

I’m going to go now, but before I do, here is the cover of Along the Splintered Path. I think it embodies the stories in the collection. I’ll post links to the collection when it comes out. If you purchase it, I appreciate it—more than you will ever know. If not, times are tough, and I understand. I thank you for considering it anyway.

Until next time, I’m A.J. and I’m out…

Along The Splintered Path, Book Cover

[Herbie’s Note: No paths were splintered in the writing of this blog.]

Be Brave… A Lesson Learned

Since the beginning of July I have been rewriting stories I wrote years ago, back before I really knew how to write or even cared. For me, writing was just something I did when I had nightmares and didn’t wish to have them again. I had no intentions of ever pursuing a writing career.

Obviously, things have changed…

And to be completely honest, what I wrote five years ago sucks compared to what I wrote four years ago and is appalling compared to what I write now. In order to make some of those older works publishable, I need to rewrite them.

As I stated in the opening paragraph, I set out to correct the many mistakes I have made in the words I wrote so long ago. As of this writing I have rewritten two stories and am almost two thirds of the way through a third one.

That may not seem like much, but in that same time period, I also wrote a novel titled, Cory’s Way, which I hope to one day get published. I’m not really sure what genre the novel would fall under. It’s not my usual horror, per say, but it does have a couple of horrific elements.

I started all of this after reading Stephen King’s On Writing, a book I gleamed many important lessons from. One of those things is quite simple and something I had never thought about before: To write bravely. In other words, don’t be afraid to tackle a story. No, no, no. I’m not talking about being afraid to write a story because of its content, but more along the lines of looking at a story and not being intimidated by the possibility of its length and scope or even how much time it may take.

I admit that every time I tried to write a novel over the last couple years, I froze up. The very thought of writing something so large didn’t necessarily intimidate me. It did put a mental road block in place and there was no way around that. Let me see if I can say it the way my friend John Miller once did:

Writing is like relationships.

Flash fiction stories are like one night stands. You get your sex, then move on. No strings (or emotions) attached. Just kind of Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. Flash Fiction stories are more or less quick thoughts jotted down. Glimpses of stories that could be grander in scale. No strings (or emotions) attached.

Short stories are like dating. You put more effort in to the other person, trying to impress them and hoping for a second, third and fourth dates and who knows what from there. With the short story you put more effort into crafting the story, giving a little more details and character development, getting attached, if you will. even getting a little more emotionally involved.

Novellas–that happy place between short stories and full blown novels–are relationships. You’ve dated enough to realize that you might just like the other person and you want to take that next step. It’s going steady and putting all your marbles into the other person’s marble bag. With the novella you’re making more of a commitment, but not THE commitment. You’re saying, I’m really going to look into creating the characters and scenery and the plot. You give the story more of your time, your heart and a fraction of your soul.

The novel is like marriage. This is full blown commitment, ’til death do ye part, brought together by God and let no man break the binds that God has created. This is like the holy grail of relationships. You are saying, babe, I’m yours and yours alone. It is supposed to be forever. Key words there: supposed to be. When writing a novel you are committing yourself to a long term goal of conflicts and resolution, plots and subplots, multiple character development, scenery and details and many, many (oh so many) words. I have quite a few failed novel marriages. I could give Elizabeth Taylor a run for her money.

I’m not afraid of commitment. I’m happily married and have a job I’ve been at for 7 years now (the previous job I worked at for fourteen years). But, when it comes to writing, I like the short story. Anything below novel length I’m happy with. The moment the word novel comes into play, I freeze up, much like men who are terrified of marriage do when the woman mentions it. I run from novels as if it were the alter that threatened to steal away my freedom.

I never realized that until reading On Writing.

Part of me thought, “I can write ten short stories in the same time it takes to write one novel.” That part of me is correct. It also bellowed, “You’ll never finish a novel so why even start? You’ll be wasting all of that valuable time writing something you’ll never finish.”

Most of the time that would be true.

I realized then that my problem wasn’t that I could write ten short stories in the same time span it would take to write a novel. It was that I was afraid of losing that time to an incomplete task. I hate when others waste my time and even more so when I waste it.

The day after my birthday I sat down at my computer in the bedroom, a blank document open and the cursor blinking. It laughed at me, telling me I wouldn’t get ten thousand words in before I scrapped the idea. The cursor was wrong. I sat down, not intent on writing a novel, but intent on tackling a story that had novel potential. My goal was to simply write the story. If it turned out to be a short story I was fine with that. And if it turned into a novel, I was fine with that also.

Thirty days, 64,000 words and 225 pages later I wrote The End on the last page of the story. It had turned into a novel after all, albeit a short one. I had conquered the beast, that hideous dragon that stood between me and a novel.

Don’t click that mouse yet. There’s more.

I realized I avoided rewriting stories for the same reason I avoided writing novels: I didn’t want to waste my time rewriting something already written. Not when I could put my efforts into something new and better and… This is a stupid way of thinking.

Editing a story is one thing. Rewriting it is another matter all together. It’s starting over and keeping some parts of stories and scrapping others. In order to start rewriting, you have to view a story differently. It’s a different mindset. Just like writing a novel is different from writing a short story. It’s a commitment.

I have wanted to put out a short story collection for a while now, but so far I have no takers. That’s okay and I understand why: all the collections I had submitted had no real theme, nothing really tying the stories together in one book. I scoured my computer of almost a thousand short stories and novellas, most of which I had written since 2004. I came up with a list of forty or so stories that I thought could fit nicely in a collection. Then I started trimming the list down by rereading the stories and determining if I liked it enough to add it to the list of possibles.

In my mind that list was going to go through Hell. Each story was going to have to convince me to rewrite it, to make it better, to consider it for a golden ticket. Hey, this isn’t Hollywood, but it is A.J. Television where reality is a nonfactor and imagination is everything. For me to actually rewrite the pieces, they were going to have to stand out.

At the moment, four stories have made the cut and none of them are under nine thousand words. Three of those four stories were previously published and two of those have been completely overhauled. The endings aren’t the same, the characters are more alive and the situations are more thought out. Yes, situations, not plots. Life is not a series of plot lines. Life is a series of situations (You guessed it, I got that from On Writing as well) that we put ourselves into and get ourselves out of. Shouldn’t stories be the same way?

I’m happy with the two finished pieces and the third one looks pretty good as well. One of those four stories I didn’t have to rewrite at all, just kind of clean behind its ears a little and make it presentable. By the end of the year I should have somewhere between ten and twelve pieces completely rewritten, something I thought daunting before, but not so much now. I hope to be able to shop this around at the beginning of next year, and I already have a title for it: Southern Bones.

For the first time in my writing ‘career’ I am excited about rewrites and novels, something I never thought would happen.

Before I let you go and get back to rewriting Yellow May, a cool little story (well, big story) about a world covered in mold and what it is capable of doing to folks, I must make a confession. While reading On Writing, the part where I sat back and thought awfully hard about how I write came, not in the middle of a portion about actually tackling the story. It came in a part of the book about writing what you know. Not lecturing, mind you, but writing what you know. In that part, King mentions another writer, John Grisham. John Grisham knows lawyers and he writes quite well about them. It was in the middle of King mentioning Grisham that I sat back and did my deep thinking.

What you know makes you unique… Be brave. Map the enemy’s positions, come back, tell us all you know…

The epiphany: I was my own enemy; that it was myself, my mentality, that kept me from writing a novel or rewriting my short stories. I’ve mapped that enemy’s position and even cornered him against the wall in my head. I have my gun trained on him as I sit to write. If he so much as twitches… mentally, he’ll get it and he won’t like it when he does. No, no, I’m not going to kill him. Maim him maybe. I want to keep him around and look at him when I start to get wary of tackling a writing project. Besides, I need a punching bag every once in a while.

I’m sure that’s not what King meant, but for my interpretation of those words, it’s made all the difference in my writing…

Now, I’m off. I have stories to tell and, hopefully you’ll come along for the ride…