On Writing: Stephen King and the Fossil Method

Duckbill_Dinosaur_Fossil_by_Karnanyd_StockIn his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, bestselling author Stephen King likens the process of writing to archeology. As far as he’s concerned, plotting a story before you’ve gotten the fossil out, intact, is akin to using a backhoe–it might get the job done, but there’s liable to be damage in the process.

In my novel K.U.B.L.A.I., the total amount of writing I have done about the project totals probably less than ten notebook pages. This from a writer whose last novel produced at least as many notebook pages as typewritten ones.

Which is not to say this project has been lacking in something resembling a plan. But for once, I’ve kept that plan as simple as possible, and now, as I’m nearing the end of the first draft, I’m beginning to see what King is talking about. Or, at least, what I’m talking about.

Because I’m composing this book via dictation, and doing so in small installments–a few sentences to a few paragraphs at a time–this book is all about its sentences. I didn’t compose it in the mad rush of scene, nor was I in any hurry to get to the next plot point. It follows the sound of the words, swinging between the internal and external world of the story in whatsoever way it desires. It’s the story, not the plot, that’s in charge.

Writing this way, I’ve discovered things I did not expect. For example, in noting the sound of a robot’s voice–intended by its designers to be reassuring, but which comes across instead as condescending–as akin to that of a tony Brit toward an “immigrant grubber” like the protagonist’s father, I’ve unearthed a whole vertebrae of the story, so to speak: I’ve discovered that my character lived in England with her family as a child, before moving to the States.

I discovered another part of her history the same way, when a character appeared who reminded her of those “good-natured Southern frat-boys-in-training” who had ruthlessly persecuted her as a teenager. This is how I discovered that she’d attended high school in Nashville, when her father got a job teaching engineering at Vanderbilt.

In my opinion, many of King’s novels bear the mark of plotlessness. He says he writes to explore situation, and that’s an approach that works better with some cases than others. (Misery? Sure. Under the Dome? Not so much.) But to my knowledge, no one has ever accused King of poor characterization, and I’m beginning to see how these things go hand in hand–how writing as an act of discovery can leave more room for organic characterization, and in turn, more organic storytelling.

Interestingly enough, when I begin the second draft of K.U.B.L.A.I., I will do so in the way that King prefers, which is by rewriting, rather than revising. Because I won’t be using dictation software to transcribe this novel into a written, digital format. I’ll be typing it myself and changing it however I see fit in the process.

A process on which King has this to say:

“One of the ways the computer has changed the way I work is that I have a much greater tendency to edit ‘in the camera’—to make changes on the screen. With Cell that’s what I did. I read it over, I had editorial corrections, I was able to make my own corrections, and to me that’s like ice skating. It’s an OK way to do the work, but it isn’t optimal. With Lisey I had the copy beside the computer and I created blank documents and retyped the whole thing. To me that’s like swimming, and that’s preferable. It’s like you’re writing the book over again. It is literally a rewriting.”

And this:

“Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book. And I’ve had bad books. I think Rose Madder fits in that category, because it never really took off. I felt like I had to force that one.”

As a writer, I think I hold to the same ideal. That if you have to force it, maybe you’re doing it wrong. And this time, maybe, I’m trying to do it right.

(You can find the whole interview excerpted above over at the Paris Review.)

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