On Writing by Stephen King isn’t really a book of advice for writers, its about one man’s journey to becoming a writer. The advice is there between the anecdotes and the difficulties he’s encountered along the way. If there is one thing he believes is the best way to write a book it’s to get the story out from beginning to end without plotting in advance because you just don’t know where the story is going to take you.
That’s true, I have written scenes where my characters have taken over, said or done something I wasn’t expecting and taken the story in an unexpected direction which meant having to change the plan, often substantially. In the story I’m currently writing Cora’s tutor tells her something I expected to keep secret from her for a few more chapters. I couldn’t believe he’d done that. It changed everything and the twenty thousand word synopsis I’d written suddenly became obsolete.
I had two choices. I could rewrite the scene the way I’d originally planned or I could stick with the new version and see what happened, adapting the plan I thought I would be following as I went along. Since I liked the new version, and I think these spontaneous changes happen for a reason, I decided to take to stick with it.
Like Mr King, a lot of my ideas begin with a ‘what if’ moment, but I have to transfer that initial flash of light bulb inspiration into an outline and from there I compile a chapter list, breaking the story up into pieces, scene by scene, so I have something to follow. Then I can write the scenes that have already formed in my head. I rarely write the story in order and only work from chapter to chapter if no other scenes present themselves.
I often edit as I go too. A big no no if you’re trying to get the story out from start to finish. But when I step away from the keyboard at the end of a writing session the scene bubbles away in my subconscious, throwing up words, descriptions and dialogue that weren’t there during a first frantic typing. Better to go back and put them in now before they fade from memory as quickly as they emerged.
If I had the luxury of being able to sit and write and write for hours on end, instead of grabbing the odd fifteen minutes or so before having to leave the house or fit it in to the breaks between lectures, would I follow Stephen King’s advice? Probably not.
I like having my map, but even the map gets redrawn when the story starts to write itself and escapes the boundaries into new territory. It’s a guide not a rule book. If I’d written Blackfeather from start to finish when I first had the idea it would have been a stand-alone story with a soppy happy ending and, thankfully, that didn’t happen. Of course, editing might have changed that. In the end it’s not how you get the story down that’s important, only that you do.