Skip to content

What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Stephen King

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice.

Courtney Cantrell's weekly writing advice.

To writers and/or Stephen King fans, his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (a title I do hope is self-explanatory) might seem the most obvious source of WILAWriTWe material. Yet nay, my dearest inklings, my King-related thoughts for today come not from his how-to, but rather from one of his how-dids. Or maybe I should call it a how-didn’t. By the time I finish writing this, I might have a clearer picture, and so might you–but I’m still not going to change my previous sentence, because I like it, and this is my article, and I don’t have to kill my darlings if I don’t wanna. Nyah.

*ahem* < /digression >

A Trunk Novel — And No, We’re not Discussing Trees

In his foreword to Richard Bachman’s Blaze, King reveals that the book is a “trunk novel,” a (completed?) manuscript that languished for years (approximately thirty, to be inexact) in a metaphorical trunk that was, in reality, a cardboard box. Trimming the fat: As Bachman, King penned Blaze, didn’t like it, stuck it in a box, and left it there for three decades. I won’t rehash his whole foreword, so go read it if you want the specifics of how he ended up finding the single copy again and publishing it. My point is that King rediscovered an old work, found it to have merit, and decided to do something with it.

Skeletons in the Closet?

If you’re a writer, and if you’ve been doing your writing thing for at least a few years, chances are you are in possession of a trunk novel. Or a trunk short story or five. Or a bunch of trunk poems. (I keep mine in a bright red binder labeled “Courtney’s Poetry” in shimmery blue letters with stars. It makes them seem less trunkish.) Whatever your writing forte, you are likely secreting a stash of material you never show to anybody because it’s just too _____________________. Yeah, you know the adjectives that fill in the blank. You’ve repeated them to yourself a hundred times over, and you’ve used them to convince yourself that those particular storiespoemsnovels aren’t worth your efforttimebother. Those scribblings are the creativity skeletons of your dark and fecund writing closet, and you’re never going to show them to anybody, because you know one-hundred percent for gobsmacking certain that if you let anybody catch even a glimpse of the first line, pointing and laughter shall ensue, and you shall never ever recover, ad infinitum period.


You know what a skeleton is?

It’s a framework. And you can grow meat on it.

He Led Me around among the Bones

You just read the heading above this paragraph. That heading is a quote from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Ezekiel 37:2, to be exact (this time). When I talk about putting literary meat on the bones of your trunk skeleton, I picture a God-breathed miracle of Old Testament magnitude. Writer, you shall prophesy to these bones, and they’re gonna grow muscles and flesh and skin, and they’re gonna walk around, can I get an Amen? Testify!

King wrote Blaze, disliked it heartily, and put it away for thirty years. But when he picked it up again, having learned more about his craft, his audience, his fellow humans, and (most importantly?) himself, he realized that this story had potential. But he didn’t just take what was there, make a few editorial marks, and then try to shop it to his agent and editor. No, he stripped it down to its marrow and re-grew it from there. By that, I mean he re-wrote it. And when that Indefinable Something Which Gives Life put breath into Blaze, the story didn’t just rattle and hum and clatter about. It arose and walked and, at least for Yours Truly, started telling a tale to make the mind ponder and the heart ache. King’s story went from dusty, dry, forgotten bones to breathing, walking, vibrant life. And, my precious inklings, the skeletons in your writer’s trunk can do that, too.

And the Breath Came into Them

You’re thinking of a story right now. You’re thinking of one of those skeletons. You haven’t looked at it in a long time; maybe it’s been years since you read a word of it. But you’ve thought of it before now. It returns to you at odd times, when you’re least expecting it. It calls to you from the darkness in which you have hidden it. You consider it to be ______________–fill in with one of those adjectives you use to convince yourself you should never reveal these bones to a living soul–and yet, the death-dry voice of this story just won’t leave you alone. Writer, you know there’s something to that story. You know there’s a minuscule spark flickering in those trunk-dark depths. You can feel it. And you know what? I can tell you this for sure: Until you take that story out and give it a chance, it’s never going to leave you alone.

So take it out. Rummage around in your hoard of forgotten treasures, find the key to your writer’s trunk (or blue-lettered, red folder), unlock the lid, fling it open, and LET THAT STORY OUT FOR PETE’S SAKE! Read it! Mark it up! Re-write it! Strip it down to the marrow in which that spark of life resides, and then build it up again until it is the vibrant, breathing, living creature it was meant to be in the first place. Put muscles on those bones. Grow the skin over the flesh. Breathe life into the lungs until that work of written art stands on its feet and is ready to march out and conquer the hearts of the reading world. You can do this because it is what you are made to do.

The skeleton in your writer’s trunk is waiting for you. Make it stop haunting you. Give it the breath of life, and let it go out and live.

And that’s WILAWriTWe.

(Click on a link, buy something from Amazon, and provide me with a few pennies that I might purchase more books and learn from them and impart to you more of my ponderings!)

Photo credit Courtney Cantrell.

3 Responses to “What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Stephen King”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    ok, I haven’t finished this entry yet, but I had to scroll down to say that is the funniest damn thing I’ve read all day. 🙂

  2. Carlos Velez says:

    ok, now I’ve finished it…I’m a slow reader. 😉

    Do I really have to? I don’t have skeletons so much as a couple of slightly decomposed corpses since I’ve only been writing for a couple months on my blog, but they’re there already.

  3. Courtney Cantrell says:

    One is always glad to entertain. ;oD

    And to carry the metaphor beyond where it should probably go: Personally, I would wait until the corpses become a little less…squishy. You’ve gotta let your preconceived notions rot off, that way it’s easier to work with the bones once you start messing with ’em. 😀