IWSG: Stephen King vs. Neil Gaiman–Who’s Your Master? (#iwsg, #amwriting)

I was going to post something different today. It was clever, and insightful, and carried an analogy to epic, stunning proportions. I was really proud of that little post. Alas, it was not to be—at least, not this week.

Because, this week, I need to get something off my chest.

I’ve been resisting getting Stephen King’s On Writing for quite some time. When it first came out, my dear old mum (also a writer) called “Shenanigans!” upon it. Her complaint regarding it was that King made it sound like his process and methods were the only valid ones, and if you weren’t writing X words/day, you were destined to fail.

However, he doesn’t go into how to get X words/day, you just sit and write as the muse dictates.

Oh, dear.

Out of curiosity, I started listening to Q&A sessions with Stephen King on You Tube. He’s a very engaging speaker, with entertaining stories and some very useful information on paying attention to what’s going on around you to get ideas, and letting those ideas percolate into something resembling a potential story.

But he’s pretty adamant about some things that, perhaps, he should be more circumspect about in a room of budding young writers. Such as “Uncle Stevie’s been doing this thirty plus years, kids—don’t try this at home until you’ve learned your craft.”

No, he says things like “A writer’s notebook is the perfect place to document bad ideas.”

What? Or, more accurately, “WTF?!”

He doesn’t talk about learning his craft—apparently it was bestowed upon from On High. (Perhaps literally—who knows? But I digress.)

Don’t get me wrong. I think Stephen King is a wonderful, masterful writer. I respect that he’s an inveterate panster, because that works for him. He clearly internalizes All The Things, and has been doing it so long and so successfully that, for him, there is no Other Way.

But I read 11/22/63. It’s an eight hundred page book that really needs to be a three- or four-hundred page book. Because it goes on. And on. AND ON. All culminating in a predictable ending you saw coming from Chapter One. But here’s the problem: Stephen King’s going to sell books like gangbusters no matter what. So no one dares edit him, or offer any kind of constructive criticism. Because he’s Stephen King, and who has the chops to attempt it?

The fact of the matter is, Stephen King’s methods are going to lead an awful lot of writers down the primrose path searching for their muse before they’re quite ready, and they’re going to feel horrible when his methods don’t work for them. Every writer’s journey is different and unique to them, conducive to their circumstances and lives.

My process? More or less changes to some extent with every book. Because with every book I’m getting better, more confident, more disciplined. I am slowly but surely turning into The Bionic Writer, but—and this is important—it’s taking time. With every book, I’m planning a little less, but I’m not really pantsing, either, because a little more of the story has usually downloaded into my brain with every go around. And that’s what works for me.

Yes, I carry a journal around with me. Yes, I write things down. Because if I don’t, I’ll forget. The human brain, unless you’re eidetic or Sherlock Holmes with his Taj Mahal of a Mind Palace, can generally only remember something like seven things at a time.

And the very best artists are, first and foremost, craftsmen, with a toolbox full of techniques and tricks to get through the work.

Conversely, I’ve also been listening to a lot of Neil Gaiman interviews, as well.

Neil, of course, is funny and self-deprecating and kind. I adore listening to him. And, I think we’ll all agree, he’s just as much a master of his craft as Stephen King. Ironically, Neil Gaiman’s ways and means aren’t so different from Stephen King’s.

But he does talk about how he spent years as a newspaper reporter and in comics, learning and honing his craft. He strikes me as being very thoughtful, and so I wasn’t surprised when I learned he also spent that time determining what sort of writer he wanted to be.

Being a generally thoughtful person, he said some thoughtful things. For example, he doesn’t believe that his ideas—or any writer’s—are any different than anyone else’s. He just thinks writers are bit better at recognizing ideas as stories or observing things that turn into ideas. He lets them percolate for a while, and when they’re ready and he’s feeling the burn, that’s when he writes them. But he experiences plenty of false starts, too, and has plenty of material he doesn’t end up using.

But, in the meantime, he’s always working. Hard. His process changes with pretty much every book, because each book is a wholly different experience.

He utilizes a notebook, when needed.

In short, he made me feel more comfortable and confident as a writer, like he handed me a cup of tea and patted me on the head before asking if I’ve ever heard of his Dark Lord, Cthulhu.

I would happily live in Neil Gaiman’s basement, typing madly away to fend off (or, perhaps, attract) the dark forces, producing the creative word juice needed to keep him working on his latest masterpiece.

If I were in Stephen King’s basement, however, I would either attempt an escape or lead a House Elf rebellion against the restrictions placed upon us for producing said creative word-juice, and yet flogging us for not producing enough.

I still haven’t bought On Writing.


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