When we were young and in college and not yet engaged, my wife and I enjoyed walking barefoot on the beach together. Our favorite haunt was usually Atlantic Beach in North Carolina, not far from East Carolina University where we attended school. As is often the case with young men and women of that age, our objectives were different.
Lori enjoyed soaking up the peaceful ocean sounds that are great for relieving stress, but mostly she hunted for sea shells. As our feet formed impressions in the soft, wet sand, she walked with her head down, her eyes scanning the lapping surf for interesting things. She carried her sandals in her left hand, dangling from two finger tips. With her right hand she picked small pretty shells, and sometimes sand dollars, from the surf. At times, she would find a thing partially buried in the sand, so its full shape and color weren’t evident. But Lori had good instincts, still does. In those cases, she carefully brushed the sand away from the item with the tips of her fingers. Then, if it showed merit, she fished it from the sand with two fingers and rinsed it in the water as the waves came up to meet her feet. Usually, the thing she found was worth the extra effort. This beach going ritual rarely varied for her in those days, and she often found beautiful things. Sometimes she had them framed.
Me? I usually just walked along with her, watching her do her thing, trying to figure out how I could get her to sleep with me. It’s like I said, we had different objectives.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what all this has to do with storytelling and Stephen King. You see, with the help of Mr. King, I’ve learned something recently about writing stories that has opened up new possibilities for me, and renewed my productivity. It begins with the idea that stories are not crafted artifacts, but rather, found things, like those Lori recovered from the sand. This is the story of how I learned that lesson.
In the years that followed, Lori and I were married, formed careers (hers in human resources, mine in publishing and then marketing), and eventually bought a home and started a family. During that time I always had the goal to become a writer. I made some modest progress at this when I and my friend, Jeff Rubin, wrote a screenplay that received some attention from an agent and some producers in Hollywood. Unfortunately, a sale never materialized. We drafted another, and also worked with a Hollywood producer on a movie treatment, but nothing caught fire. That was over ten years ago. Both work and everyday life got in the way, so a writing career didn’t blossomed for either of us.
To be honest, there was another reason the writing never took off. In those days, it was just too damned hard to construct stories. Working with my friend Jeff was fun at times, but bringing ideas to fruition still always seemed like painful work in the end. It didn’t feel like storytelling, it felt like brick laying. We plotted, and structured, and spitballed for hours before either of us could even sit down to write a word. And when I tried to do it by myself, I found too many stories dried up after a few pages as my frustration grew over what should happen next to the characters. Plot was the bane of my existence back then. Yes, I’d written stories, knew how to write them and could write them well, but I was doing something wrong in the process.
Eventually, it was Stephen King, and his philosophy on writing, that changed things for me. In his book Writing: a Memoir of the Craft King describes stories as “found things” unearthed like fossils from the ground, a little at a time in short, careful, light-handed strokes. He said he eschewed the heavy handed “jack hammer” of plotting (his description, not mine) for the slow, eventual and more organic revealing of a story that (in his view) had always been there and just needed a little help to be found. He explained to a journalist in an interview, and recounted in his book, that he just sat in the corner with his chair facing the wall and wrote. And by just being free to put whatever entered his mind on paper, the story revealed itself to him. He didn’t forcibly craft it as much as he found it. Much like Lori would find sea shells on the beach. He said he started with a character, or a basic situation, or sometimes both, and would just go from there. He let the characters and his fertile, deep and dark imagination take over. In short, I think he was saying: Have faith. Stay focused. Just write, and follow your characters. They will lead the way and the story will eventually come.
Now, you can probably image how skeptical I was about this approach, especially when it came to stories of substantial length. Imagine blindly writing an entire screenplay or a 200,000 word novel only to discover that it goes nowhere, that your characters (and your lack of imagination) has lead you astray. But hey, I wasn’t getting any younger and the writing wasn’t coming any easier; so I decided to give it a shot.
First, I picked through the story ideas that I keep in my journal. I’ve collected many ideas over the years. They are just little interesting notes; seeds that I thought might one day grow into stories. I had given each one a date and time stamp showing exactly when the idea first struck me. Some were quite old. I flipped through several years of such notes until I found one I thought would make a good candidate to test Mr. King’s philosophy. Here is the note exactly as I had written it.
Some neighborhood kids are out playing on a Saturday afternoon. Ages 8-13. It’s January. It has snowed. They are bumper skiing. One of them takes a ride too far down the street. When his friends find him, they come across an empty/abandoned house. A house where a grisly murder once took place. They go inside. What do they find?
That’s it. That’s all I knew about my story when I started. My faith in Mr. King’s honesty, and the idea that I had nothing left to lose, drove me forward.
With a significant amount of mental and creative elbow grease, I just kept putting words on paper. Then, something happened. Before I knew it, I was finding my own sea shells, brushing off the sand and putting together my own collection – a collection of people and situations and conflicts – suitable for framing.
Characters I never imagined began appearing on the page. Soon, I discovered a man named Mr. Schneider, his wife Delilah and their son, Tommy. And I learned there was a barber named Luigi and there was a killer on the loose. The story became something different than I expected, something exciting, something nostalgic. But while the characters were becoming more real, and the story was taking shape, I got the feeling there was something missing. It nagged at me, but I pushed the feeling a way. That was death. Don’t wonder. Don’t doubt. Don’t stop. Just keep writing. Have faith. The pieces will fall into place. There are plenty of things in life that can kill your momentum when you’re writing. Don’t let self-doubt be one of them. That is what I told my self. Just keep working and the answers will come.
In time, it finally clicked. I recalled something my old childhood friend, Michael DiNapoli said to me at dinner when we were both adults, getting caught up, and looking back at our childhood. His words had always rattled around in my head, but now they fell out on the page, along with these interesting characters I had discovered – and suddenly a theme began to naturally emerge from the story. And that’s when it all came together.
In short order, what started out as a 10,000 word short story about nothing, became a 30,000 word novella about something; could have been 40,000 words if I hadn’t done some prudent trimming and took the advice of my beta readers. The result, of course, was Snow Day, which I am publishing as an ebook and audiobook in late April.
There are many writers who will tell you that plotting and outlining is their way to “find” a story. And if that works for them, great. More power to them. I just know that this method works for me. Oh sure, over time, I expect to return to the land of outlining. I’m not walking away from screenwriting, and most screenplays are strange animals that must be fed with ridged structure. But when I do return, I know I’ll bring with me this new tool to tap into my stories.
Latest posts by Dan Maurer (see all)
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