Writing goals are one of the things I hear debated quite often among writers. For some reason, Stephen King is always mentioned in these conversations. Awestruck statements of, “I heard Stephen King writes a thousand words a day” always leave me a little mystified. I think to myself That’s great if it works for Stephen. Lord knows the man has enjoyed some success and maybe that has something to do with his daily writing goals. Maybe not. Because if we’re saying daily word counts are directly related to the number of books published which translates into success, then Stephen King far outstrips Harper Lee. Yet I doubt anyone would consider Harper Lee a failure.
There is a place in King’s book On Writing where he says something like you have to shovel the shit every day, meaning no matter how bad the writing is keep it up until you reach your daily word goal and edit it later. I don’t want to shovel shit. I’d rather mine for gold.
Why would I purposefully layer word after word, line after line of bad writing on top of something good, or worse on top of something else bad, just to say I’ve reached a daily word goal? I wouldn’t find that at all satisfying. Now don’t get me wrong: my work isn’t so perfect the first time around that it doesn’t need edited. It is, however, very close to my vision for a particular story because I took the time to think it through.
The other thing my method does for me is alleviate the pressure I feel when writer’s block stumps me. Again, I don’t feel the need to put anything on the page just to fulfill an arbitrary number. In doing so, I free myself to explore the rabbit trails that usually lead me to the good writing as long as I don’t force it.
So yes, there are days when my best writing amounts to a single, brilliantly written sentence, and there are days when whole chapters are completed. In either case, I count myself as successful because I’m more of a Ray Bradbury kind of writer when it comes to word counts:
Fellow author Mark Tilbury tossed out a question that is often on my mind as a reader and writer. In his post, Have Books Lost Something With Their Lack of Description, Mark asks us our opinion on today’s style of writing.
We’ve all encountered the “massive blocks of descriptive prose” to which Mark refers. Sometimes they truly are too long, too irrelevant to the story, too purple, etc., etc. I have skimmed such passages in search of the storyline and/or dialog that would put me back in the story.
However, because we’re all friends and adults here, I’m going to say that I disagree with the notion that description is informative but unnecessary. I hear all the time that the reader shouldn’t be led around by the nose; he/she should be given the opportunity to imagine the story. As an avid reader, I can honestly say that I have never felt this way about descriptive writing. On the contrary, my imagination was enhanced and grew because of the description I read including that written about journeys and the passage of time.
The key is that writers need to learn the perfect balance between too much and enough, the fine line between well-written, well-placed prose versus that which is encumbering, unnecessary. This seems like a daunting task, but I believe it can be achieved by not reducing writing to a formulaic method. In doing so, authors will elevate writing back to the level of artistic recognition it deserves.
I have never read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, but I would have to agree that abundant description about a character’s acne would be tedious. If that acne-plagued character traveled by canal boat from Pennsylvania to Ohio, then I would love the benefit of description. I would look forward to a word picture painted by the author that draws me in to the sounds, smells, and sights of the trip. It would be a perfect place to introduce traveling companions, a time for the protagonist to reflect, an opportunity to build the tension that so deliciously moves the story forward.
Even if none of the above-mentioned suggestions occur, as a reader I would still enjoy the mental images of traveling with the character, and I believe an important part of the writing would be lost if these well-written descriptions didn’t occur. As Mark mentioned in his post, they are an art form unto themselves. Like all art, value thereof still resides in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the reader. Well-written description can exist purely for the sake of entertainment.
I have to wonder if writing hasn’t gone the way of food preparation in that we no longer know how to linger over a book in the same way that we forego multiple course meals and choose to patronize fast-food restaurants. I read because I enjoy the slower pace, and while there is a place in my reading diet for the occasional literary Big Mac, more often than not, I opt for the balanced meal of description, dialog, prose, and narrative.
Now I don’t want to start a fight with screenwriters because I truly do appreciate their craft. However, using what worked in an action-packed movie and applying it to writing has resulted in fast-paced novels written with the singular hope of being turned into a movie. This has diminished writing for some of us. This influence has led to the removal of poetry and painting (mental images) from writing resulting in flat, hollows stories. Let movies be movies, appreciate them for all that they are; and let books be books, treasures not to be rushed through.