The Gutter

by jkatejohnston

29 July 2015

Dear Max,

A while ago I went to a seminar on Crime Writing. It was too depressing to write about. They talked a lot about Structure, which I don’t believe in. But it what if they’re right? And if they are, where does that leave me?

My idea of structure is: come up with some likeable people and make bad things happen to them. Muddle along to the end. But that doesn’t seem to be working very well. I think I’ve forgotten that the word author is related to authority. I’m just as ignorant about what’s going to happen next as the people in the story.

At the seminar quite a few of the speakers recommended reading books about how to write a screenplay. Save The Cat is one title I remember. Or was it Kill the Cat? Anyway, I may be desperate enough to try it.

I remember in law school in the advanced legal writing class I refused to use certain forms and words. Like in a pleading, in the part that’s called the Petition for Relief, the sentence starts, “Wherefore, the Plaintiff requests…” And I was refusing to write “Wherefore.” So the teacher said, “That’s fine, but it will be reflected in your grade, and when you’re a lawyer, you’ll have to do it.” And he was right. I do it all the time now. Customary words like that don’t really infect your mind. Or maybe my taste has deteriorated to the point that it doesn’t bother me anymore.

But what I’m trying to get to is that one of my favorite people in the class—I’m sure she’s a great rich lawyer now—was listening to this debate, and she said, “Oh Kate, get down here in the gutter with the rest of us.” Which, even at the time, I thought was funny and probably not bad advice. But I didn’t write wherefore, and I had to put up with a bad grade, boo hoo. (I have to add that this was not the real legal writing class taught by the great Heather Georgakis. Her class was about reading hard things–law cases mostly–and writing sensibly about them. We got along just fine.)

Anyway, I was thinking about crime writing and how to get down there in the gutter with the rest of them. I think I’m willing, if I could just figure out how to do it. If it were just a matter of adopting some customary phrases, it would be easy. But it’s more than that. I just don’t know how much more.

4 August 2015

I just read Stephen King’s On Writing and liked it a lot. He loves writing. He loves reading. He’s also a bit of a whack job. Here’s some of his advice that I want to remember.

  • Books have subjects. When you write the second draft, try to write scenes that make the subject a bit clearer. This doesn’t mean essays and opinions. It has to be done with story and people. Theme is the same thing as subject.
  • The main thing about paragraphs is the way they look on the page. (Advice that confirms what I already believe is so fascinating to me.)
  • Thinking up a plot is hopeless and boring. Situation + character = story. And speaking of story, get on with it.
  • Write all the way through the first draft by yourself. Don’t show it to anyone or talk about it. Write fast enough so that you don’t lose a sense of the story moving forward.
  • After you finish a first draft, set it aside for a few weeks. Then read it to yourself, all at one go if you can. Show it to a few people and listen to what they say. Then rewrite it. Then rewrite it again.

Since I liked the book, you’d think I’d read some of his fiction next, but, from his own description of it, no thanks. He’s interested in fear, violence and highly unusual situations. And I’m just not.

But what impressed me was his interest in those things. He’s sincere. He said that he wrote a book about a crazed female fan who imprisons a writer and starts removing his body parts and feeding them to her pig. Okay, not for me. But for him, this is wonderful. He loves it.

I always suspect that people who write about elves or spaceships or improbable violence are faking it. Is that really what they walk around thinking about? Elves? Isn’t it more likely that they think mostly about themselves and other people and life’s persistent problems? The stuff of good fiction?

But Stephen King isn’t faking a thing. His mind really works that way.

The weird part is that the memoir isn’t just surprisingly good for such a trashy writer. It’s good, period. There’s nothing to be apocalyptic about. Just hard life.

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