When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.
When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married. It’s a good answer because it makes the question go away, and because there is an element of truth in it. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible. And I believe the converse is also true: that my writing and the pleasure I take in it has contributed to the stability of my health and my home life.
Alcoholics build defenses like the Dutch build dikes. I spent the first twelve years or so of my married life assuring myself that I “just liked to drink.” I also employed the world-famous Hemingway Defense. Although never clearly articulated (it would not be manly to do so), the Hemingway Defense goes something like this: as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give in to their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.
“Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do. If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider a novel about a plumber aboard a starship or on an alien planet. Sound ludicrous? The late Clifford D. Simak wrote a novel called Cosmic Engineers which is close to just that. And it’s a terrific read.
Narrate this without plotting—let the situation and that one unexpected inversion carry you along. I predict you will succeed swimmingly . . . if, that is, you are honest about how your characters speak and behave. Honesty in story- telling makes up for a great many stylistic faults, as the work of wooden-prose writers like Theodore Dreiser and Ayn Rand shows, but lying is the great unrepairable fault. Liars prosper, no question about it, but only in the grand sweep of things, never down in the jungles of actual composition, where you must take your objective one bloody word at a time. If you begin to lie about what you know and feel while you’re down there, everything falls down.
Someone—I can’t remember who, for the life of me— once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one per- son. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, “I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?” For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha.
She has always been an extremely sympathetic and sup- portive first reader. Her positive reaction to difficult books like Bag of Bones (my first novel with a new publisher after twenty good years with Viking that came to an end in a stu- pid squabble about money) and relatively controversial ones like Gerald’s Game meant the world to me. But she’s also unflinching when she sees something she thinks is wrong. When she does, she lets me know loud and clear.
I don’t believe any novelist, even one who’s written forty- plus books, has too many thematic concerns; I have many interests, but only a few that are deep enough to power nov- els. These deep interests (I won’t quite call them obsessions) include how difficult it is—perhaps impossible!—to close Pandora’s technobox once it’s open (The Stand, The Tommy- knockers, Firestarter); the question of why, if there is a God, such terrible things happen (The Stand, Desperation, The Green Mile); the thin line between reality and fantasy (The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, The Drawing of the Three); and most of all, the ter- rible attraction violence sometimes has for fundamentally good people (The Shining, The Dark Half). I’ve also written again and again about the fundamental differences between children and adults, and about the healing power of the human imagination.
I should close this little sermonette with a word of warn- ing—starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. The only possible exceptions to this rule that I can think of are allegories like George Orwell’s Animal Farm (and I have a sneaking suspicion that with Ani- mal Farm the story idea may indeed have come first; if I see Orwell in the afterlife, I mean to ask him).
But once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob your work (and eventu- ally your readers) of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own.
Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.
Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page. It’s far from easy. As I’ve said, we’ve all heard someone say, “Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) . . . I just can’t describe it!” If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this, you will be paid for your labors, and deservedly so. If you can’t, you’re going to collect a lot of rejection slips and perhaps explore a career in the fascinating world of telemarketing.
Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also impor- tant to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.
I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J. Crew catalogue). I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like—I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us. Description begins in the writer’s imagi- nation, but should finish in the reader’s. When it comes to actually pulling this off, the writer is much more fortunate than the filmmaker, who is almost always doomed to show too much . . . including, in nine cases out of ten, the zipper running up the monster’s back.
I think locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players. Nor do I think that physical descrip- tion should be a shortcut to character. So spare me, if you please, the hero’s sharply intelligent blue eyes and outthrust determined chin; likewise the heroine’s arrogant cheek- bones. This sort of thing is bad technique and lazy writing, the equivalent of all those tiresome adverbs.
For me, good description usually consists of a few well- chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind. Certainly they will do for a start. If you decide later on that you’d like to change, add, or delete, you can do so—it’s what rewrite was invented for. But I think you will find that, in most cases, your first visualized details will be the truest and best. You should remember (and your reading will prove it over and over again should you begin to doubt) that it’s as easy to overdescribe as to underdescribe. Probably easier.