A Damn Good Story in Just Two Paragraphs

A Damn Good Story in Just Two Paragraphs

This is for you writers out there. I’ve been reading Stephen King’s book, On Writing, and there’s something from it that I want to share. Jan Comeau, one of the members of this year’s ongoing Women At Woodstock Virtual Writer’s Colony, recommended it to our group during a lively discussion of this month’s Spotlight Manuscript. (In the yearlong Writer’s Colony, each writer gets a spotlight month when she submits a 20-page manuscript for distribution to all her fellow writers in the group. We each read and comment on the manuscript and send our critiques to the spotlight writer. She then has a chance to edit her manuscript as she sees fit, and then she reads the new version at our next virtual zoom session, whereupon we have a full discussion of the story, the language, and the possibilities we see for its future as part of a book or a stand-alone story.)

Contrary to my usual mode of responding to advice, which is, “add it to a list and never do it,” I actually requested the book from my local library and started to read it. It’s especially out of character for me in this instance, because I’m not a big fan of Stephen King’s. I don’t like horror–especially tales that leave you feeling as though all of life is dark and scary, and evils that you don’t even know about and are powerless to fight are lurking everywhere. I have enough bad thoughts and worries to fill my time already, thank you. I also don’t regard Mr. King as the greatest writer in the world–and forgive me for saying that. I fully acknowledge that A) he’s made like a gazillion dollars with his writing, and B) I, well, haven’t. (Not yet, anyway. Ya never know.)

A Writer’s Community Gives a Writer Motivation

My newfound motivation to learn and improve and my out-of-character follow-through are a direct outgrowth, I think, of the change the Writer’s Colony is making in me. I’m now immersed long-term in this fellowship of writers who inspire me with their written words and encourage me with their feedback. Just knowing that they’re out there, writing, reworking, creating, and caring about the fact that I’m doing the same – and that they’re committed to reading and thinking about not only their own work but each other’s, makes me feel that I truly am a part of a community of writers. This has shifted my being as a writer.

Back now to Stephen King’s On Writing. This friendly and informative and very human book has entertained me and helped me. And one thing that I found most instructive and that I want to share here was not part of the instructional text at all; it was instead this well-told, emotionally affecting, self-contained story he told in section 24 of the “C.V.” portion of the book. Here it is:

We had two kids by the time we’d been married three years. They were neither planned nor unplanned; they came when they came, and we were glad to have them. Naomi was prone to ear infections. Joe was healthy enough but never seemed to sleep. When Tabby went into labor with him, I was at a drive-in movie in Brewer with a friend–it was a Memorial Day triple feature, three horror films. We were on the third movie (The Corpse Grinders) and the second sixpack when the guy in the office broke in with an announcement. There were still pole-speakers in those days; when you parked your car you lifted one off and hung it over your window. The manager’s announcement thus rang across the entire parking lot: “STEVE KING, PLEASE GO HOME! YOUR WIFE IS IN LABOR! STEVE KING, PLEASE GO HOME! YOUR WIFE IS GOING TO HAVE THE BABY!”

As I drove our old Plymouth toward the exit, a couple of hundred horns blared a satiric salute. Many people flicked their headlights on and off, bathing me in a stuttery glow. My friend Jimmy Smith laughed so hard he slid into the footwell on the passenger side of the front seat. There he remained for most of the trip back to Bangor, chortling among the beer cans. When I got home, Tabby was calm and packed. She gave birth to Joe less than three hours later.

Lesson: Writing Is Best Naked, Not Dressed Up For the Prom

So what’s instructive about this story? The simple fact that it is a mere two paragraphs–no time for setting scene, no time for building characters or plotline or the reader’s anticipatory hope or fear–but it was so tightly and perfectly written that it brought a lump to my throat. I gotta admit, Stephen King is a helluva writer. And I have to remember this when I find myself sliding back into bad habits of overwriting; being “too writerly,” as we say in our group. I know why I do this; I’m wanting to get the reader to feel what I’m feeling, dammit, and in the process, I dilute the story to something flavorless. I think I’m afraid that if I write only the best distillation of what I want to tell, there’ll be only a paragraph or two. So Stephen King’s story has just taught me, “So what?” Your writing should deliver itself onto the page in its best and most concentrated essence. When that’s done, it’s done. Move on.

So I’m hereby encouraging all you writers out there to believe in the emotional impact of your tale. It doesn’t need a lot of intricate construction or fancy language to convey it with feeling. In fact, adding verbal bells and whistles and bows would probably ruin it. That certainly can be said of Stephen King’s story. It’s not a lot of words, but it’s perfect, and it’s memorable.

Think about that as you write. And if you’re not in a writer’s community, join one. It makes a world of difference.

P.S. Want to join an ongoing Virtual Writer’s Colony?
We’re taking signups now for two groups:

Virtual Story Cottage Sampler at the end of summer; 4 sessions in August & September led by Colleen Geraghty according to the Amherst Method. Group size limited to 10. Click here to register.

Virtual Writer’s Colony 2022 – Group #2 starting in January 2022 and running all year. Our first Virtual Writer’s Colony has become such a close-knit and committed group, it’s continuing on into 2022. We’ve built up a waiting list for another, so we’re launching Group #2 at the beginning of next year. Limited to 12 writers, so spots are limited. Click here to join now.

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