Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Stephen King's "On Writing" Lives Up to the Hype

Earlier this fall, I posted something similar to the following on Facebook (I’m too lazy to look up the exact wording, and besides, who cares?):

Bought a copy of Stephen King’s “On Writing” at the thrift store. Going to see if it lives up to the hype.”

I have read the book. I have seen the machine. And, for the most part, the hype is justified. “On Writing” is among the top five best books I’ve read on writing. Here’s the list, which I offer in no particular order:

  1. How to Write: Advice and Reflections, by Richard Rhodes 
  2. Secrets of Successful Fiction, by Robert Newton Peck
  3. Let's Get Digital, by David Gaughran
  4. On Writing, by Stephen King 
  5. Sweet Thursday, by John Steinbeck.

Yes, I know, technically, the Steinbeck book on my list isn’t a book on writing, unless you count the advice one of Stenbeck’s characters offers on the subject, which you should:

I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. It don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.

I’ve written about this before – and I call it kreptedoodle, especially when I’m the writer of it.

I’m finding the key to reading books on writing is to look in them for the demons in my own writing, rather than getting hung up on what’s become pedestrian writing advice (you know the kind: Write for a set time or a set word goal a day, read often, put what you write away for a while then revisit, etc.) because these kinds of books are full of this kind of advice. It’s good stuff that should be applied – don’t get me wrong – but it’s easy to read a book, see the familiar advice, then dismiss the whole book as pedestrian. Which this book most certainly is not.

So, what did I learn, Dorothy? Here we go:

Just write. Without fear. Says King: “Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”

Don’t fret if you’re not a genius. Just work to improve. And you can improve. Says King: “[W]hile it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” Here, I might point out an inconsistency in King’s advice: This second bit is loaded with affectation. Yes, mixed with realism, but affectation as well.

Keep the ball rolling. Says King: “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his own priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.” This is what’s dogging me with Doleful Creatures.

Identify your book’s something, and make subsequent drafts pull that something into clarity. Says King: “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book – at least every one worth reading – is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings your book is about. You job in the second draft – one of them, anyway – ist o make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story.”

Thematic thinking is putting your story under a magnifying glass. Says King: “I was astonished at how really useful ‘thematic thinking’ turned out to be. It wasn’t just a vaporous idea that English professor make you write about on midterm essay exams . . . but another handy gadget to keep in the toolbox, this one something like a magnifying glass.” Adding to that, he says further, “What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf. Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I’ll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce the meaning.”

Consider backstory carefully. Says King: “[I]f you think it’s all about information, you ought to give up fiction and get a job writing instruction manuals – Dilbert’s cubicle awaits. As a reader, I’m more interested in what’s going to happen than what already did.”

Research is for verisimilitude, rarely for the meat of the story. Says King: “[R]esearch is back story, and the key word in back story is back. The tale I have to tell . . . has to do with monsters and secrets. It is not a story about police procedure in Western Pennsylvania. What I’m looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude, like the handful of spices you chuck into a good spaghetti sauce to really finish her off. That sense of reality is important in any work of fiction, but I think it is particularly important in a story dealing with the abnormal.”

When you write, keep the door shut on writing classes. Says King “You find yourself constantly questioning your prose and your purpose when what you should probably be doing is writing as fast as the Gingerbread Man runs, getting that first draft down on paper while the shape of the fossil is still bright and clear in your mind. Too many writing classes make Wait a minute, explain what you meant by that a kind of bylaw.” Later, he adds with a wink: “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing.”

I’ve developed a corollary to the last one, inspired mostly by Mark Twain, who warned aspiring writers against working at newspapers. There you get to see your name in print often, and it dulls the drive to work on bigger things. I must confess I’ve done the bulk of my crappy, non-published writing since I got out of the newspaper business in 2005. But I am in Dilbert’s cubicle, writing instructions, so perhaps celebrating isn’t necessarily in order.

But enough about the craft. Doleful Creatures awaits. I’ve got some description and backstory to eliminate, if my beta readers are to be believed. Which, as King says, they are.

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