Monday 27 December 2010

Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

Who on this planet doesn't know the name Stephen King? Born in 1947, this American author has written and published 49 novels including 5 nonfiction which have sold over 350 million copies. Of course, his fame has spread even further as a number of these books have been turned into successful films: Carrie, The Shining, It and Misery to name but a few.

Consequently, when Mr. King penned a book about his experiences as a writer with his advice on the craft of writing, everyone took notice whether they were writers themselves or just fans of his work.

Apparently King finished this half memoir, half writing advice book in 1999 but was unsure of how to proceed. On June 19, he was struck by a pickup truck and ended up with a collapsed right lung, multiple fractures in his right leg, scalp lacerations and a broken hip. After his stay in hospital, he did return home and did return to the book.

The result is a work in three parts: his early formative years when he first got started in writing, his advice on writing and finally, his accident, its outcome and how the future looks for one Stephen King, author.

The first part in dealing with his early years underlines how success was not something which came to him easily.

By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.

This section also includes the publication of the novel Carrie in 1974 which coupled with the 1976 movie would cement his name in the annals of American popular writers. On a more personal note, he talks about his abuse of both drink and drugs and how his own family had to stage something of an intervention to bring him back to reality.

The second part is King's advice about writing. He gives tips on grammar and points on developing plot and character. Very importantly and very inspirationally for anybody considering writing, he says that "a competent writer can become a good one." - Ah, there is still hope! - He emphasizes how a writer should avoid unnecessary details and thoroughly avoid the use of unnecessary adverbs. His discussions about adverbs struck me as rather personal and I would be curious if somebody ever compares his style to other writers of renown.

Part three returns to the autobiographical in discussing his accident, his serious injuries, his painful recovery and his struggle to start writing again. In the last chapters of the book, King touches on a number of practical subjects, such as research, writing classes (you don’t need them, according to King, but they can be intellectually stimulating and fun), and getting an agent.

His Advice: Write!
In looking at somebody who has proven to be so successful in the area of the popular novel, how could anybody including the author himself "package" his talent so the rest of us would be able to replicate the formula? [chuckles] After all, how many people over the years have sat down in front of a notebook, a typewriter or a computer and suffered from the dreaded blank page syndrome? And it is here, Mr. King probably mentions what sets him apart from the rest of us. His advice? Write. Yes, just that. Write. That novel isn't going to put itself on the page, we have to write it. That short story isn't going to magically appear in our word processor; we have to write it. Of course, there may some tips about grammar, punctuation and setting yourself goals as he says like sitting down to write at least 2,000 words per day and not getting up until he's done. At the end of the day, we have to write.

Writing is a lonely occupation. I've heard this numerous times and as I sit here right now jotting down this article, I realise how true it is and yes, Mr. King has some important advice about this.

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

When I read that I understood something important about somebody we all perceive as being successful. He isn't successful because he started with the idea of "I want to be a success". He's doing what he's doing because he loves what he's doing and success is something that came afterwards and while rewarding, is not his motivation to do what he's doing. He has passion about his work. That is his true motivation, not success per se. Yes, I understand anybody can deliberately start out with the idea of achieving success and some people may make that work but here, with Stephen King and with writing in general, the true raison d'être is the passion for the process not necessarily success itself. We're not supposed to be trying to get dates and make friends. (see my blog Passion: Can You Live Without It?)

His Advice: Read a lot
So, how to write? Write! But as well as writing one must read.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Hmmm, this does seem self-explanatory. Musicians listen to the music of others, sports athletes watch their competition; what better way to learn about any subject than by studying what others are doing in that field of endeavour. Look at your peers (read) and practise (write).

Amusing enough though, Mr. King comes back to emphasize that by doing, one learns to do. And yes, if you are more interested in getting dates and making friends, maybe writing isn't for you.

What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.
-On Writing, paperback version, p. 138

His Advice: Cut 10%
King talks about an early rejection letter which clued him into the idea of removing the fluff and getting to the point. 1st draft minus 10% = 2nd draft. King says that we all fall in love with some great idea but in the end, we may have to drop that idea if it detracts from the flow of the story. It's a tough thing to do but a necessary thing to do.

Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggest cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)...I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”

His advice: Write a draft then put it away
King feels that we should write out a first draft just about nonstop then put it away. Editing will be necessary; there is that 10% of fluff to remove but in his opinion, we should set our draft aside and come back to it. Part of his reasoning is to get over our initial infatuation with our clever ideas and to come back to the work with a more objective, critical eye. It is then that we will be able to better see and cut what is not necessary.

His Advice: No passive voice
I had to chuckle as King goes on about how he hates the passive voice.

The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o'clock... Don't be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write The meeting is at seven. There, by God! Don't you feel better?
-On Writing, paperback version, p. 116

He gives other examples which explain his penchant for direct, forceful descriptions. Never "The rope was thrown by the writer" but always "The writer threw the rope".

His advice: The adverb is not your friend
King strongly believes adverbs are overrated, a fallback for the "timid" writer. He recommends we all make use of "said" by itself as opposed to adding adverbs or worse still, choosing other descriptive verbs.

"Put it down!" she shouted.
"Give it back," he pleaded, "It's mine."
"Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said.

He then offers

"Put it down!" she shouted menacingly.
"Give it back," he pleaded abjectly, "It's mine."
"Don't be such a fool, Jekyll," Utterson said contemptuously.
-On Writing, paperback version, p. 119

King calls these adverbs "swifties" named after the Tom Swift series of books. The author, one Victor Appleton, apparently tried to avoid using the unadorned word "said". A Wikipedia article gives numerous examples which seem to underline the somewhat absurd side of these verbal constructions. Whether we agree or not, the master Stephen King has made his pronouncement and we should all take heed.

I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one's own pleasure, that fear may be mild - timidity is the word I've used here. If, however, one is working under a deadline - a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample - that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was within him.
-On Writing, paperback version, p. 121

His advice: Don't care what others think
Interestingly enough, King always judges his work by letting his wife read whatever he's working on. He admits to being a little needy for that initial feedback from her as his way of inspiring himself and of understanding whether or not he's hit his mark.

However he says that you have to write. You have to write what you know; you have to write what you feel is important and you can't spend a lot of time listening to your critics. Writers write and nobody should distract us from that goal.

His advice: Get to the point
This ties into the 10% rule of cutting out the fluff. Yes, we may have a really, really good idea but does it fit with what we're writing? Meandering introductions, long anecdotes, sidebars, whatever may have unto themselves wonderful little kernels of inspiration but may take the reader all over hell's half acre as opposed to leading them in the direction of the story. No babbling; get to the point.

Popular writers are not good writers
King points out that "popular" is ofttimes not considered "good" and in his opinion, this is unfair and untrue. He talks about the "literary establishment", a sort of caste system which amounts to an exclusive old boys' club where popular writers are never admitted. Hmmm, is this one of those cases where the successful can laugh all the way to the bank?

There is a ray of hope
While geniuses are not born every day - well I've know that's left me out for a long time - King does give us the idea that there are possibilities.

I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while 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.
-On Writing, paperback version, p. 136

Final Word
This book is a must for anybody who is a writer of sorts whether a blogger, a journalist or a delusional, sorry, determined future novelist. Even a King fan would appreciate this read for insights into their fav sometimes horror writer. Seriously, for anybody who is attempting to string a few words together, there are a number of terrific lessons to study about the technique of writing. It's a must. Yes, there are many reference works having to do with the craft of prose but getting some advice from one of the most successful, prolific popular literary greats of these current times.

To sum it all up: "Read a lot; write a lot." And Mr. King does emphasize writing. After all, just what are we talking about? Writing! To quote Richard Branson, "Screw it, let's do it."

I will end with this comment from Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert made back in March 2004: "A lot of people were outraged that he [King] was honored at the National Book Awards, as if a popular writer could not be taken seriously. But after finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery."


Wikipedia: On Writing

Wikipedia: Stephen King


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1 comment:

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I found this book very interesting. One of the best writing books I've ever read and believe me I've read many.