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January 3, 2018

On Writing: Stephen King

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Written by: అతిథి
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Written by: K.S.M Phanindra

Books that teach writing are often very dry and I deliberately avoid them. I have read a couple of them and liked some of them a lot. Two of my favorites are “Telling Writing” by Ken Macrorie and “A field guide to writing Fiction” by A.B. Guthrie Jr. Both these books are not very popular and I discovered them in the local library. But I find them much better than the popular writing books. We can go on reading all these writing books but our writing will not improve unless we start writing first! So I decided to stop reading more books and instead focus on creating a regular writing schedule and sticking to it. But this book “On Writing” by Stephen King came up in my searches a lot and I was tempted to get it from the local library. I planned to just scan through the book a little and borrow it later if I find it interesting. I never read Stephen King’s books before and did not know anything about him. So I started reading the book without any expectations and was really impressed with the writing. I could not stop reading the book once I started and had to finish the entire book! This is not bad at all, considering that the book is on writing!

 

The first thing about the book is that it is very entertaining. It starts with three forewards which I found very creative and cute. Then in Part-1 of the book, King describes his childhood and his struggles as a writer. He narrates several funny incidents from his life and some serious ones. It is revealing to know that success came to King only after a lot of hard work. He initially struggled as a short story writer until he won a $200K commission for the paperback rights of his novel Carrie. He became super successful after that and then gradually descended into alcoholism that almost destroyed his career. His wife stood with him through all his hard times and helped him to recover. There is not much writing advice in this part, except for an advice he got from an editor of a local newspaper for a sports column he wrote. He edits out unnecessary words from King’s article and remarks – “When you write a story, you are telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story!”. He also later told him to “Write with the door closed and rewrite with the door open”. King closes Part-1 with a wonderful line – “Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” King initially had a massive oak slab desk in the middle of a spacious study room for his writing. But he only got drunk in that room. After his recovery, he got a smaller desk and put it in a corner. His writing life is now less luxurious but he reminds himself why his desk is not in the middle of the room. Because it is writing that sustains a good life, not the other way.

 

In Part-2, King describes his tips for writing. He compares writing to telepathy where a writer transmits his imagination to the readers with a minimal usage of words and descriptions. He insists that writing is serious business and one “must not come lightly to the blank page”. King then describes 4 essential tools in the writer’s toolbox –

 

  1. Vocabulary: Some writers have enormous vocabularies while others have simpler vocabularies. But King suggests not to make any conscious efforts to improve your vocabulary (he says it improves naturally with reading). “Dressing up” the vocabulary for the sake of it creates artificiality. Writing should be plain and direct. The basic rule of vocabulary is “use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful”.
  2. Grammar: King advises that everyone should know the basics of grammar. They should have an understanding of the parts of speech. He calls “nouns” and “verbs” the two indispensable parts of writing. A writer can write incomplete sentences and disregard the rules but to do that he should first know the rules! He recommends the summary of grammar rules from “Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition” for a refresher.
  3. Style:  King recommends the advice from “Elements of Style” – “Avoid passive voice”. King thinks timid writers like passive voice because it is safe. But passive voice soon gets tedious for the reader. He also recommends breaking up thoughts into multiple sentences to make it easier for the reader. The other advice he gives is this – “The adverb is not your friend”! If a writer has to use the sentence, “He closed the door firmly” which has the adverb “firmly”, it means that he could not convincingly describe the situation before this sentence. If the writer did a good job, using the adverb “firmly” would be redundant because the reader should be able to infer that the door was closed firmly based on the description before the sentence! He adds further to use plain “said” for dialogue attribution instead of using sentences such as –  “Put down the gun”, Jekyll grated, which have attribution verbs “full of steroids”!
  4. Structure: In essays, the suggestion is to divide the writing into neat paragraphs that start with a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first. This leads to good organization of thoughts and insures against wandering away from the topic. In fiction, the paragraph is less structured. King suggests to not think much about paragraphs during the writing stage and fix them later in the re-writing stage. He suggests to try varying paragraph lengths and even use single sentence paragraphs, if necessary, to keep the writing fresh and interesting. He considers paragraph and not the sentence as the basic unit of writing. A writer must learn to use it well. The only way to achieve it is through lots of practice!

 

King then proceeds to provide “everything he knows about how to write good fiction”. He says there are 4 kinds of writers – bad, competent, good and great. He thinks only the competent writer can be made good. It is not possible to convert a bad writer into a good one or a good writer into a great one. Here is a summary of King’s advice –

 

  1. Read a lot: If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot, write a lot. There is no way around these two things, no shortcut. Read anything you find, both good and bad books. Don’t read to study the craft, just read for fun. But the learning process will be going on in the background. From bad books you get the confidence that you can do better! From good books you learn style, narration and plot development. It is OK to imitate the style of a writer you find exciting, it will help in creating a style of your own. King is a slow reader but he still reads around 80 books an year, mostly fiction. Carry a book with you all the time and read whenever you can. Switch off that TV (we should possibly say “social network” instead of TV, these days!) and you will find lot of time to read. The more you read the more you become comfortable with the process of writing. Reading offers knowledge of the latest trends, what is trite and what is fresh.
  2. Write a lot: Choose a time and a serene place (where there is less noise and interruptions) and write everyday! It is important to write everyday to not miss the flow of the plot. King reserves mornings for writing and writes around 10 pages (around 2000 words) a day. The writing place can be modest but it must have a door that can be closed! Close the door, eliminate all distractions and start writing!
  3. What to write?: Write on anything you want but always tell the truth. “Write what you know” should be interpreted broadly to mean “write what your heart and imagination know”. Write about what excites you. Be true to yourself and the plot, this is the only way to success. A reader gets glued to the book only if he connects to it and this connection comes only from telling the truth! You can imitate the style of an author to get started but do not imitate the writer’s approach to a particular genre. Make your writing unique by blending your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex and work. People love to read about “work” for some reason, so use it (e.g John Grisham’s novel “The Firm” discusses the work of a young lawyer and Grisham was a lawyer before)!
  4. Plot: A story consists of 3 parts – narration, description and dialogue. King never “plotted” his stories, they pretty much make themselves! He believes plotting is not compatible with the spontaneity of real creation. Stories are always found, like fossils in the ground. They are relics to be discovered. A writer’s job is to get them out of the ground as intact as possible. Thus writing is like an excavation! It needs careful tools and plot is like a jackhammer that is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates! King relies on his intuition and writes based on a “situation” instead of a story. The situation creates the characters and the writer’s job is to let them roam freely! The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a what-if question – e.g What if a young mother and her son become trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (King’s novel Cujo)
  5. Description: Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. It is a learned skill. Reading tells you “how much to” describe and writing regularly tells you “how to” describe well. Start visualizing what you want your reader to experience and translate your mind into words on the page! It is also important to know “what to” describe and what can be left alone to reader’s imagination. King does not like exhaustive descriptions of physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing. He thinks describing locale and texture is much more important. A good description consists of few well chosen details that will stand for everything else. Description can be straight or poetic. Use of figurative language (e.g simile or metaphor) makes reading fiction delightful. But be careful to avoid cliches.
  6. Dialogue: Dialogue gives your cast their voices and is crucial in defining their characters. Dialogue can “show” your characters without “telling” about them. Some writers have an excellent ear for dialogue and others do not do a great job. It is useful to know your limitations. Dialogue that is true only to a certain “idea” of life is fine as long as it rings true to our ear. You should be honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouth. Profanity and vulgarity in language is acceptable to King if the characters demand it.
  7. Characters: Pay attention to how the real people around you behave and tell the truth about what you see in your stories. Fictional characters are often inspired from real-life. Short stories tend to be character-driven but novels should be story-driven. No one is “the bad guy” or “the good guy” in the real life, we all are heroes from our perspective. Keep this in mind to avoid creating “one-dimensional” characters. A writer’s job is to make sure that his characters behave in ways that will both help the story and seem reasonable to us. If the job is well done, your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own!
  8. Bells and whistles: The core ideas of storytelling are very simple – practice is invaluable and honesty is indispensable; Hear and see clearly and transcribe what you see or hear with equal clarity. There are lots of bells and whistles too – symbolism, incremental repetition, stream of consciousness etc. Use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way of your story. If it doesn’t, press the delete key! We can only please some of the readers some of the time, so just stick to what works for you and your story. Symbolism is powerful. Don’t try hard to create it but if you find it as part of the fossil you are working to unearth, go and enhance it!
  9. Theme: Theme is just what the novel is about and is always present. Every book is about “something”. Your job after the first draft is to decide what this something is and enhance it in the second draft. Ask, “What I am writing about?”. The answer doesn’t always come right away, but there usually is one. Most writers only have a few deep interests and so the “themes” of their novels will not be too many. This is fine and newer themes grow out of our life as we grow. But never start with thematic concerns, just focus on the story and theme emerges automatically.
  10. Revising work: King uses only 2 drafts and a polish but rewriting varies from writer to writer. Start the first draft with door closed and write as fast as you can, looking back only when necessary. Resist the temptation to show or discuss this draft with anyone till you finish it. After your finish, lock your draft and celebrate. Wait for some days (King waits for 6 weeks after he finishes a novel) and reread your draft with fresh eyes. Fix any glaring holes in plot or character development. Concentrate on the “toolbox concerns” – delete adverbs, add clarifying phrases etc. Ask the big questions – Is the story coherent? Do the recurring elements entwine and make a theme? etc. Look for resonance and what you meant. After these revisions, open the door and show to four or five close friends. Someone said that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. Take the feedback of this “ideal reader” seriously. Also get feedback from the other friends and correct any errors pointed out by them. If there is a mixed opinion, no need to change anything but if everyone says there is a problem, you need to do something about it! All opinions do not weigh the same but play close attention to the ideal reader’s opinion.
  11. Pace and backstory: There is a belief that commercially successful stories are fast paced. This is not true. Each story should be allowed to unfold at its own pace. But if the pace is slowed down too much even the most patient reader may grow restive. Imagine how the Ideal Reader feels to identify the correct pace. Leaving out the boring parts even if they are your favorite ones (kill your darlings!) will definitely help. King follows the advice he received during his early writing days – 2nd Draft = First Draft – 10%.  Back story is all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story. It helps define character and establish motivation. It is important to get the back story in as quickly and as gracefully as possible. Take the help of Ideal Reader to get this done without boring the readers. Stick to the interesting parts of the history and don’t get carried away with the rest.
  12. Research: Research material is a specialized kind of back story and should stay in the background and not dominate the main story. For some stories, research is inevitable and it can add a lot to the story. Just don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog! Always remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper and the story always comes first.
  13. Writing Classes: Writing classes are not a magic bullet but can help. One serious problem with writing classes is that “I hafta” becomes a rule instead of “I wanna”. There is a pressure to produce writing. Critiques in the writing classes are often very vague and do not help in your second draft. Daily critiques force you to write with the door constantly open and that sort of defeats the purpose. But one benefit offered by a writing class is that you are surrounded by people who are serious about writing. Also these classes provide an opportunity for many underpaid creative writers to teach what they know to others. Thus writing classes can be intellectually stimulating and fun but they also often stray far from the actual nuts and bolts business of writing.
  14. On Agents: Agents, publishers and editors are all looking for the next hot writer. You should have an agent and if your work is salable, you will not have much trouble finding one. Be your own advocate and read the magazines publishing the kind of stuff you write. Buy a copy of “Writer’s Market”, find some good agents and write to them about you and your work. Good agents charge a fee for reading your work. Pay the fee instead of sending stories to agents who read your work for free.
  15. Motivation: King is often asked, “Do you do it for the money, honey?”. The answer is no. He wrote because writing fulfilled him. He did it for the pure joy of the thing. If you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

 

I found all the advice above very useful. King gives examples from his own novels and novels of other writers and keeps his writing very interesting. So his book is much more exciting than the dull summary list I made above. King concludes the book with a section that describes how he was almost killed when hit by a van in 1999. His describes the pain he went through and his recovery in detail. Again writing helped him to make his life a brighter and more pleasant place. King concludes the book by saying – “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. It’s about getting up, getting well and getting over. Getting happy. … This book is a permission slip: You can, you should and if you are brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up!”

Read King’s book and more importantly, start writing!

Note: Another review of the same book here.

 



About the Author(s)

అతిథి

పుస్తకం.నెట్ కు సభ్యులు కాని వారు పంపే వ్యాసాలు అతిథి గా ప్రచురింపబడతాయి.



One Comment


  1. Sekhar

    Thanks a lot for the review!!!



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