Saturday, 15 December 2012

Telling the goddam story

"This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do - not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit." (Second foreword)

At the suggestion of pretty much everyone on the interweb I got a copy of 'On Writing' by Stephen King from the library. I read 11/22/63 earlier this year and loved it and would consider myself quite a King convert. This book is part autobiography, part writing advice. The back cover blurb implies to the reader it was written as a result of a near fatal accident, however much of the book had already been written prior to King being hit by a van in 1999. It traces the course of his writing life, from his early beginnings doing the high school newsletter, sending stories off to science fiction magazines through to the publishing of his first novel and onwards. It is modest and unsensational, emphasising hard graft (as most writing advice does) and the art of connecting ideas. I liked the tale of how he came up with Carrie, taking a story he was writing about a high school girl who is being bullied and then reading something about telekinesis, and putting the two things together. He makes it all sound so simple. The book has three main parts; a CV, a toolbox and on writing, followed at the end by the story of the accident and his subsequent recovery, but the whole book is scattered with snippets of advice. In the life story part he recounts many pieces of advice given to him by others and how it helped him. I like this one from the editor of a local newspaper he works for while at school:

" 'When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story,' he said. 'When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.' " (p.56)

In the toolbox he makes this neat little analogy about fixing a screen with his uncle Oren and having the right tool for the job in hand. He talks about grammar and sentence structure and gives us some wonderful examples at the extremes of writers breaking the rules. The idea being of course that you have to know the rules in order to break them effectively. He argues that it is paragraphs that are the important building blocks of writing. He takes small pieces of writing and picks them apart to point out why they work and what role each sentence takes in the process of the story. It was all very helpful. He highly recommends Elements of Style by Strunk and White as a standard text for writers. Basic advice such as avoiding the passive tense:

"I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of  England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty." (p.136-7)

and erasing adverbs from your writing (easier said than done I fear):

"Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. ... With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn't expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point across. ...
Someone out there is now is accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one in your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day ... fifty the day after that ... and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you can see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's - GASP!! - too late." (p.139-40)

 - followed by extensive examples of why he's right, how if you use the right word the adverb is just redundant. However then he also warns against using excessively elaborate vocabulary instead. The plea is for simplicity.
He goes off on other tracks too, talking about background research and how to get published. He gives advice on rewriting and editing, giving us a real example of his own work and the changes he made to it (the rule is always to cut!). I liked the bit about swearing and censors, about how things must have context and be real for the character. And then there's the questionable value of writing classes and retreats, which had me rethinking my recent plans. Here talking about his experience while taking two creative writing classes at college:

"I brought poems of my own to class, but back in my dorm room was my dirty little secret: the half-completed manuscript of a novel about a teenage gang's plan to start a race riot. ... This novel, Sword in the Darkness, seemed tawdry to me when compared to what my fellow students were trying to achieve; which is why I suppose, I never bought any of it to class for a critique. The fact that it was also better and somehow truer than all my poems about sexual yearning and post-adolescent angst only made things worse. The result was a four-month period in which I could write almost nothing at all." (p282-3)

The book is scattered with anecdotes from his life, people he meets and things they say. He is plainly a writer who notices and remembers things, the essence of what makes him successful I guess. You get ideas from paying attention to life. 
So here it is boiled down:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut." (p.164)

"The space can be humble ... and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk." (p178)

"In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech." (p.187)

"This isn't the Taj Mahal we're visiting, after all, and I don't want to sell you the place. It's also important to remember it's not about the setting, anyway - it's about the story, and it's always about the story." (p.204-5)


  1. Thanks Martine, this is a great review. Gave me some pause for thought on teaching kids to write...

  2. I read this as well, and thought it a valuable resource. What a great review. And I have to admit, I also love that you use the term 'interweb' lol. My son and I refer to it that way too. Cheers.

  3. I agree this is a very good book -especially the middle Toolbox section and the advice about cutting back-story. It;'s aslo different to most manuals, and reads more like a novel.

  4. Yes, his style is very chatty and informal and the fact that it is interwoven with his life story does make it read more like a story than an instruction manual.


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