Sunday, 5 January 2014

The One Book About Writing That EVERY Aspiring Writer Should Read

Now that we are into January and a new year, Christmas feels like a distant memory. There is one present that I received however, that's influence will not fade for a very long time. That is On Writing by Stephen King. Any writer who has not read this book should do so immediately (well, maybe finish this blog post first, but then, definitely, read King's book).

As a novelist, I have found the majority of texts about creative writing to be pretty useless. They usually focus on completely the wrong thing. They are written under the false belief that the ability to craft stories is an acquired skill. It is not. Some people are born with the creative drive and others are not. King knows this and makes this very clear from the beginning (or the middle - the first section of the book is an abridged autobiography, but more of that later).

'...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.'

And so we have his motivation for writing this book. This is not written for people who want to become writers. It is for writers who want to improve. To be the best that we can be. With King's help, we may just get there too.

Whether or not you are a fan of the author's work, there is no denying that the name Stephen King carries a fair amount of weight in the book industry. His advice therefore, is relevant to all who seek a career in the that industry. It is also very simple and echoes the words of other great authors such as Elmore Leonard (try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip) and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (murder your darlings*). Basically, a writer must be ruthless with their work. Anything that is not absolutely necessary, which is not an essential ingredient of the story, is a distraction. It has to go.

King's two biggest pet peeves are passive writing and adverbs. Passive writing is basically something like; this blog post was written by David Clarkson as opposed to the active; David Clarkson wrote this blog post. If you want to create a strong narrative, I think that it is self evident which one is preferable. An adverb is a word that describes a verb, usually ending in "-ly". They are most destructive when attached to speech tags, he said, knowingly. Can you see how nauseatingly awful that was? Exactly. Kill them.

Neither of the above are actually incorrect from a grammatical standpoint, but they should be used sparingly. If they can be removed they should be (if they cannot be removed it is okay - they obviously belong in that case). Try it on your own writing. It will be better for it, I promise.

Another noteworthy piece of advice dispatched in the book regards the use of fragmented sentences. These are fine. They work. Use them. Just do not overdo it. Or as King puts it:

'Take any noun, put it with a verb,and you have a sentence. It never fails.'

Good writing is all about the flow of the story. If you find your rhythm, you will hook the reader. Sticking rigidly to certain preconceived rules of grammar can sometimes lead to clunky and stilted writing. Reading should be a pleasure, so if the rules do not fit - break them.

Other advice is not so universal. King employs a drafting formula of '1st draft - 10% = 2nd draft'. This is much more subjective and depending on how an individual approaches the tasks of redrafting and editing, may not be entirely useful. It does however, echo the earlier, much more important advice that a writer's biggest problem is putting too many words on the page. You really must 'murder your darlings'.

As I stated earlier, a large section of the book is autobiographical. This is divided into two parts. The first, which opens the book, concerns itself with King's early life and the parts of it that influenced and shaped his eventual career path. We learn how childhood trips to the cinema to watch old black and white horror movies, and his experiences of devious dentists and demon babysitter's, helped to shape where his creativity would eventually take him. The second autobiographical passage comes after his advice on writing and details the road accident that almost killed him, whilst he was working on this very book. Both are extremely well written, interesting and well worth the price of the paperback even without the writing advice.

Now that I have shown the reasons why this is such a great book, it is only fair that I also share some of the things that I did not like. Thankfully, these are few, so I will not go into too much detail. Basically, they consist of a now defunct chapter on the process of landing a literary agent, where King uses a composite of three up and coming writers who he knows, to show how easy this is. The reality, as we all know, is not easy and it is getting even harder all of the time. Sadly, those who are successful, no matter how talented, often fail to realise how much a factor that luck played in their success. The other section of the book that I found disappointing was the first and second draft comparison. He chose to use a segment of his short story, 1408, which I think was a little bit too well formed from the beginning to be a great deal of use. Most of the changes stem from a cut and replace on a character's name. He should have used an earlier, less well formed from the outset piece, but there was still some helpful advice in there.

One other potentially negative aspect of the book that I want to talk about is perhaps the most sensitive to would be writers as it concerns editing. King tells us in the third(!) foreword that:

'The editor is always right...[as] to write is human. To edit is divine.'

The thing is, this book is far from divine when it comes to editing. Content wise, it works. The author has a relaxed, easy going style that is very easy on the reader. His writing has rhythm and he certainly leaves out the boring bits. Darlings all slain without mercy. Where the problem actually lies is in the grammar. There is one simple rule (and it is a rule - even King's literary bible of choice, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, refers to it) that King consistently disregards. The rule regards a comma being placed before a "non-restrictive clause within a sentence". Or in layman's terms - the difference between "which" and "that". The word "that" denotes an essential clause and does not require a comma. The word "which" denotes a non-essential clause and should be preceded by a comma. [check out the final sentence of the fifth paragraph of this post for an example of the correct usage]. This book is missing a lot of commas. For a detailed examination of this subject you can check out a post that author Richard Van Anderson wrote for the Woven Tale Press (another great resource for writers). It may just be me being picky, but the editor for an author of King's stature should really have picked this up. Or then again, does it really matter? As this book so rightly attests - it is the story itself that counts.

This brings me to my final point and perhaps the one that I believe to be the most important contained within this book. King prefaces the book with two quotes:

'Honesty is the best policy'
- Miguel de Cervantes


'Liars prosper'
- Anonymous

As writers, we must be both of the above. Fiction, by mere definition, is the creation of lies. If a writer wants to create anything of real value however, he/she must make sure that the lies they compose are as truthful as possible. Contradiction perhaps? I think not and neither does King. In his book, he compares the process of a writer penning a story to that of an archaeologist excavating a fossil. Good authors do not direct the plot of a story, they discover it, one piece at a time. I will be very clear on this - Stephen King is against plots and I agree with him. I have always been a fly by the seat of my pantser and with King's insight, I now have a greater understanding of why.

To force a rigid plot onto a story inadvertently compromises one's ability to find the "truth" of the story. The biggest joy that I find in writing is when an outcome takes me completely by surprise. To anyone who does not write, this will sound strange. How can a writer be surprised by his or her own writing? The simple answer is that the best stories do not begin with a plot, but with a scenario. A question is posed. We begin with a character (or set of characters) and a predicament. What happens next is anybody's guess and it is the job of the author to figure out the answer by keeping their characters as true as possible. A character should react how their creator believes that they would (when faced with a particular situation), not how the creator merely wants them to act. Believe me when I say that I know this to be true. I once had to kill off a character who I myself had been rooting for during the whole story. The worst thing is that it was not my choice to end their life. As I got to know this character over the course of 300 pages, I realised that they were simply too stubborn, too set in their ways, too God damn righteous, to make it to the end. If I had tried to have it any other way, the story would have been a lie. It would not have worked. I discovered during writing the book that they had to die. And so it is. The story is always right. It basically reduces to the simple premise that an artist does not define one's art, but rather the art defines the artist.

I am starting to sound pretentious, so I will end here. Personally, I would have liked to have said a bit more, but as you can see, my writing has other ideas. This particular piece has reached its natural conclusion and who am I to argue? So to summarise, if you are a writer and believe that you have talent (sadly, this is a prerequisite) and you want to make the most of it, you could do a lot worse than reading On Writing by Stephen King. In the author's words; 'most books about writing are filled with bullshit' - this thankfully, is the exception that proves the rule (note it is not - the exception which proves the rule, as Stephen King may say). If you only read one work of non-fiction this year - make it On Writing.

*A variation of the line; 'kill your darlings' is attributed to William Faulkner. Who said what and when is not really important. It is good advice nonetheless. Follow it.

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  1. Yes, this is a lot of what I always stressed with my writing students. The smallest sentence adjustments can change the entire tone and impact.

    1. I also find that this is where reading out loud can also help. The sound and rhythm of a text is just as important as the meaning that is conveyed. Reading should not just be informative, it should be a pleasure.

  2. I had read quite a few books on writing, but Stephen King's On Writing was the first one I really enjoyed. It had some great advice and it was a fun read.

    1. My post focused on the technical advice within the book, but I agree that it is also a fun read. The autobiographical parts alone make it worthwhile.