January 06, 2010

On Writing - Stephen King

First things first. I'm not a big Stephen King fan. I find what I've read of his to be a little formulaic and he inhabits a niche of the fiction world (vampires, ghouls, blood vomiting, stakes through hearts, among others) that has never really "done it" for me.

But he's undoubtedly a talented and successful writer and those of us starting out on the trail need all the help we can get and it was with this in mind that I read On Writing, Stephen King's treatise on how to be a better writer, how to come up with the finished product and what to do with it once it's complete.

In fairness, only the middle half of this book was of any direct interest to me. The first quarter was basically an autobiography, how the young King piled up the rejection slips before finally cracking the big time with Carrie. It was interesting to read how even the most successful authors have periods of self-doubt when the going is tough, when the next acceptance seems a long way off, but there isn't really much else of interest in this initial section. The final quarter returns to the biographical tone of the start, this time talking about his infamous accident in 1999 and how he came back from it to produce On Writing.

The middle part, however, contained a lot of useful tips and, thankfully, recommendations I found myself generally nodding along with. This part of the book could have been organised better, King seemingly going for a sort of "stream of consciousness" approach with twenty or so numbered sections existing in a very loose framework that is based evidently upon whatever he fancied writing about that day. It's easy enough to follow though, and never too dense or technical. A pleasant read.

His main recommendations, of relevance to me as a writer just starting out in the world of published stories, were as follows:

Write in a blitz, second draft at leisure. When talking about novels, SK suggests writing as fast as possible while the initial idea is still fresh. Do at least 2-3k words a day. Put the finished draft aside for at least six weeks, then go back to it. I write my short stories in a similar way...get the clay on the table, shape and form later, so I was glad to read this advice. Others craft every sentence as they go along and that works for them. I need to get the story down on paper.

Don't plot. Set the situation and believable characters and let them bring you to the end. The endings should often surprise the author too. This is something I'm doing more and more. I've plotted entire stories, certainly I have, including the very last sentences, before beginning the first draft in earnest. But I've also done it the other way and I think it's something I'll do more and more often.

Simplify your prose. Take out 90% of your flowery adjectives, especially within discourse markers ("he said powerfully"). It's all part of the old "show, don't tell" mantra. Instead of "she said drunkenly", how about showing us she's drunk in any of a thousand different ways. On the same subject, almost all of your discourse markers should be "he said/she said" or not present at all if it's clear who's speaking. All writers, myself included, have gone through phases of using flowery discourse markers: "she retorted aggressively".

Don't overdo the description. King has a great quote about Carrie when illustrating that writers shouldn't go overboard in their descriptive passages. "If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can't you?...We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours." I underlined that bit twice. Nothing's as perfect or as personalised as the reader's own imagination....don't go stomping all over it with your own ideas: that's what I took from this part of On Writing.

Cut, cut, cut. The formula King mentions is "second draft = first draft - 10%". This is one I don't think I'll ever have a problem with. He divides writers into two camps: those who add on second draft and those who cut. I'm a cutter from dawn to dusk, every day of the week and weekends too. My fiction writing baptism was in the weekly 1000-word contests we had and with so few words, every one counted. It gives you good habits as a writer and you automatically cut out a lot of the extra fluff that every first draft has.

There were many other small recommendations in the book, but these were the biggies. Sometimes, it's nice to get confirmation that you're more or less on the right road and to always remember that it's a learning process and you must constantly strive for improvements. I think this is a good book for those learning the craft of fiction writing and it's an exercise I wish more big-name authors would undertake.

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