Friday, October 26, 2012

ON WRITING by Stephen King

I spied my 19-year-old son reading ON WRITING by Stephen King this summer and asked him to give me his copy for my birthday once he has finished it.  Of course, by the time he got the book to me it looked like it had fallen out of his backpack into a puddle of mud and was run over by a car, but that didn't take any of the enjoyment out of reading it.

First off, let me say that Stephen King is a funny man.  Funny, funny, funny.  Flat out hilarious.  In this day and age with lousy luck tripping me up at every intersection in my life, I don't find a whole lot of things to be funny anymore, but I got a good deal of belly bounces and guffaws out of this read.

ON WRITING is not a textbook on the English language, but a memoir on the craft.  It begins with scattered memories of King's childhood experiences flowing into his adult life.  Famous authors are always being asked about their secrets to success by those who want to follow a similar path, but King is wise enough to know there is no special recipe to cook up a gifted writer.  The best he could do is share pieces of his life and how they shaped him into being a writer.

He offers background information on his experiences of writing, revising and publishing books that many of us have read.  Ultimately, this a very humble approach to this kind of book.  What he's saying is that he doesn't hold the key that will open the door for struggling writers to realize their dreams, but he can give us a little inside information on how things worked out for him, offer some word crafting advice, and express to us a good attitude to utilize along the journey.

He touches on a lot of thoughts I've had over the years as a reader.  For most of my life, my main focus was on reading and writing poetry.  However, unless someone is being forced to read your work in a classroom, I find that very few people nowadays go to a bookstore in search of poetry.  Back in the 1990's there was a boom in poetry anthologies and many bookstores carried a poetry section as tall and wide as any other genre, but over the years I've watched that section shrink down to a couple of shelves containing nothing but the well known works of classic poets.

Poetry may be one of the finest, most respected forms of the writing craft, but most of us are too busy to put the effort into reading it.  When I expect to be sitting in waiting rooms all day, I don't take a book of poems with me.  I used to do that, but found that every cough, every crying child, every ringing phone, every door opening drew my attention away from the page.  Now I take a suspense novel with me, because fast moving stories have a way of drawing you in so that you can shut out everything around you.  When I get called in for my appointment, my name usually has to be called multiple times if I am engrossed in a really good book. One day the lady next to me shook my shoulder, because there were only two of us in the waiting room and she knew they weren't calling for her.

King talks about this, and I'm glad he addressed it, because I, personally, am sick of buying fiction and yawning through the first 40 pages that contain nothing beyond mostly unnecessary description.  No action what-so-ever.  Readers need to get hooked with the first line.  There are subtler ways of offering pertinent background information without describing the main character's personal history and statistics before approaching the actual plot or story.

I remember critiquing a student work in college in which the first chapter consisted of all the characters stepping out of a carriage one by one, taking the hand of the driver for support, and paragraph after paragraph listing their names, ages, occupations, educations, parent's names...  It read like an application form.  The author of this piece forgot one important thing:  The reader doesn't give a damn about such details.  The reader hasn't connected with the characters or invested any interest in the characters at this point in time because the reader hasn't shared any experience with the characters yet.  They are as flat as crepes.  The reader may as well be sitting on a bench in a mall gazing in boredom at passers by.   Everyone knows that you can't hire a person based upon his job application alone.  You have to sit across from him, listen to his choice of words when he speaks, observe his body language, see if he laughs at your jokes.  Then you can either take a chance on investing more time into him, or you can hold the door to escort him out.

People in today's society appreciate fast-moving stories.  There's no need for writers to get all highfalutin in their descriptions and word choices.  It's really not about impressing some professor with the breadth of your vocabulary and how you can artistically arrange such rare words into unique sentences.  It's about respecting the reader's lack of time and desperate need to escape from all the hassles of everyday life.  If you want to sell books, a reader shouldn't have to keep a dictionary within reach to understand your work.

With that said, King does recommend that you store vocabulary and grammar in your toolbox, but he teaches you practical ways to use them to construct an interesting story, and sometimes, especially with dialogue, it is more interesting to break the rules of vocabulary and grammar.

I also love his hierarchy of writers.  Think of a pyramid.  On the bottom are bad writers.  Lots of them.  Moving up you find competent writers, followed by very good writers, and at the tiny peak are the one-of-a-kind geniuses.  King says 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, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one."

If you have spent a lot of time in creative writing classrooms and writers' groups, this will make perfect sense to you.  This book is a keeper.  I'm sure I'll be reading it a second time when I'm either in need of inspiration or just a really good laugh.