Monday, July 18, 2011

Steven King--On Writing

I've been a slacker blogger lately--I get distracted easily by other interests--but I do have some writing related things I've been thinking about recently. First off, I read Steven King's book On Writing and discovered that to be, not surprisingly, very insightful. It's worth referencing again from time to time. I especially liked...

p. 47: "When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."

Steven includes some paragraphs illustrating early editorial corrections that his writing invoked. If I could read a whole book like that--a road map of how to get from first draft to final--I most definitely would. The illusive craft of revising and polishing is one I am just beginning to explore. A guide would be useful. "Taking out all the things that are not the story" seems a good place to start though.

p. 99: "You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair--the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: You must not come lightly to the blank page."

I've never really thought about my mindset when I write. Maybe that's why some writers listen to music--it helps them overcome "lightness" and approach this intensity that Steven King is so adamant about.

p. 176 "When it's on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects...we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way. When a simile or metaphor doesn't work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing."

I recently became intrigued by the power of similes and metaphors when I read Christopher McDougall's Born to Run. That guy was born to write--especially similes and metaphors. It's really worth a blog entry of its own, but it fits mentioning here. His book was a delight to read, not so much for the general content, but for specific jeweled phrases like "dog-toy tough" and "trail dust streaked his gaunt face like fading war paint." Steven King says that "similes should provide clarifying connection" but "should not be cliche. Say what you see then get on with the story."

Steven King also included an example of a phrase he once read that doesn't work: "He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich." Unless the author was going for a good laugh, turkey sandwiches and corpses don't mix well, but it illustrates that finding something that works isn't always clockwork.

The result, when it does work, may provide beauty as well as clarity. A lot of the fun and magic of writing, and especially of trying to write well, is condensing images and feelings into words that pack a punch. Similes and metaphors are powerful tools unto this end. When I come across particularly poignant examples, such as "perky as a rat in liverwurst" (p. 149), it makes me wonder if the author had to think a while before coming up with just the right phrase. On the other hand, it may be one distinction between true masters and amatures of the writing world--it just flows naturally from a master's mind, but we amatures have to put in a lot of thought to find something that works. Don't know. I'm hoping it's a learnable and improvable skill.

One final thing Steven King brought up that struck me: reading. Not only does Steven King try to write 2,000 words a day, but he tries to read at least 70 books a year. I realized I don't read anywhere near that number of books a year, which is not a good thing. That's like trying to get through medical school with only half the required textbooks. It won't fly. If I want to be a YA writer, and especially if I want to be good at it, I should be learning from the masters, ie, those who have successfully published their work already. So that's my new goal, slow as I am at reading, I need to read more. There's no way around it.

Ok, I lied, there's one more thing. Steven King stated that "I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you."

I seem to recall Orson Scott Card writing something along those lines as well. In the end, all the dialogue, everything the characters say and do, is ultimately your creation. Kind of like with acting; how hard is it to separate the actor Daniel Radcliffe from the character Harry Potter now? Nearly impossible. It's his body doing the acting, just like it's an author's mind doing the writing. At some level, it's impossible to distinguish between the person and the character. I suppose in that sense, all fiction is real.


  1. I really need to pick up King's "On Writing." I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read it yet.

    Now, if it guarantees me the same success as Sir Stephen, I'll memorize the darned thing.

  2. I've often paused to ponder the process of bookwriting from start to finish. It's amazing how first draft (crap) evolves into final polished copy. :) Stephen King rocks!

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