Thursday, August 29, 2013

Book review on On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, written by Stephen King, published by Pocket Books, 2002, and the tenth anniversary edition by Scribner in 2010.

What I like most about this book, besides that it’s available on Kindle, is that King highlighted aspects of his own life and how certain incidents stayed in his memory and played into his stories. He gave a clear picture of the life of a writer.
To me, the most useful guidance for new writers is King’s no-bull approach to telling you not only the polished brass of what you need to know, but also the dings and rust of it, the dirty grit we might have to endure to get to the truth of our stories. (And he insists on truth! Praise be, let him speak to my no-swearing-allowed reading group before I die! I don’t know a world where no one ever gets upset enough to even cuss.)
According to King, some of the necessary grit should be spending our days seat to seat in front of a computer, doors closed, fingers tapping, and enjoying our work, not whining about how we can’t find the time. Writing and reading are what you need to do: reading, even if it’s in a ten-minute wait in a line at the market. Pull the book out of your pocket, open it and read. Reading is how you learn to write. Writing is how you learn to write. Those two directives are the basics of what you need.
Beyond the daily practice of reading and writing, King mentions the tools you should accumulate in your toolbox. How happy I was to see grammar right at the top. Even if you don’t plan for your characters to speak like an English professor, or worse, the arrogant kind of inventor, you still need to know the rules in order to know how to elegantly break them.
I love breaking the rules. I’ve written entire stories with the sole purpose of breaking some rule somebody spouted at me. (I even won an honorable mention in a writing contest through one of these rebellious stories – hey, rebellion can work!)
King also pounced on the use of adverbs to the point that I pictured the jaws of a tiger ripping each one from a manuscript, gnawing on them until nothing was left but a shredded nasty looking ly. I loved it.
He also aimed his instructional pointer at the use of the passive voice, eliminating needless words (no matter how pretty), and killing your darlings. No topic, though, grabbed my attention as much as talking about theme. He reminds readers of those awful school essays we had to write, the ones with boring subjects like how you spent your summer vacation. We were supposed to think of our vacation in terms of theme (not just a silly title assigned to us) and write about it. Talk about a good way to smack into writer’s block.
King lays out a back-door approach to discovering theme. With the superiority he rightly deserves, he suggests holing up behind that closed door and typing away until you have your rough draft complete. Then go through it and do your own editing before you open the door. Afterward, you can take a break from that particular story and work on something else (because you need to keep writing every day). When you come back to your first manuscript six weeks later, you should read it with an eye out for common threads and thematic elements. Look for the symbolism you weren’t aware you used. Now you are discovering your theme, and now you can go back and make those elements even stronger.
Think of how much better you would have done back in school if you were told to write about something that inspired you, and if you were allowed to figure out what the theme of it was after you’d written it – when you can actually read what you end up with rather than deciding beforehand what you think you’ll end up with (because you might not).
This is where the real rewriting comes in, when you know what your story is about, and you are refining it so that everyone else will see the truth of it. That’s a whole lot different than simply editing for echoed words and lengthy descriptions. It’s the refining you learn to do because of the training you have through all that reading you did. Read. Then write. And live. That’s King’s truth to the life of a writer.