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Stephen King on writing

15 November 2017

On Writing: A MemoirOn Writing: A Memoir by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I began working as an editor at the University of South Africa (Unisa) thirty years ago I discovered the section of the university library that had books on how to write. I read quite a lot of them, initially to learn more about how to deal with other people’s writing that I was editing, and later just because I found it interesting. Then I read it for my own writing when I was working on a masters dissertation and a doctoral thesis, and I began working in the Missiology Department where I was writing and revising study guides myself, at the other end of the editorial process.

Some of the books claimed to be written by professional authors, though I’d never heard heard of them or of the books they had written. But Stephen King I had heard of.

I’d read some of King’s novels. I enjoyed reading some of them, and found others deadly dull. But he was a real professional author who had given up his day job to write, and made his living by writing. So his book on writing doesn’t come out of the same mould.

Many of the others are just a kind of digest of what other writing manuals say. This one is somewhat different, because it is personal. The others say “This is how it should be done” (avoid the passive voice, but in that case the passive voice is accurate). Stephen King says “This is how I do it.”

The full title is On Writing: a Memoir, and so it begins with a bit of autobiography saying how he came to be a writer. And it ends with more autobiography — about how he came to write this particular book. He was in the middle of writing it when he was knocked down by a car, and finished writing the book while recovering from his injuries.

As writing manuals go, what I found most interesting about this one is that he gave his interpretation of the rules and where he followed them and where and why he broke them.

One of the bits I found useful was what he said about overdescription:

Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.

I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing (I find wardrobe inventory particularly irritating; if I want to read descriptions of clothes, I can always get a J Crew catalogue). I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like — I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well… Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. When it comes to actually pulling this off, the writer is much more fortunate than the filmmaker, who is almost always doomed to show too much… including, in nine cases out of ten, the zipper running up the monster’s back.

That reminds me of something John Davies (one-time Anglican chaplain at Wits University) once said in a paper on Christian art — that the author, or the artist, does not know everything there is to know about this thing. He compared Byzantine ikons with the Renaissance art that followed. The Renaissance artists went into exhaustive detail, as if to say “This must mean to you what it does to me.”

That is also why I’ve never seen any of the Lord of the Rings films — I fear they will interfere too much with the pictures I see in my head when I read the books.

When it comes to describing clothing, one of the most annoying authors I know is Jonathan Kellerman.

Another thing I liked especially about Stephen King’s advice was about pacing.

Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (and hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. I guess the underlying thought is that people have so many thing to do today, and are so easily distracted from the printed word, that you’ll lose them unless you become a kind of short-order cook, serving up sizzling burgers, fries, and eggs over easy just as fast as you can.

Like so many beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit… which is why, when books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain suddenly break out of the pack and climb the best-seller lists, publishers and editors are astonished. I suspect that most of them ascribe these books’ unexpected success to unpredictable and deplorable lapses into good taste on the part of the reading public.

Related to this is Backstory, which is giving information about what happened before the story begins. King writes:

You’ve probably heard the phrase in medias res, which means ‘into the midst of things.’ This technique is an ancient and honorable one, but I don’t like it. In medias res necessitates flashbacks, which strike me as boring and sort of corny.

One of my favourite authors, Charles Williams, seems to go for the slow build-up in his novels (though his War in Heaven has the most attention-grabbing first sentence of any novel I’ve ever read: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly but with no result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse”).

A few years ago I entered NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) and challenged several friends to do so, and to write a novel in a similar genre to those of Charles Williams. I was the only one who actually took up the challenge, and when I asked someone else to read my effort their main criticism was that it did not start in medias res and began with too much of the back story.

I also recently read a book on writing for children. It too urged the in medias res approach. And then I looked at one of my favourite books from when I was a child of about 9 or 10, The Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton. It was about 150 pages, and the actual adventure didn’t begin until after page 80. Reading it as an adult I saw lots of faults in it, but pace wasn’t one of them.

Another critic of my “Charles Williams” genre story (actually the same John Davies mentioned earlier) said that I should have given more technical information about the mcguffin (an ikon and a holy relic), giving the kind of information about ikons that Dorothy Sayers gives about bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors.

Stephen King also has something to say about that:

We need to talk a bit about research, which is a specialized kind of back story. And please, if you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That’s where research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you’re learning about flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the IQ potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.

King notes that there are three essential parts to writing fiction: (1) narration, which moves the story on (2) description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader, and (3) dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer — my answer, anyway — is nowhere… I distrust plots for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

And there I agree with him. When I’m trying to write fiction, I often have no idea where the story is going to go. One of the characters may say something that takes it off in a completely unexpected direction.

But that sort of thing doesn’t always work. John Masefield once wrote an excruciatingly bad novel called Odtaa (One Damn Thing After Another). And a few decades afterwards I read it again to see if it was as bad as I remembered it. It was.

And finally, Stephen King says he doesn’t write for money.

Yes, he gets paid enough in royalties to live comfortably off the proceeds, but that’s not his motivation for writing. And that’s probably what makes his book on writing different from those of all the hacks who are out to make money by writing books about how to make money by writing.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 November 2017 7:32 pm

    I feel this shows why Stephen King is good at what he does. I really enjoyed this book.

  2. 21 November 2017 12:32 pm

    Quite apart from its helpful bits, this book was influential to me. It was that idea of writing to flee the demons that bumped me from want to be a writer to writing. I read this, set it down, and wrote a novel draft. Not a good one, but a draft.

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