Continuing my quest to learn all about the craft of writing, I picked up a book recommended to me by Diana Cosby, written by Stephen King. I knew him as a great writer, but now I feel I almost know him as a person.
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he mixes humor with the angst of his story of becoming published. He shares much of his early years, his struggle finding his place in the writing genre of choice, and some worthy thoughts on writing a novel.
His writing is impactful, in-your-face truths, and told with candor. Laced with humor in getting the idea across created an informative and entertaining read. If you are starting out as a writer, this is one book you should read.
Following are some points which snagged my attention. I took five pages of notes on this book and am only sharing some of them with you.
Every writer should consider getting a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk J. and E.B. White. Rule 17 in the book states “Omit needless words”. He then shows us what he is talking about.
There is no place you can pick up a good idea. He uses the words Idea Dump or Story Central. His ideas just come from nowhere. When two such ideas intermix, you then have a new idea – your idea. Everyone has ideas, but he says it is the writer’s job to ‘recognize’ them when they appear. Again, he provides examples.
King talks about predictability. Don’t write with predictable events. They bore the reader.
I like his ideas about the length of a story. He shared what was an eye opener for him calling it the Rewrite Formula. I’m going to combine another of his ideas with this. When you write your first draft, work alone, close the door to the world and work with your muse (he suggests everyone should have him/her) who is imaginary, but real to you. Write the first draft. In the Rewrite Formula you should try for a 10% cut of what you wrote. There are good words, words which get in the way, and words of no merit at all. Cut those words which get in the way and words which don’t propel the story forward—extraneous baggage, if you will.
When you feel the story is what you want, open the door. Let others read it, critique it – he says it belongs to any who want to read it. Be open to their comments. Try giving the manuscript to the Ideal Reader — the type of person you think your story will resonate with.
I love this quote from King:
“For me writing has always been best when it’s intimate, as sexy as skin on skin.”
To me this means your writing should have a sensual feeling, seeking the core of the emotions which simmer to the top. A writer needs to intimately touch the feelings of the reader.
King mentions we shouldn’t approach writing lightly. We should focus, have goals and stick to it even with many bumps in the road.
“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 the mind and heart. Come to it any way but lightly.”
Each writer should have a toolbox. The top layer is vocabulary, grammar, and elements of style. He said not to worry about vocabulary. What there is use it and don’t be concerned about adding more tools.
“Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind if it is appropriate and colorful.”
Grammar is something very important to get right.
“Unless he is certain of doing well, (the writer) will probably do best to follow the rules.” Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to set your thoughts up on their feet and walking.”
A major no-no is using the passive tense. He says it sounds weak and timid, and I believe it does.
Another no-no is using adverbs, you know, words with ‘ly’ endings, such as really, resignedly, courageously. Rewrite the sentence with another action verb to get the thought across or use some narrative to indicate how the character feels.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs. They are like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. Adverb attributions are poorly used.”
King uses the ‘ly’ adverbs in the above paragraph to flaunt his words about not using ‘ly’ adverbs. He has a great sense of humor which makes the read fun.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things about all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Description makes the reader participate in what he reads. When using description, use it sparingly, just enough that the reader can visualize her/his surroundings. They will fill in the rest of the scene setting. If the description is too little, the reader cannot anchor herself/himself within the scene. He says that you shouldn’t get so caught up in writing description. For you as a writer, it’s important, and not for the reader. The story is what is important.
He also talks about dialogue – a story component which I’m focusing on this month. It is the mechanism left to the writer to show us, rather than tell how the characters speak or think. Internal dialogue is also an important part of getting to the core of the character. There are things the character will say, but he’s thinking something else. I love this quote because it’s funny and truth!
“Well-crafted dialogue will indicate if a character is smart or dumb.”
Back story may get long and drawn out. Where once again, the writer, must know the backstory and research needed to write the story, he needn’t add it all to the story. Only add backstory which is pertinent to the unfolding of the tale, providing understanding to the reader.
I leave you with this quote:
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
Drink and be filled up.