Friday, August 5, 2011

Camp Journal Day #7 - On Writing and Stephen King

Can't believe I'm on the last full day of camping. Where has the week gone? Where does every week go? Where does a lifetime disappear to? One minute you're crapping in your diddies and the next minute you're doing the same thing – only the brand name changes, Pampers to Depends. And the shit gets smellier.

My dear friend Mark Kerstetter asked me to list some of the things I found helpful about Stephen King's On Writing. He said he finds King's writing "bloated and vulgar;" the funny thing is, King is used to all kinds of critical comments and he addresses them in On Writing.  I can't say I agree with Mark on this point. Truth is, I've been a fan of King's work since forever. I actually find his writing style sparse and lean, just the way I like it.

Liking King or disliking him has little bearing on this book, though (although King fans will love his "life story" section and the chapter about his accident). What came through, for me, is some basic writing advice, a plan of attack for getting things done and some good, old-fashioned inspiration. Here's some of the things I "got" from the book:

1. Read a lot. Reading, King says, is just as important as writing, and reading a bad book is just as important as reading a good one. He really stresses reading as the best teacher of writing. He even lists his favourite books of all time at the back. He calls himself a "slow reader" but ploughs through 70 to 80 books a year.

2. Take the act of writing seriously. "You must not come lightly to the blank page." King says: "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'm not asking you to com reverently or unquestioningly; I'm not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humor (please God you have one). This isn't a popularity contest, it's not the moral Olympics, and it's not church. But it's writing, damn it, not washing your car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can't or won't, it's time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe."

3. Build a writing tool box. King compares writing with carpentry and stresses the importance of keeping your tools close at hand. Everybody will have their own tool box, filled with different kinds of tools, but he has suggestions to help you build your own. Common tools, he says, go on top.

"The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary. In this case, you can happily pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and inferiority. As the whore said to the bashful sailor, "It ain't how much you've got, honey, it's how you use it."

He goes on to compare paragraphs of famous writers, some with vocabulary that will stumble even the most literate among us; others that are simple yet beautiful, like this paragraph from John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath: "Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold."

He compares Steinbeck to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: "Someone snatched the old woman's blindfold from her and she and the juggler were clouted away and when the company turned in to sleep and the low fire was roaring in the blast like a thing alive these four yet crouched at the edge of the firelight among their strange chattels and watched how the ragged flames fled down the wind as if sucked by some maelstrom out there in the void, some vortex in that waste apposite to which man's transit and his reckonings alike lay abrogate."

Still with me? That was a mouthful. King says, "The Steinbeck sentence is especially interesting. It's 50 words long. Of those 50 words, 39 have but one syllable. That leaves 11, but even that number is deceptive; Steinbeck uses 'because' three times, 'owner' twice, and 'hated' twice. There is no word longer than two syllables in the entire sentence. The structure is complex; the vocabulary is not far removed from the old Dick and Jane primers. The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, a fine novel. I believe that Blood Meridian is another, although there are great whacks of it that I don't fully understand. What of that? I can't decipher the words to many of the popular songs I love, either."

King says, "Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don't make any conscious effort to improve it. (You'll be doing that as you read, of course...). One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones." That sentence meant a lot to me.

I also enjoyed what King had to say about grammar, the next tool in your tool box. There are no lectures; no debates about what constitutes good grammar or bad grammar. He pretty much throws all that stuff out the window and frees writers to write what they feel, rather than worrying about subjects and predicates. "Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails," he says. For those who insist on learning more about grammar, he has this to say: "If you want to refurbish your grammar, go to your local used book store and find a copy of Warriner's English Grammar and Composition – the same book most of us took home and dutifully covered with brown paper shopping bags when we were sophomores and juniors in high school. You'll be relieved and delighted, I think, to find that almost all you need is summarized on the front and back endpapers of the book."

He also has an amusing passage about his own likes and dislikes in sentence style and structure, disliking the passive tense passionately. And don't even get him started on adverbs! "The adverb," he says, "is not your friend." And then (this makes me smile): "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're 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 ... 50 the day after that ... and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's – GASP!! – too late."

Something else he writes about is dialogue attribution and I am on the same page with him. It's always better to use "said" as simply as possible.

"Put down the gun, Utterson!" Jekyll grated.
"Never stop kissing me!" Shayna gasped.
"You damned tease!" Bill jerked out. All King's examples of nasty attribution.

He finishes his section about adverbs and attribution with his wise advice: "All I ask is that you do as wel as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine."

King then spends a great deal of time talking about style and structure, particularly paragraphs. You'll have to read the book for the details but his summation is this: "I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing – the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words."

4. Write every day. King likes to write 2,000 words a day. Every day. That's his personal goal – no wonder he can write a novel so quickly. In fact, he says a novel shouldn't take any more than three months to finish. Any longer than that and he starts to lose his enthusiasm and the novel's "voice." He admits not everyone can write like he does – especially for those, like me, who have full-time jobs. He does suggest beginners start out with 1,000 words a day and taking at least one day off. This sounds a lot like the process fellow writer John Wiswell went through when he wrote his novel this year. This is SUCH a good idea. Maybe 1,000 words is too much – I think it probably is too much for me. But 500 words is doable. I think I can commit to that and getting writing done is making that commitment to put your ass in a seat and write. This is the best practical advice I've ever seen on writing. If you don't read anything else in King's book, read this. He also has good advice on setting up a writing space and turning off the TV.

5. Write what you know. John Grisham writes about lawyers. Patricia Cornwall writes about medical examiners. Don't try to copy their style, just because it's successful. Write what interests you. Also, don't write for money. Write because of story. Write because you love it. Write because you have to.

I'm a big fan of King's books but I have no real interest in writing horror. When I do try it, I do it badly. I can admire his work, and Grisham's, and everyone else's, but I must stick to what is in my own heart. When I do that, I write well.

6. Forget about the plot. King doesn't plot his books and he suggests other writers do likewise. Stories, like lives, are organic. They come to life of their own volition. Writers, King says, are mere transcribers. Allowing the story to take the writer where it needs to go will result in a better story.

I do have a bare outline for the work I'm doing now but the outline is in my head. I have no notes. Every time I sit down to write the story takes on a life of its own. I can see where having a definite plot would stagnate the creative process.

7. Description. "The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary."

8. Dialogue. "Some people don't want to hear the truth, of course, but that's not your problem. What would be is wanting to be a writer without wanting to shoot straight. Talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character; it can also be a breath of cool, refreshing air in a room some people would prefer to keep shut up. In the end, the important question has nothing to do with whether the talk in your story is sacred or profane; the only question is how it rings on the page and in the ear. If you expect it to ring true, then you must talk yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk."

Brilliant advice from King, just brilliant. People sometimes say I write good dialogue. Part of that may come from 25 years as a reporter, listening to people talk and writing their quotes down verbatim. So much listening does translate into knowing how people talk. One of the things I've loved most about King's books is they read like people talk; they read like the thinking going on in my head. You can tell Mr. King is a very good listener.

There's more to this book, of course, but I fear I am already way past "too long." I'm also half afraid somebody from the King publishing world is going to slap my hands for quoting him so much. I hope not. No one's a bigger fan of this man than I am (gawd, sounding like Annie Wilkes here).

This week I put what I learned from On Writing into practise. I went through my WIP with a fine-toothed King, knocking out adverbs, smoothing out excess description and killing more than a few of my darlings. I am so happy with the results. It was like having The Great One hanging over my shoulder. When I get home from camping, back to the regular routine, I am going to, I swear, force myself to write at least 500 words each and every day. The more the merrier, of course.

Feel a need to go buy On Writing? Of course you do! Get it while it's hot, folks. The Kindle version is avaiable here.


  1. Hi Cathy,

    This is one of my favorite books on, um, writing, too. I devoured King books when I was a teenager and still love them. While I don't write horror either, I am definitely of the 'lean and simple' camp. I admire writers who can weild an impressive vocabulary but I'm not one of them.

    Glad you've got a fire lit beneath you. I can't wait hear more!


  2. The sections of King's On Writing that are actually about writing are amongst the most direct and useful I've ever come across. His "toolbox" idea is overwhelming to me because so much goes into it; I find it a little easier to view my entire mind as the box, rather than one compartment sufficing for everything. That is where all these tools go, after all.

  3. Thanks. Now I'm gonna get hate mail. For the record: I've read an entire King novel and chunks of others. I recognize likeable qualities in his writing, and I respect that you admire him. But it really does mystify me that you can say he is "sparse and lean." Hemingway is lean. How many 800+ pp novels has King written? He makes a point and beats it to death. I don't want to debate the value of his work though. I'll never win.

    Thanks for going to the trouble of creating this post, especially if you did it mostly for me. I do appreciate that. I agree with everything he says here, except having a plot outline is helpful for some writers. It depends on the writer and the type of story being written.

  4. Oh Mark - who loves ya, baby? If you get hate mail, tell me who it is and I'll beat on 'em for ya. There's those that love him and those who don't and whether you do or not makes not a whit of difference to me, not least of why is because I adore you and your work - always have and always will.
    And a big "HI!" to you, Dawn! I can hardly wait for our writers' group to resume in the fall.
    John - yes, that's why I appreciate this book so much. The real guts of writing. The how it's done.

  5. Lots of good advice here...makes me feel better about my somewhat limited vocab and my lousy grammer.
    Thanks for this. I may have to buy the book.

  6. Fan of King or not (I love some of his books, can't stand others) his book On Writing is the most no-nonsense approach there is. I love it. It was great to see what you picked out of it. I'm a great fan of your writing too (I'll never forget Ruby Tuesday) and I'm sure you write more than 500 words a day. I feel better being a pantser now that King says it's okay.


  7. On Writing is one of my favourite books ever. Most of what he mentions is common sense, but it's good to have the reminder. I enjoyed the memoir part as well.

    No hate mail from here, Mark. I used to detest King's books. Then I discovered his short works and fell in love.

  8. My writing partner agrees with Mark K, and I am a huge King fan. "On Writing" was pure inspiration for me.

    The parts that I took most to heart were cut 20% of everything you write, (and amazingly, even when I don't consciously try, I find that when I edit, it is 20% almost every time that is pure trash), and tie goes to the writer.

    Cathy, I love your writing style. I have to stop by this river more often. ;)

  9. I think I need to read this!

  10. I adore On Writing and this post. One of my all-time favorite books and you summarized it quite neatly :)

  11. I read King's book years ago. Thanks for the reminders! I love it when I totally agree with a successful author. Maybe there's hope for me yet...

  12. This Steven King dude - - he sounds like he knows a thing or two about writing.

  13. I agree with you. You don't have to be a fan of Stephen King's writing to love his guide on writing.

    I have both his book and Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird on my bedside table. They're both valuable writing tools for different reasons.

    Stephen King's no nonsense guide on striking adverbs and staying away from the mortal sin of passive voice are fundamental, sound precepts. I also love his theory on organic writing. Being a free-falling writer myself, I find there's nothing more powerful than letting the story take you as you write it.

    I hate to say it, but I totally agree with your friend Mark K. You want lean, grab a Hemingway novel off the shelf. The power he brings to his sparse prose is thrilling.

    So excited for you and your WIP. Keep on, keepin' on! And when you have a chance, pick up Anne Lamott's guide. It's just as wonderful for different reasons.

  14. One of my favorite parts was talking about how he now writes where he lives. That when he was at the height of his addictions, he wrote at a huge desk and was isolated from his family. Now his desk is next to the couch and his family is welcome to bounce in and out of the room.
    This book is chock full of great lessons. The most important, of course, is that writer’s write.

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