On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King. Simon & Schuster, 2000.
King’s book is not a book of grammar. It has no chapter titled “Most Misused Words.” It seems like an autobiography, but Stephen King tells us it is not. It is his attempt to show how one writer was formed, not made. He does not believe that “writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will. The equipment comes with the original package.”
I don’t know how useful this will be for today’s aspiring writers. In King’s early days of bell-bottoms and mutton-chops, there were enough magazine outlets for him to occasionally get published, even while he was still in high school. They didn’t pay much, but they presented the possibility of writing as a career. Most of the magazines he mentions are long gone.
He got his best advice from his first editor: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all of the things that are not the story.” Amen to that. I probably discard a third of each posting for this blog on rewrite, for which you can be thankful.
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open,” said the editor. He meant the first draft is just for you, to get the story from your head onto the paper. The rewrite is for the world.
King describes a girl in a high school class he was teaching: “She wasn’t fat, but her flesh had a loose, pale look, like the undersides of some mushrooms.” Good metaphor. We all know the soft, white flesh of a mushroom, but specifying the underside adds the suggestion of repulsiveness. The girl was partially the inspiration for his book, Carrie, that kick-started his writing career. (But it certainly does not describe Sissy Spacek in the familiar movie version.)
The second half of his book is titled “On Writing” where he gets down to selective advice, not claiming to be all-encompassing, but just what he has found to be valuable over the years. He keeps it short because the more time we spend talking about writing, the less time we have to actually do it. (Exactly my advice to beginning swimming instructors.)
This is the part I was looking for. I had read elsewhere his quote, “The adverb is not your friend,” and I wanted to know why. I had always loved adverbs as a concise way of adding information with just one word, but he points out that the information is usually obvious from the context, and I have to agree. I now routinely strip out many on rewrite by searching for “-ly.”
He sees fictional writing as consisting of three parts:
narration, which moves the story along from point to point;
description, which creates a sensory reality, and
dialog, which brings characters to life.
But where is the plot in all of this? he asks. Nowhere. First, because lives, while lived, are plotless, and second, because it stifles creativity. He prefers to allow the characters to follow their own lives, and he, himself, does not know where this will lead. If he does not know, certainly neither will the reader. “Plot,” he says, “is the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.” The story that results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.
By plot, I assume he means a pre-planned outline of the story line that the author then fleshes out with narration, description and dialog. The story, to which he gives great importance, is the final result. King is not clear about their difference.
Letting the story evolve is good advice. Even when composing a blog posting, I often do not know the conclusions beforehand, and I am surprised where the facts lead. I bet you could tell, right? I find this is one of the pleasures of writing: discovering the conclusions along with the reader.
He says his stories tend to be based on situation. He likes to put his characters in some sort of predicament, then watch them try to work themselves free. His job is to watch them, not help them. Any story will wind up somewhere, so why not just let it happen?
Many of these situations begin as what-if questions: What if vampires invaded a small New England village? What if a cleaning woman got away with a murder, then was convicted of a murder she did not commit?
I have to admit that I do not care much for Stephen King’s usual genre of horror−science fiction stories, but he is a master at it, and I enjoy learning the nuances of any craft. I would feel the same about a good book on pole vaulting. Besides, many of his points are valid for any type of fiction and provide insight even when only reading.
For example, he describes fictional writing as consisting of the front story and the back story. The front story is the story you are telling, and the back story is how the characters arrived there. The back story can be very brief, but is necessary and has to have just the right amount of detail, neither too much nor to little. It can be presented in total at the beginning, or revealed piecemeal in the early parts of the front story.
Take the familiar Wizard of Oz (the movie): Dorothy’s origin in Kansas is the back story— very necessary, but much of the detail is missing. She is living with her aunt and uncle, so what happened to her parents? How long has she been living on the Kansas farm? Does she have any brothers or sisters? All of that could be interesting, but if the author makes too much of it, the front story about Oz gets diluted. We do need to know about the Margaret Hamilton character who appears on the bike and wants to take Toto; we will see her again as the wicked witch. What to leave out and what to put in is a fine line for the author to decide.
My imagination is far too poor to create fiction, but thanks to King’s book, I now read it with more understanding. And writing fiction his way sounds more like fun than drudgery.