Yet another month comes to a close, and it’s time for yet another blog post. It’s amazing that it’s already almost April, and that means April Fools…and not really much else. With the falling of the autumn leaves making its way around the joint (or spring sneezes, for you North Hemisphereans), it’s the perfect time of year for a quick read—well, any time of year is perfect for reading, but there are some times more perfect than others.
Last year, I set myself the goal of reading a book a month, and it worked all fine and dandy up until I set myself Nabokov’s Lolita. This year, I’m not sure how well I’m succeeding, but I’ve borrowed a bunch of limited-loan books from the library, so, you never know. However, what I’m trying to say (am I forever saying that!), the book I read for January/February (yeah, yeah, procrastination…), taught me how I really do need to buckle up and write more. And that book? On Writing, by the master of genre fiction Stephen King. It’s rather ironic that I delayed reading a book which has the main message of “Read more to write better,” but sticking with it until the end has really improved the way I go about writing, and sticking to regular schedules.
On Writing, available here, is the 2000 non-fiction by household name Stephen King, and it has an interesting back story to its publication, told in Part 3 of the book. As King says, he was in a collision with a van while on his usual walk down a particular stretch of highway in Maine. Narrowly avoiding being killed, King was motivated back into finishing the incomplete draft for On Writing at the insistence of wife Tabitha and the calling of his deep, innately wired writer brain.
Part 1 of the the book is Stephen King’s past, and how he became an author. I enjoyed the read thoroughly, especially King’s blunt delivery. Part 2, however, is the important part—the main part, in fact, of this book—and is a guide on teaching average writers how to become good writers. No, this is not a guide on how horrifyingly awful “aspiring writers” can become the next…err Stephen King, or how to make great writers amazing, but only how to make merely average writers good. I can agree with this—despite what anyone will tell you, if you don’t have a writing bone in your body, it doesn’t matter how many How-To’s you read, you can’t get better. I’ve found many a book on Amazon from people with no talent (and a similar thing is starting to occur on Steam Greenlight for gaming). If you can’t write, this book won’t help you. No book can help you. The only problem I have with King is that he constantly uses the term “aspiring writer”, my writing pet peeve. If you’re not already writing, then you probably don’t enjoy it enough to make a career of it. There is a distinction between writer and author, one that should be clear to most.
As with many of King’s books, this could have been trimmed in half, and not by your Ideal Reader, as King would call it. Another problem with On Writing is his mention of the Ideal Reader (IR) and how it should be someone close to you; for example, for King, it’s his wife Tabby. This creates a number of problems, first and foremost being that your partner will never be able to give you realistic feedback. Much like giving a story to your mother, best friend or whatever, they’ll feel obligated to give you positive feedback. Most of the feedback is minor, stuff like “You spelled that word wrong.” It’s a lot like a creative writing workshop. Back in uni, when we used to workshop our writing, many people felt guilty giving out negative feedback face-to-face, usually leaving it for the written feedback or not at all. Having a loved one review your work, while easier than sourcing out potential readers, could easily lead to problems in the future.
However, for every negative, there is a positive that prospective authors should look at and put into practice. I found a great quote in this line:
The idea that creative endeavors and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.
This quote is a call out to the many people who think the only way you can be inspired is if you’re high, drunk, or a combination of the two—or, in the case of internet bozos, they think you’re on steroids. Inspiration is not some out-there wacky thing that only crazies or drug addicts can reach, and King is true in this critique of this ridiculous myth. Coming from the former alcoholic King, it should make sense to trust the words of a man who can’t remember writing Cujo.
Lastly, it’s this paragraph on page 326 of my edition that, while seeming farfetched and mythical, is the truth about being a writer. If you’re doing it just for the fame or infamy, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Writing—for me at least—while it would be great to make a living, is about the happiness and the excitement for my characters as my fingers tap on the keyboard, and anticipation of what readers will think, and it would lose a lot of the enthusiasm to just be doing it for the dollarydoos.
While I may disagree with some of what King says, the overall belief is that On Writing will help good writers become more confident in what they do. I don’t read How-To-Write books—I glanced at one back in high school and it was utterly useless—but this book gives me some good tips to be confident in what I write. Writing genre fiction is not a bad thing. Getting into a regular habit will help me in the long run, despite never likely writing a book in a month like the master himself. Most of all, thanks to the mammoth time I took to finish reading On Writing, his tip about reading making you a better author will stick with me. Good writers read. It helps with description. It helps you avoid the cliches on the market. And, most of all, reading can be fun. I read Deathly Hallows in three days. I read Fahrenheit 451 in five hours. I can and will keep up with this!