Saturday, June 5, 2010

On Writing - Stephen King

There is a literary agent named Nathan Bransford who runs his own blog and asks questions of his readers. I have read his blog for the last several years and often attempted to follow his advice, concerning query letters usually. I sent him one query letter, received a message of zero interest (but thanks for reading the blog!), and now I only read it when I'm super-bored.

Last time I was super-bored, he asked the question, "What is the one book a person must read in order to make them into a better writer?" There were over 200 comments. The comments on Flying Houses are usually porn links.

Many of the comments suggested Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, a book I read my senior year in high school that I remember very little about beyond the practice of using index cards and beyond the advice that no one ever makes a living off their writing, ever. So I suggested Ulysses for fiction and Bird by Bird for non-fiction. And nobody cared.

The reason I mention this question is that Stephen King's On Writing appeared more on that list than any other volume, and by a longshot. So I thought, it must be something really special, I must check it out. SO, I did that, and while it is a perfectly decent manual on the way to "start taking writing seriously" which includes other interesting variations (memories of growing up, memories of nearly dying after being hit by a car, commentary on The Elements of Style) of course it contains plenty of the sad realities I always hate to associate with the "art" of writing--the commercial aspect, the "less pretentious" aspect.

Oeuvre rule: what I have read by Stephen King, I read thirteen years ago. The best thing I ever read by him was The Long Walk, which merits mention in one sentence of On Writing (King does say it was "pretty good"). I did not like The Shining as much as the movie. In general though, I never really got into him. Of course I've seen a bunch of the movies that his writing has spawned (1408 deserves special mention as it occurs near the end and is one of his most recent adaptations) but I am not a huge fan of his writing for one reason: not that he's a "hack," but he can do pretty much whatever he wants, he has to be one of the most fabulously-well-to-do writers ever to exist, and he chooses to write stories and novels of the supernatural---which he claims, at base, are about reality---but I'm sorry, as a "realist," his work bores me. I want to read about real people making real decisions about their real lives, not how best to outthink a madman in a snow-covered hedge maze.

And not that his writing is "low-brow," but, I don't think he's going to compete for the Nobel anytime soon. I will mention that in the last five years it seems like, I don't know, King has moved into more elite company as far as "serious" writers like Richard Ford/Don DeLillo/Philip Roth go. He had his own interview in The Paris Review and more "highbrow" writers pay attention to his redoubtable success. But I'm still going to say King's success shouldn't mean much to people of my generation. None of us are ever going to be published except on our blogs and we should all rent out a private island for a writer's retreat, make some purple kool-aid, print out everything we've ever written, start a giant bonfire and drink the stuff. One of us may have an idea like Carrie, but no one is ever going to buy that novel, again. Even though "bullying" seems like quite the hot topic now.

But what did I think of this book? I liked parts of it. And I didn't like most of it--because I've heard it all before. Since it comes from King, one is apt to put more stock in it, I suppose. There are several quotes I would like to comment upon.

#1: Passive Voice
"Messrs. Strunk and White don't speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I'm willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria. I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty. If you find instruction manuals and lawyers' torts majestic, I guess it does." (116--he then goes on to discuss why "The meeting will be held at 7," should be changed to "The meeting's at 7.")

This is just dumb. I use the passive voice more than I should. If anything I consider it dangerous, not safe, because every single teacher I've ever had has said "don't use the passive voice" (and don't use "to be" verbs--which I particularly hate). I don't think it lends my writing a sense of majesty. I do it when the "active" voice sounds awkward. Writing teachers will tell you that active voice is never awkward. That is my complaint about the majority of this text: King does have special advice to give, but instead he falls back on filling his book with the trite suggestions of writing manuals everywhere--and while I am more apt to believe it, coming from him, it makes me sad. The only thing that doesn't make me sad is when King says, "I know, I know. Damn." (note: that is the exact text of an e-mail Roger Ebert once sent to me on the subject of not being able to see Requiem for a Dream as a 17-year-old)

The next comment comes on the subject of daily routine:
"As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I'm feeling magnanimous, I'll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with."

First of all---how come he never mentions the thing about ending sentences with prepositions?--and second of all, he says he reads four to six hours every day on top of the 2,000 words he sets as a limit for himself. I do not disagree with setting a word limit. If one is doing NaNoWriMo, one must do at least 1,200 words every day. No days off! I did NaNoWriMo and I could do 1,000 words a day, when I wrote that third book in November of 2008, my life was not especially painful, just boring in the extreme when I was not actively engaged in creating the text. Because I knew I had to set aside two hours every day to do it. Putting a deadline on it put everything in perspective, and while I finished the majority of the rough draft by December, I did not finish the entire rough draft until April or May of 2009. That is what urgency can do for you.

But I want to ask you: don't you think King finds it easier to spend 90% of his life writing when he has been paid so much for it? I have been paid zero dollars, so why should I think the next twenty-seven years will be any different? As I've said, things are getting worse in the publishing industry. It's difficult to commit yourself to something that may be as fruitless as seeking the Fountain of Youth. That said, I wouldn't trade my four unpublished babies for anything else. Even if they never make me money, they exist as proof that I am not an empty shell of a human being. I'll write, but I'll never write the way King recommends until I have the time for it, and the patience.

Around page 163, King discusses how he came up with the idea for Misery. Earlier in the text, he talks about Carrie and connecting the idea of telekinetic powers with menstruation (which some girls had reported near the time of their first period) and bullying and on this point, I found him quite salient. There was the origin of a story, clearly defined. I am surprised that he does not mention the irony of his car accident with Misery--I think it was too obvious for a joke. When discussing his own work, King makes his most intelligent points. The same can be said for most Paris Review interviews: when a writer discusses generalities, I am apt to dismiss; when they discuss specifics, I am apt to listen.

The most incredible aspect of King's career is his ability to mass-produce literature, and he gives insight into that process in one telling detail:

"A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The more interesting situations can usually be expressed by a What-if question:
What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem's Lot)
What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)
What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)
What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo)

He later talks about characters "doing things on their own" and how it can be weird, but exciting, and how it can make things easier on a writer. I have experienced that phenomenon a couple times and so I do not disagree with King there. I don't disagree with his notions of plot, either, nor detail, nor sticking to "he said/she said,"--but I do disagree about his hatred of adverbs. Pick your battles. I always use adverbs and people tell me they're ugly. Well guess what, you're ugly. I mean that facetiously, of course. There's a reason why they exist in grammar textbooks.

The part I like best about On Writing comes near the end, near page 240 where King discusses his friend "Frank," who is an amalgamation of three writer friends he has known, who all had some decent success in college with writing, published a couple stories in their early-to-mid twenties, and eventually published novels as they neared thirty. This is the single best part of the book for anyone looking to "make it" and I would imagine that it is the part so many were thinking of when they commented on Nathan Bransford's blog question.

Obviously it's not easy to "make it" unless you put in the kind of effort that King dictates, and it's well and good that there won't be dilettantes who make it on luck rather than work (though you'll never stop me from believing they exist), but King still makes it look too easy. Just getting a story published is hard enough these days, forget about ever getting to the point where an agent will care about your query. King states like many before him that all a writer needs is some talent, pluck, determination, and a copy of Writer's Market.

I'd rather say that a person needs to be depressed, possibly suicidal, traumatized by some early life experience, very shy, lonely, and guilty in some way to be a writer. Those are the sort of stipulations I prefer. You can be lazy and still consider yourself a writer. You have the personality of one, right? All you need to do is put in the practice. Not so hard. Until you realize that practice ends nowhere. Like shooting free throws endlessly. You make 70 in a row, and no one witnesses it but yourself. You're a better free throw shooter than Lebron James, but only when no one is looking. You will never be Lebron James because he is 6'8'', 240 and he is paid hundreds of millions of dollars to put in his practice every day and you are paid $13/hour to push paper and what small leisure time you have, you'd rather put in to relax than suffer more frustration. I can't wait until I am rich and famous and can write my own book about writing.

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