Sunday, October 23, 2011

On Writing

My grandmother, who was also a writer, left this book with me when she died. I know it was a favorite of hers, so I felt compelled to read it. I'm also in no position to turn down a writing advice book from one of the most popular authors of all time.

It took me awhile to get to it, because I'm not a fan of Stephen King's novels. Before you gasp in horror, let me explain! It has nothing to do with the writing quality. Frankly, the writing is too good, because the horror and gore have a great effect on me. I don't like being scared or grossed out. I'm the one who has to be pulled out of the haunted house screaming, or who makes her car-mates turn off the sound at the drive-in during "What Lies Beneath." (Yes, both of those things happened). I've always found that reading a good book can suck me in even more than movies or other forms of entertainment, so reading Carrie or The Stand would literally be my worst nightmare. I have read The Dead Zone, Needful Things, and The Green Mile. I think it was Needful Things that scared me off to the rest of King's prolific library. The Dead Zone and The Green Mile were more reality-based and character-driven, so I enjoyed those. If anyone would like to recommend others that are less horror and gore, more character-driven, I'd be open to trying them. 

But I digress. On Writing is part memoir, part writing manual. Both provided interesting insight into King's writing world. In the memoir section, I enjoyed reading about his teenage self, getting into trouble at school for selling his own short stories. As he progressed into adulthood, he met and married his wife Tabitha, whom he speaks of lovingly and gratefully throughout the book. He and his wife and kids were very poor at the beginning of his career- he wrote his first several books in a laundry room- but then came Carrie, for which he was paid more than 30 times his yearly teacher's salary. King also writes about his issues with drinking and drugs, and tells the story about being hit by a car in 1997, halfway through the writing of this book. 

In the writing manual, King lays out his strong opinions on how good writing is created, as well as rules to write by. This is a pretty long section, but it does have an overall theme: Writing is an excavation process. He refers to the story as a fossil waiting to be dug up. The writer, with the dawn of his idea (all hypothetical pronouns are male in this book) discovers where he thinks the fossil is buried. Over the course of writing, he finds the outlines of the fossil, then the details. The fossil emerges as it chooses, taking its own shape and form. In other words, if the writer pays close attention to his characters and the situation he has set for them, the story writes itself.

From my limited experience, I believe there is some truth to this. Some authors work this way and get great results. Some spend more time planning and plotting, and still are able to achieve great results (King disagrees with this). I think most writers fall in the middle. There are characters, there's a situation, and we might stop along the way to plan out a few plot twists in advance or get some more in-depth information on the characters, but mostly, it is an excavation process. 

As a matter of fact, I decided to put this theory to the test this weekend. I'd had an idea for a short story on the back burner for awhile. I thought it was a good idea, but I hadn't gotten to the planning stage. So on Saturday morning, I sat down and just started writing it. Turned out, King was right- it did write itself. In fact, I got so much out of this little idea, I realized a few pages in that I was writing another novel, not a short story. It felt better than any writing I've done in weeks. It wasn't forced; it felt organic. It now puts me in the position of choosing which novel to finish first: the one I've been painstakingly researching and writing for months, or my newest fossil, which is about to grow into a dinosaur. I haven't decided yet, but I'm glad Stephen King inspired me to give the process a chance. 

I'll leave you with a favorite quote from On Writing:

"At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style... but as we move along, you'd do well to remember that we are also talking about magic."



  1. As the person who fell in love with Henry Rowengartner with you while watching Rookie of the Year as an alternate to the scary movie we rented that night, I completely understand your avoidance of much of King's literature. (and this post gave me a total flashback to when I saw 'What Lies Beneath' in a Potsdam suite... )

    But if you are ever feeling brave enough to try again- read The Shining. It is scary but I think you would love it a lot. The character development is a major part of the story, and it is told from multiple character perspectives which I know you love too.

  2. Oh my gosh, I forgot that "Hen-hen-ry-ry-ro-ro-en-en-gart-ner" came after a scary movie! Now that you've jogged my memory, I think it was Village of the Dammed. Which was actually not so bad.
    If I do make the foray back into King, I'll try the Shining. But I'll make sure there's room in my freezer first :)

  3. I remember reading The Shining one of the summers we shared at Double H Ranch! I had to go back to our room in the woods by myself once, and I was pretty freaked. But the book is a bit different than the movie, and you'll make it through if you have a snuggle partner for some of the scarier bits :) In all seriousness, try The Eyes of the Dragon. King wrote the book for his daughter, and it's a Teen fantasy book; it even has sketches in it (at least in the version I have) and it's a great little book. Reminds me I should find my copy and read it again...