You know how, when so many people mention a book, some positively, some negatively, how it just takes just one more comment and you think “Right, that’s it, I’m going to have to read it, just to see what the fuss is about”. Well I had that with Stephen King’s On Writing and I don’t even like Stephen King books, well actually that’s not completely true, considering I’ve never read one of King’s works of fiction before, how do I know? The answer is of course I don’t, I just have a dislike of the genre he tends to write in, however reading On Writing does make me actually want to read one of his books now, if anything to see what he preaches in action and also I have a sneaking feeling I may actually quite like it, in On Writing at least I like his style.
On Writing can be roughly divided into two parts; a memoir which I thought I wouldn’t like but I did, he’s led an interesting life (although remember that old chinese curse, ‘interesting’ isn’t always what you want) and you can see (as much as you can see without actually reading his books) how much it has influenced his writing. The second part is on the craft of writing itself and I found it very useful. As a beginner writer I don’t actually have many writing books in my collection, I think there are many ways ‘to write’ and therefore there are going to many books claiming that their way of writing is ‘the right way’ when really it’s what suits the individual writer and generally I’ve preferred to find that out for myself. But when a writer comes along who seems to work in a similar vein to the one that you find yourself falling into, it can help to have some more experienced guidance.
I think On Writing is one of those books that you can keep going back to and that you learn different things from each time, what I have taken from it principally this time are the following:
Passive verbs / sentences
Now I understand my MS Word grammar checker! I previously had no idea what a passive sentence was but for the record a passive verb is when
something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen.
Active verbs are far better and are when
the subject of the sentence is doing something.
Quotes from On Writing
So after reading that, I happened to enter a competition, one of those read a chapter and write the next one things. I wrote my 2000 words, was fairly happy with them (those sort of competitions are tough, specially when you think you wouldn’t particularly have written the original chapter anyway, but it was a bit of fun). Anyway I applied my MS Word spell and grammar checker and as per usual it was picking up passive sentences, but this time I knew what to do with them. So I changed them around, made them active, then re-read my story and oh it read so much better! So a valuable lesson learnt there (from someone who went through school during a period of time when teaching grammar wasn’t I think fashionable, I remember honestly just one lesson where we studied it, we were each given one part to write a presentation on and then we had to present it to the rest of the class, so basically the teacher couldn’t be bothered to do it herself, I remember I had to present it on the ‘: ‘ , needless to say it didn’t really sink in).
Stories as ‘fossils’
I’ve done a few creative writing type courses and they all emphasise plotting; writing lots of notes up beforehand and knowing exactly where your story is going. I’ve been trying to do that, my stalled children’s work-in-progress initially started life as a writing exercise where I had to write what happened after a generic character did something, so at first it was pure blue sky thinking, I didn’t expect this story to go beyond that particular writing session, it was ‘only an exercise’ but the story grew legs and I began to think “this could be a novel” and then I thought “mmm, I should plot it then, do character studies (which I hate doing, is it really important to know what their favourite colour is?) etc. etc.”, maybe that’s what killed it (alongside my almost complete lack of knowledge about Ancient Egypt). My NaNoWriMo project last year was plotted with a lot of detail before I started writing and in the end I hardly followed any of it. My current project has nothing ‘official’ down on paper regarding plot, although I do know where I want it to go, whether it’ll go there though I don’t know. Anyway back to Stephen King’s fossils; King apparently sees stories as ‘fossils’ ready for the writer to unearth fully formed from the ground and that if you try and plot them it doesn’t do any good. That it is far more preferable to start with a situation (like my Egypt project I suppose and actually my NaNoWriMo (which started out as a bedtime fantasy to help me get to sleep) and my current project which started out as a ‘what if?’). So it was nice to hear someone say that you don’t have to plot everything, but again I think it depends on the writer.
I’d happened to be thinking about this anyway, I’d noticed whilst thinking about my current work-in-progress that it was a very claustrophobic story and then I thought “hey, most of my work is claustrophobic”, the aforementioned NaNoWriMo is very claustrophobic and my children’s Egypt story also has certain elements of being trapped. I think that says quite a bit about my psyche actually which I won’t go into right now. I can only think of one piece of work I’ve attempted recently which wasn’t claustrophobic; a children’s story which I imagined as having a ‘light and airy feel’, I had about half of the situation, basically the depressing half (it was about terminal cancer) but I wanted to balance it with a message of how life goes on using a slightly magical thread and that was going to be the light and airy bit but I just couldn’t figure out how it would work. Maybe that was because I’m in a stage of my life where I need to write claustrophobic stories, but as Stephen King says, I don’t go about thinking “I am going to write a claustrophobic story”, I’d just happened to notice the theme after attempting to write about three of them in a row.
Places to write
This bit depressed me, King emphasised fairly sensibly that you need a place to write, somewhere where you can shut the door, I have no where like that. I live in a tiny flat, the living room does have a desk but it’s my husband’s and we couldn’t time share it anyway because when he’s not on it, he’s watching TV, which is right (and very distractingly) next to the desk, it used to be my desk, it’s why I let him have it, the TV issue. There are two bedrooms, the kids are in one, me and Mr. Lacer in the other, our bedroom is taken up by a very large wardrobe and two very large bookcases, with our bed in the middle, there is no room for a desk, I do write in there, but it’s on my laptop, on my lap and really I write where I can, it can just as easily be the sofa when the TV isn’t on blaring. Oh and the other two rooms; one is the bathroom but you can’t write in there and the other is our very tiny kitchen, I have sometime resorted to balancing my laptop on my (cool) hob and writing there, standing up. So I’d love somewhere to write, I know King wrote his first books in a trailer, maybe I need to be more serious about my search for a space. As I type, I was typing, laptop on lap on the sofa in the living room, but I’ve just been banished to the bedroom as Mr. Lacer wants to watch Dukes of Hazzard, honestly even if I wasn’t writing something (yes I know it’s only a blog) I’d have probably have escaped that!
And finally the Ideal Reader (and this is going to begin to sound like a ‘knock Mr. Lacer’ post) but King wrote about writing with an Ideal Reader in mind and he said it is usually the person you share your bed with. Mr. Lacer is most definitely (and sadly) not my Ideal Reader, principally because he’s not much of a reader anyway, he reads Terry Pratchett, Harry Potter and Chris Moyles and that’s about it. We do have conversations about books sometimes but it’s usually along the lines of plot versus prose debates and we’re both on the same side of that anyway (plot or should I say actually, considering plotting isn’t completely accurate if you don’t do it, ‘story’). So without my partner to look to, who is my Ideal Reader? I honestly don’t know. Can it be me? I write stories I like reading, the primary person I write for is me because well, I find it fun! But maybe I could find some useful distance and a second opinion if I’m writing for someone else other than some vague one day hoped for readership?
Overall, if you’re a beginner writer, looking for a book on writing, you may like this, but ask yourself first, do you want to write books like King? And I’m not talking just horror, I’m talking stories with action, where things happen. If so then you’ll probably appreciate this book. However if you’re a more ‘literary’ sort of writer, maybe not.