Friday, November 23, 2012

On Writing, by Stephen King

I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards. —Albert Einstein

Stephen King’s bestselling book is part memoir, and packed with funny anecdotes and pithy advice on the craft of writing. Having pondered why he wanted to write a book on writing, he acknowledges that the easy answer isn’t always the truth: “We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.” He states it in no uncertain terms:  “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”

Even, like Einstein, if no one know where the ideas come from, King makes an honest attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how he came to the craft, what he knows about it now, how it’s done, and warmly recommends the widely acclaimed Strunk and White, for style. He notes: “This is not an autobiography. It is, rather, a kind of curriculum vitae— my attempt to show how one writer was formed. Not how one writer was made; I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.”

A great writer perhaps emerges from a mysterious blend of nature and nurture. King’s advice on writing, however, is grounded in salient memories from childhood recalling encouragements of his mother, and his early experiments as a writer: “imitation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse tablet, sometimes adding my own descriptions where they seemed appropriate.”  Some suggest that it was his passion for writing, and the beautiful meaning that writing bestows, which helped him recover from the near-fatal accident in 1999. Brilliantly organized and inspiring, On Writing,  will charm and entertain anyone who loves the written word and wonders about the unknowable thoughts behind it.   


Anonymous said...

King's advice must be for fiction writers. For those who like to write non-fiction, are there any good books?

Nomi said...

Writing of good fiction (or non-fiction) must have some universals but it is not so simple to identify them. Even King does acknowledge that although he has written and sold many fiction books, it is not always possible to give good advice on writing. He writes: "Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do— not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad."

Anonymous said...

King can be a bit dry and sometimes sound academic in this book. I like what Arthur Plotnik said about writing in our times: "Sometimes when I’m digging for the right word, I long for a terrier-like acuity, a canine’s sensory gifts applied to language. Imagine if dogs ever figured out how to put that spunkiness and bite of theirs into action verbs, or to root around for bons mots with those lubricated snoots. We dry-and-fleshy-nosed writers could be in big trouble. Some of us are there anyway. With so many gifted authors already sniffing their way to publication, with readers drawn to ever-new distractions, who can afford a writing-as-usual attitude? Not creative writers, not journalists, copywriters, or corporate communicators. Nor can writing students gear up in all the old ways. Even bloggers, even troubadors, must realize that in today’s forest an undistinguished post falls soundlessly. One might wish to live by one’s words, but language or style that is less engaging, less stimulating than the competition, is, frankly, dead on arrival. Imagine legions of writers setting off on the marathon run to success. Among them are thousands who have mastered the basic skills of composition. Should you need to catch up, scores of worthy grammar/style books are standing by to help. But if your goal is to break away from the pack, some über force, some jack-rabbit anima has to inhabit your writing."

Anonymous said...

Another gem from Plotnik's "Spunk and Bite," which undoubtedly trumps the acclaimed "Strunk and White" in our social media age where "packing a punch" in a phrase is a matter of survival: "Looking at all types of contemporary writing, Spunk & Bite distills the elements that make for punch and vivacity; it demonstrates enlivening techniques, including those spurned by conventional guides; and it illustrates its advice with sparkling examples from our best writers. Although occasionally tweaking “correctness” to the times, Spunk & Bite is not another Strunk & White—as the iconic writer’s rule book Elements of Style is known; instead, it addresses those whose composition skills compare with the next writer’s, but who itch for creative ideas, smart locutions, and realistic takes on language for today’s media. Not that I claim a hound’s quickness in seizing the prize; but I do have one special gift, perhaps the odd fruit of a life as editor, author, and reader: I see dead writing. I see language that follows the rules but lacks the vigor and inventiveness ever to rise off the page. It talks to me; weeps over lessons learned too late. I feel its anguish, and sometimes as an editor I’ve applied a stitch here, a jolt there, so that it might stagger among the undead. But the only authentic way to enliven a piece of writing, give it corporeal clout, is to invigorate it at the outset. To this end, Spunk & Bite fosters some unorthodox approaches; it is not, however, about out-shrieking the next writer or trashing the language authorities. Its observations and advice are meant to energize writing and liberate it from certain outdated style conventions. Of course, throwing off restraints is one thing; using newfound freedom is another. Will it be to create self-indulgent drivel, or adventurous art that engages editors and readers? If you aspire to the latter, if you write to get published and heard—or if you simply enjoy the pursuit of vivid language—then this spunky dog will hunt, I tell you, or I’m a French poodle."