Friday, October 17, 2014

The Art and Craft of Telling Stories on Paper

This is from a paper I did for my MFA program.
Stephen King's On Writing is more than just a book on how to write. It is a memoir and a journal about how he wrote several of his best sellers. It also showcases his keen eye for what makes a good story.

King is in the camp that believes writers are born, at various skill levels. A writer cannot be made of someone who is not born a "writer". Mr. King does believe that the skill can be sharpened, thank goodness.

I found the memoir section engaging. I'm not sure why this surprised me. Each of these little vignettes was a little story of its own. Even though they were non-fiction, they were quite entertaining. He remembered things that had some aspect that was either jarring or gross. Elements that, no doubt, helped shape the direction his writing life would take. I definitely empathize with getting poison ivy in all the wrong places as a kid. I did notice, however, that even Stephen King uses passive voice when describing something, colorful and evocative though it may have been.

Another facet that helped forge the writer King was to become -- his voracious appetite for reading. He experimented with copying form, and the encouragement of his mother was enough to set him on his course. It amazes me that he still remembers the first thing he wrote.

I gleaned a few writing tips from the first part of the book, including turning off the television and learning to recognize ideas when they show up, usually two unrelated ideas that come together. Also, writing a lot, and develop a thick skin. Stephen wrote a ton, and kept submitting stories despite rejection after rejection. He watched a lot of movies and paid attention, soaking up the stories. But any writing endeavor was usually accompanied with a dose of disapproval. Shame from writing "junk," and not living up to his talent, started early in Junior High School. "If you write . . . someone will try to make you feel lousy about it."

John Gould, editor for the "Lisbon Weekly Enterprise," taught Steve a valuable lesson when he had a brief stint as a sports writer. "When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story." Gould's other quote that resonated with King was, "Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open." He mentions this idea several times throughout the book.

After college, King got a job teaching English. He said that teaching zapped his brain, and writing got hard for the first time in his life. Despite that he kept at it. By then he was married, and living hand-to-mouth in real poverty, but his wife kept encouraging him to write. In discussing the development of his first big money piece, Carrie, he learned that stopping a piece just because it's hard is a bad idea.

King talked about his drug and alcohol addiction. His discussion on mind-altering substances, spoken from someone who knows, is a message that needed to be addressed, lest our young artists fall into the same trap trying to emulate Earnest Hemingway. After getting sober, he came to appreciate his life even more. "Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around."

In the next part of the book he gets down to the nitty gritty about writing. It's chock full of good nuggets of writing wisdom. I've heard the analogy several times but King has a colorful way of describing the idea that writing is like telepathy, across space and time, from the writer's mind to the reader's. He had some concrete ideas on how to go about starting writing. Construct your far-seeing place, your writing cave. Someplace that you can go, away from distraction. Take the craft seriously, and read a lot.

Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals. Grammar is touched on, but not at length as he felt this is an entry level requirement. Vocabulary should not be dressed up, but honest, direct, and clear. Words are only a representation of meaning, and may fall short, so you need to strive for clarity. Avoid passive verbs and adverbs are not your friend. "The road to hell is paved with adverbs . . . " His favored dialogue attribution is "said." He is a fan of Strunk and White Elements of Style.

King thinks the paragraph is the basic unit of writing, "where coherence begins." The pace should be varied with beat and rhythm. "The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and tell a story. To make them forget they are reading."

Mr. King shared advice about how to go about telling a story. Write about anything as long as you tell the truth. Don't commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Meaning "write what you like, then imbue it with life, friendships, relationships, sex and work." Write a lot and read a lot. He reads seventy to eighty books a year. Set a daily word goal. He recommended a thousand words a day. He shoots for two thousand. Don't wait for the muse to show up--write six days out of seven. He also listens to music, which he related as another way to "shut the door."

King is a self-confessed pantser and thinks that outlining robs something from creativity. He believes that plotting and spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. "Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest." (This has Timons Esaias written all over it!)

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