Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Stephen King’s terrific book on writing

posted by Rod Dreher

This year marks the 10th anniversary of “On Writing,” the terrific book about prosecraft by Stephen King. I hadn’t read the book since it came out, but for some reason pulled it off my shelf before I set off for the airport, and read most of it on the flights down to Louisiana. What a terrific book! It’s better than I remember it, because (I think) I’m 10 years further along in my own writing career, and I have a deeper appreciation for the truths he tells and the practical advice he gives.
I never have liked books on writing, because I’ve not found them terribly useful. This one is. Granted, for a non-fiction writer like me, there’s lots in the book that isn’t for me; King is trying primarily to help fiction writers get a handle on their craft. But there’s plenty about style that I profited by. There is more practical wisdom in this one sentence than in entire books on writing by other people:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I wasn’t long into my own writing career as a journalist when one thing became clear to me: there was a big difference between journalists who liked to read, and journalists who didn’t. You might think it’s axiomatic that journalists like to read, and to read widely, but it’s not true. The better ones do, but I can remember people in my J-school classes who didn’t even bother to read the newspaper every day, much less pick up the magazines, or the work of journos like Tom Wolfe. If you don’t read good prose primarily for the pleasure of it, versus because you know you need to master that stuff to do your job well, you’re never going to be a good writer. You have to have an instinctive feel for a well-crafted sentence. That’s not to say you have to be able to do it; nobody can really do it early in their careers. But you have to recognize the thing when you see it, and to absorb the rhythm of good prose.
That line from King is why I’ll probably never attempt fiction. I come up with what I think are great ideas for novels, but I never seriously think about sitting down and trying to write fiction. Why? Because I don’t enjoy reading fiction, in general. Every now and then I’ll find a novel that completely grabs me, but mostly my dance card is filled by non-fiction. Because I don’t have an instinctive love for fiction, I strongly doubt my ability to write even passable fiction. This is a useful thing to have learned.
Here is good King advice for both fiction and non-fiction writers:

I think locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players. Nor do I think that physical description should be a shortcut to character. So spare me, if you please, the hero’s sharply intelligent blue eyes and outthrust determined chin; likewise the heroine’s arrogant cheekbones. This sort of thing is bad technique and lazy writing, the equivalent of all those tiresome adverbs.

About adverbs: they are not your friend! Avoid, avoid.
I can honestly tell you that King’s book “On Writing” is the best writing book I’ve ever read, but that says less than meets the eye, because it is the only book on writing I’ve ever read cover to cover. Every time in the past I’ve picked up a book on writing, I’ve dropped it a few chapters in, convinced I could learn more about writing from reading prose written by masters of the craft rather than by some writing teacher I’ve never heard of. This is unfair, but I’ve come to think of writing teachers in the same way I think of people who write books on how to get rich. If it can be learned by instruction in technique, then why ain’t they doin’ it themselves? Stephen King has done it himself, and done it extremely well. He says in the book that if you don’t have writing talent, nothing he tells you is going to turn you into a decent writer. He says if you are a good writer, nothing he tells you will make you a great writer. But if you are a competent writer, his advice (he says) stands to make you a good writer. That sounds about right to me.
A word about King: I remember when I first read his stuff. I was on the school bus as a kid, reading “Carrie.” I remember exactly where I was sitting on the bus, on the aisle, hunched down, knees scooched up against the seat in front of me, when Carrie cut loose with the blood on her high school prom. Scared the bejeebers out of me. I didn’t read King again till I was a senior in high school, and was stuck one summer in a job that required me to sit out in the middle of nowhere for hours, with nothing to do. I brought “Pet Sematary” along, thinking I needed something ridiculous to read. It set its hook, and I kept thinking how stupid the story was, but how utterly transfixed I was. Same with “Cujo,” which followed. I remember having enough snot in me to think I was slumming reading Stephen King, because he was the kind of writer the people I looked up to disdained. What an idiot I was. That man can write like nobody’s business. I guarantee you I could pick up a John Updike book, and be bored out of my mind by page 100. Not so with King, who can make any dumb thing scary as hell. All praise to Stephen King, the storyteller!



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Scott Lahti

posted June 17, 2010 at 10:22 am


From a jagged, freewheeling interview in Salon with the late Leslie Fiedler (1917-2003), like Dwight Macdonald a fabled “wild man” among American critics, just before his death; I was reminded in spots of Marlon Brando’s “naughty” interviews with Playboy in 1979, a highlight of my high-school reading then, and on Larry King Live in 1996:
“…Stephen King really fascinates me. Because he’s a secret intellectual, lurking behind. While he was writing all those books that made so much money he was going around doing lectures for 25 or 30 bucks — and you’ll never guess on what. On William Carlos Williams and ‘Patterson’!
That’s wild, because he has confessed to not reading so much.
“I once appeared on the same platform with him. And he was extremely polite and he called me ‘professor’ and then we went to the plane — and he went to first class and I went to tourist.
“I really got in trouble with the postmoderns because of him. They were talking about how they were the leading edge of literature. And I said, ‘You’re way out there, you rebels, you Ph.D. professors with your six-figure salaries.’ I was feeling a little wicked and, as Auden would say, ‘naughty,’ and said, ‘Look, let’s be frank with each other: When all of us are forgotten, people will still be remembering Stephen King.’ I didn’t say you; I said ‘we.’ And the reaction was hostile beyond belief, and they wouldn’t let us sit at the head table for the formal dinner that night and [my wife] and I were shoved off to the children’s table.”
…You called John Cheever middlebrow and the New Yorker a middlebrow publication a couple of times throughout your essays. You still stick by that?
“Yeah. One could call Twain middlebrow — but he isn’t. He is both high and low at the same time. True highbrow will hold true. When I was 12 years old, someone took me to see Martha Graham. It was nothing like what I thought of as serious dancing and even then I knew I was having a great experience. It was as if somebody was moving through space like no one ever did before.
“And the greatest artists are like that. Shakespeare — no one was stupid enough not to get something out of his plays. A few people were too smart to get anything out of his plays. He’d make these vile puns and the highbrows say ‘he’s not spelling [c–t]’ — the hell he’s not! Sophocles was like that. He won first prize every time it was put on and it was audience vote.
…Did you ever meet Faulkner?
“Yes, indeed! One year, when I was chairman of the English Department in Montana, I said, let’s give the boys a thrill. I set up a program of readings: Auden, Faulkner and Dylan Thomas. Thomas didn’t make it. He hit the booze a little too early and ended up in Seattle. My only conversation with him consisted of his saying over and over again, ‘Things are frightfully mucked up.’
“Auden was a great man. Auden behaved exactly as I wanted him to. We took him out for dinner at a Montana steakhouse, totally macho, full of guys who looked like they would beat any queer they caught coming down the street, and he was feeling ‘naughty,’ and two girls come through the door wearing homemade gowns from the prom and he said at the top of his voice, ‘My dears, I know exactly how they feel — I used to be a mad queen myself.’
“Faulkner turned out to be great. At the public occasion, he was terrible. He was very small, really tiny, and we had built up a place for him to stand so his head would come up to the mike, but he kept tossing his head back and talking lower and lower. But when he talked to the classes afterward, he turned out to be a great teacher. When a student asked a question ineptly, he answered the question with what the student had really wanted to know. Then he sat in our living room and read from ‘Light in August’ and that was incredible.
“I had gotten instructions from his editors about how much he should drink before lunch and before dinner and special instructions — don’t put him next to any inquisitive woman who will want to talk literature. So he ended up next to a woman who asked why can’t Montana writers write about Montana [the way you do about Mississippi], and he said, ‘To write about a place you have to hate it, like you hate your own wife.’
“You know what it cost me to bring those people there? Two hundred dollars apiece to bring them there, and I didn’t have it, so I went around to the local churches and they put up the money. Auden gave us a present when he left — a book nobody had heard of in America yet: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. And I gave him the American equivalent, ‘The Wizard of Oz.’
…Did Mailer ever get on you for anything you said about him?
“The last time I saw him he was very friendly. We had a sort of physical competition. I used to be fond of Indian arm wrestling and I beat him and he didn’t like it. I introduced him to Saul Bellow. They’d never met each other.”



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Alicia

posted June 17, 2010 at 10:24 am


Hi, Rod. I have “On Writing,” and have read it more than once, and I agree that it is an excellent book. You are right on all counts – King is a master storyteller, even if I sometimes cringe at the stuff he writes, and “Pet Sematary” is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.
I especially loved King’s advice in “On Writing” about turning off the television if you want to write. (Not that I follow that advice!)
Other excellent books on writing are the two by John Gardner, and “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott (a good book even if you believe, as I do, that she has a screw loose).
Cheers!



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Scott Lahti

posted June 17, 2010 at 10:41 am


Have a look at “A Writer’s Ten Commandments” by the Hungarian-born London-dwelling Canadian novelist and essayist Stephen Vizinczey (In Praise of Older Women, The Rules of Chaos, An Innocent Millionaire, Truth and Lies in Literature). My favorites:
“7. THOU SHALT NOT LET A DAY PASS WITHOUT RE-READING SOMETHING GREAT
In my teens I studied to be a conductor, and from my musical training I picked up a habit which I think is essential also for writers: the constant, daily study of masterworks. Most professional musicians of any standing know hundreds of scores by heart; most writers, on the other hand, have only the vaguest recollections of the classics – which is one reason why there are more skilled musicians than skilled writers. A violinist who had the technical proficiency of most published novelists would never find an orchestra to play in. The truth is that only by absorbing perfect works, the specific ways great masters have invented to develop a theme, to construct a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, can you possibly learn all there is to be learned about technique.
“Nothing that has already been done can tell you how to do something new, but if you understand the masters’ techniques, you have a better chance to develop your own. To put it in terms of chess: there hasn’t yet been a grandmaster who didn’t know his predecessors’ championship games by heart.
“Don’t commit the common mistake of trying to read everything in order to be well-informed. Being well-informed will allow you to shine at parties but is absolutely no use to you as a writer. Reading a book so you can chat about it is not the same thing as understanding it. It is far more useful to read a few great novels over and over again until you see what makes them work and how the writers constructed them. You have to read a novel about five times before you can perceive its structure, what makes it dramatic, what gives it pace and momentum. Its variations in tempo and time-scale, for instance: the author describes a minute in two pages then covers two years in one sentence – why? When you’ve figured this out you really know something.
“Every writer will pick his own favorites from whom he thinks he can learn the most, but I strongly advise against reading Victorian novels, which are riddled with hypocrisy and bloated with redundant words. Even George Eliot wrote too much about too little.
“When you are tempted to overwrite, read the short stories of Heinrich von Kleist, who said more with fewer words than any other writer in the history of Western literature. I read him constantly, along with Swift and Sterne, Shakespeare and Mark Twain. At least once a year I reread some of the works of Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Balzac. To my mind Kleist and these 19th-century French and Russian novelists were the greatest masters of prose, a constellation of unsurpassed geniuses such as we find in music from Bach to Beethoven, and I try to learn something from them every day. This is my ‘technique’.
“8. THOU SHALT NOT WORSHIP LONDON/NEW YORK/PARIS
I often meet aspiring writers from out of the way places who believe that people who live in the media capitals have some special inside information about art which they do not possess. They read the review pages, watch arts programs on television, to find out what is important, what art really is, what intellectuals should e concerned about. The provincial is often an intelligent, gifted person who ends up following some glib journalist’s or academic’s notion of what constitutes literary excellence and betrays his talent by aping morons whose only talent is for getting on.
“Even if you live at Land’s End, there is no reason for you to feel out of touch. If you have a good paperback library of great writers, and if you keep re-reading them, you will have access to more secrets of literature than all the culture phonies who set the tone in the big cities. I know a leading New York critic who has never read Tolstoy and is proud of it too. So don’t waste time worrying about what is the declared fashion, the right subject or the right style or what sort of things win prizes. Anybody who ever succeeded in literature did so on his own terms.”



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Adele

posted June 17, 2010 at 10:42 am


I totally agree. I’m an author, and although I don’t care for King’s style with his fiction works, I loved this book more than words can say. I was published long before I read it, but I recommend it for anyone who admires King as an author (because much of the first part explains his background and youthful pursuits), and especially for anyone who wants to write fiction. It’s excellent.



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GrantL

posted June 17, 2010 at 10:43 am


Funny you should mention On Writing, Rod. I just gave a copy to an intern at the paper I work at! lol



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Franz

posted June 17, 2010 at 11:44 am


William Zinnser’s (SP?) “On Writing Well,” published in the 1970’s is an invaluable tool for those of us who write a lot as part of our work, but don’t carry the label “writers.”
For any lawyers out there, I highly recommend “Writing to Win,” by Steven Stark.
And, yes, Rod, I agree — adverbs are not your friend, and neither are adjectives. That is one thing I keep trying to teach the younger lawyers in my office.



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Salamander

posted June 17, 2010 at 12:15 pm


I have a low tolerance for schlocky fiction, so I can’t bear to read most of the “best-selling” fiction authors. But I do have a deep and abiding fondness for Stephen King.
What sets him apart from lesser horror-meisters is his gift for characters, who are memorable and REAL rather than the usual one-dimensional cardboard types you often find in genre fiction.
My favorite Stephen King novel is “The Stand.” “Pet Sematary” scared the crap out of me that dark and story night that I stayed up til 4 AM reading it.



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jaybird

posted June 17, 2010 at 12:36 pm


I think King’s longer novels are pretty hit and miss – for every “The Stand” or “Carrie” there’s a “Tommyknockers” or “Desperation” but his novellas and short-stories are almost always great.



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PlanetAlbany

posted June 17, 2010 at 12:41 pm


I wish you wouldn’t use John Updike as your go-to example of boring writers, as I find him the opposite. You can, like me, disagree with some of his politics, especially sexual politics, but most of his writing I find very readable and very good.



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thehova

posted June 17, 2010 at 1:08 pm


I heard great reviews of the book (and from a wide variety of sources…a famous catholic writer and Roger Ebert included). I bought it a year ago and read the first 30 pages and stopped.
I’ll be sure to finish the book.



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Sherry

posted June 17, 2010 at 2:11 pm


I’ve suggested “On Writing” many times to friends after a j-school professor first suggested it to me. It’s the best of the best. Of course, I love King’s fiction, too. It’s so vivid. “The Stand” and “Misery” are my favorites. I liked most of “Under the Dome,” except for the ending, which needed an epilogue.
Captcha: wer wanderer



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Alicia

posted June 17, 2010 at 3:02 pm


The short story collections “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” and “Skeleton Crew” were absolutely gripping. In addition to “Pet Sematary,” I also loved “It,” and “Salem’s Lot.” I liked the movie version of “Needful Things,” but found the book a bit tedious.
Lately I feel King is repeating himself a bit, and personally, I think he could easily write “without the net” of the horror genre, because he is a serious storyteller. In “Heart in Atlantis,” the story about how the main character was almost kicked out of college (which meant being sent to Vietnam and probably dying) because of an addiction to playing Hearts was phenomenal.
Catchpa: penance Column



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Elizabeth Anne

posted June 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm


Ditto, Alicia. While I’ve loved a lot of his horror, I’ve always thought that the further he gets away from the genre, the better his writing gets. Green Mile, for example, Rose Madder, and Delores Claiborne have touches of the supernatural but are their strongest in the more mundane aspects.



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Idiot Attorney

posted June 17, 2010 at 3:40 pm


“About adverbs: they are not your friend! Avoid, avoid.”
Agreed. Case in point:
“I can honestly tell you that King’s book.”
We all assume you’re being honest with us, since you’re a serious writer, so you can just “tell us that King’s book.”
I can’t wait to buy the book and read it.
[Note from Rod: Exactly right! Great catch. Clearly, I have a lot to learn. — RD]



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Alicia

posted June 17, 2010 at 3:54 pm


Agreed, Elizabeth Anne. I think King has outgrown the horror genre.



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Erin Manning

posted June 17, 2010 at 3:54 pm


Poor adverbs and adjectives. Poor Victorian writers and 18th century poets, whose works are rife with these much-maligned parts of speech. It’s as if some genius decided in 1930 or so that only primary colors ought to be used in painting, along with, perhaps, a touch of black, white, or gray (especially in rainbows)–but nothing else.
The problem is not the adjectives or adverbs. The problem is the poor grammatical training which makes writers unaware how to use these parts of speech effectively. A good use of an adverb or adjective is like a flirtatious glance; the overuse of either is as banal as conventional pornography.
Alas, the Hemingway Effect has bled into Microsoft’s notions of Business English, such that the adverb and adjective are going to incur the wrath of the squiggly line. We are supposed to write everything like this:
It was hot. The man sat on the bench. The dog sat at his feet. Across the street, a roof glittered in the sun.
Now, that might be fine, depending on what sort of story you’re crafting. But I would argue that what you are writing might also demand this:
The town was breathless and still in the afternoon sun. The man sat on the peeling bench outside the train station, a scrawny mongrel at his feet. Across the street, a rust-rippled tin roof glittered with incongruous brilliance atop an abandoned house.
It should be clear that these two small paragraphs are telling two different kinds of stories, and that the only thing that’s going to matter is if they suit the type of story in which they occur.
But anyone who thinks adjectives and adverbs ought to be expunged from writing should try to remove all the ones I used in the first paragraph of this post, and see if it still makes sense. :)



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Abelard Lindsey

posted June 17, 2010 at 3:56 pm


Jerry Pournelle has always said that if you want to be a successful writer, you have to be prepared to throw out the first million words that you write. There’s no other way.
Practice, practice, and practice; just like going to Carnegie Hall.



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Gus

posted June 17, 2010 at 3:59 pm


King’s okay. When I pick up a King book, I won’t put it down until it’s read, but he himself has referred to his own stuff as the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries, which I think is accurate.



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Max Schadenfreude

posted June 17, 2010 at 5:33 pm


I like King’s writing even though I tend to dislike his characters and stories. His powers of description are excellent.
There are stories of his I do like however, but they are not the horror stories. I think his best work is the non-horror like “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”. His non horror stories tend to be more successful as movies as well. “The Body” was a hit as “Stand By Me” and of course “RHATSR” became “The Shawshank Redemption”.
Then there’s “The Green Mile”. I never read the book, but the movie is great, and though the story does have a supernatural element, it’s not horror.



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Julana

posted June 17, 2010 at 5:42 pm


One of the funniest things I ever read was a joint interview of Stephen King and Jerry Jenkins (Left Behind) in Writer’s Digest. You can find it online.
The humor wasn’t in the content, but in the juxtaposition. I respected both writers more, learning of their friendship. They elevated each other.



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Chris

posted June 17, 2010 at 6:40 pm


One of the best books I’ve ever read “on writing” by far. It makes me think that A) I could actually be a fiction writer, and B) there’s no way in Hell I could ever know as much about writing, or write it, as well as that guy.
And to think I used to look down my collegiate nose at that guy…
I did pick up “Cell” recently, though. I thought it sucked. Granted, he probably wrote it in an afternoon while I was playing video games, but still, not nearly as engrossing as “It,” “Tommyknockers,” “The Long Walk,” or, of course, “The Stand.”



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Peter

posted June 17, 2010 at 6:46 pm


The town was breathless and still in the afternoon sun. The man sat on the peeling bench outside the train station, a scrawny mongrel at his feet. Across the street, a rust-rippled tin roof glittered with incongruous brilliance atop an abandoned house.
While I understand Erin’s point, the reality is that 95% of writers will ever have to write like this, be in a situation where this kind of writing is necessary, or even want to write like this. It also shows the danger in using adverbs and adjectives; specifically, the writing becomes unfocused and pretentious. Or, as they would say on Project Runway, very “design school” instead of professional.
I thing that most writing rules were made to be broken and, as Erin points out, no modifiers is a rule that can and should be broken. But it is a rule that exists for a reason.



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Quiddity

posted June 17, 2010 at 8:22 pm


I’ll never forget what Paul Theroux said (in an interview on Charlie Rose) about writing:
“Tell the truth”



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naturalmom

posted June 17, 2010 at 8:29 pm


Hear, hear! Steven King is amazing. Like Elizabeth Anne, I most enjoy and appreciate his non-horror works, but when you want a good does of suspense, his thrillers are not to be beat. I remember reading Salem’s Lot in the bathtub one night long ago. NOT a relaxing choice, lol! Eventually I was sitting up on my knees rather than leaning back in the water. At one point I remember slamming the book shut to catch my breath! Any author who can make a person do that is gifted. Period. Is it a “great book”? No. Is it a great experience? You bet!
:o)



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thehova

posted June 17, 2010 at 9:03 pm


A while back, Harvard econ professor Greg Mankiw blogged some good rules to follow:
http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/10/how-to-write-well.html
Either people love or hate King. With that type of polarized response, I have avoided him (why not instead read an author that everyone loves). But maybe I should give him a try.



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Erin Manning

posted June 17, 2010 at 9:26 pm


Well, Peter, perhaps you’re right, and 95% of us need few if any adverbs or adjectives in our writing. But oh, what happens to that 5%!
“But not even the users of the Snackboxes could compete with the master of chaos, Peeves, who seemed to have taken Fred’s parting words deeply to the heart. Cackling madly, he soared through the school, upending tables, bursting out of blackboards, toppling statues and vases; twice he shut Mrs Norris inside a suit of armour, from which she was rescued, yowling loudly, by the furious caretaker. Peeves smashed lanterns and snuffed out candles, juggled burning torches over the heads of screaming students, caused neatly stacked piles of parchment to topple into fires or out of windows; flooded the second floor when he pulled off all the taps in the bathrooms, dropped a bag of tarantulas in the middle of the Great Hall during breakfast and, whenever he fancied a break, spent hours at a time floating along after Umbridge and blowing loud raspberries every time she spoke.”
(A quote from one of the Harry Potter books, as collected online at one of the many sites which appear to exist for this purpose.)
Frankly, I’d be wary of one of that 5% telling everybody else to stay away from adverbs or adjectives; they don’t generally want to share the magic…



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Your Name

posted June 17, 2010 at 9:48 pm


Erin, maybe try reading the King book to get his point? Because you seem to be arguing against something he didn’t say.



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Roland de Chanson

posted June 17, 2010 at 10:18 pm


In a creative writing course I once took, we were advised to omit adverbs and adjectives. Not content with literary half measures, I left out the verbs and nouns as well. This technique allows for a much greater range of interpretation. Unfortunately, the dangling prepositions tend to quickly become cloying.
On the plus side, without infinitives there is nothing to split them with.



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Elizabeth Anne

posted June 17, 2010 at 10:42 pm


Erin,
At no point do Strunk and White (the origin of this advice) suggest that adverbs and adjectives shouldn’t be used. They merely advise that they shouldn’t be used *excessively*.
And I’m not sure I understand the point of your ROwling quote: it is, in fact, short on adjectives and adverbs. Unless you’re counting participles, that is.



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Erin Manning

posted June 17, 2010 at 10:47 pm


Oh, I’m not arguing against King, YN. I imagine his book on writing is quite good. But far too many people take the “no adjectives or adverbs!” rule literally, which is rather silly.
Let’s take that paragraph in which Rod has marked out “honestly” from the first sentence, because a commenter tweaked him about adverb use. Here’s the rest of it, stripped of most of the adverbs/adjectives (I may miss some, because I’m not a grammarian). Please note: I haven’t touched adverbial phrases, nor have I removed the articles “a,” “an,” or “the,” though these are classically considered adjectives, albeit special ones:
“I can tell you that book “On Writing” is the book I’ve read, but that says less than meets the eye, because it is the book on writing I’ve read cover to cover. Every* time in the past I’ve picked up a book on writing, I’ve dropped it a chapters in, convinced I could learn about writing from reading prose written by masters of the craft rather than by some* teacher I’ve never heard of. This is unfair, but I’ve come to think of teachers in the way I think of people who write books on how to get rich. If it can be learned by instruction in technique, then why ain’t they doin’ it themselves? Stephen King has done it himself, and done it. He says in the book that if you don’t have talent, nothing he tells you is going to turn you into a writer. He says if you are a writer, nothing he tells you will make you a writer. But if you are a writer, his advice (he says) stands to make you a writer. That sounds about right to me.”
*counted as an adjective in some books, but as an indefinite pronoun in others
As you can see, adjectives and adverbs are *necessary* for comprehension in most kinds of writings–perhaps not in legal briefs or in business memos, but even there I bet there are plenty of examples.
Let’s go back to my example above. We have a hot day, a man and a dog, a bench, and a metal roof. What if the story begins this way–and isn’t fictional?
Video: Newscaster on Cam
Audio: Mary Smith remembered that it was unusually hot that day in early May. Perhaps, she says now, that’s why she went to close the blinds over her kitchen window, to shut out the glare from the sunlight hitting the tin roof of her neighbor’s home. That’s when she saw them: the unfamiliar man sprawled on the decorative bench in front of her neighbor’s home, and the dog sitting quietly at his feet.
Video: Mary Smith in her home.
Audio: Smith: There was just something. I don’t know. He looked like he was staring straight at the sun.
Video: Mary Smith walking toward scene of crime.
Audio: V.O.: Though she can’t quite remember what caught her attention, Smith remembers thinking something was very wrong. A few minutes later, as she approached her neighbor’s driveway, the dog barked at her. Mary didn’t wonder why–she already knew.
Video: Mary Smith beside crime scene bench.
Audio: Smith: I didn’t even have to get this close before I could see the blood. I just knew he was dead…
…etc.
Now try telling that story without adjectives or adverbs.
I realize this is a pet peeve of mine (no, not just a “peeve”). But when people want to throw out two perfectly good parts of speech rather than bother to learn to use them properly or effectively, I can’t help but find that depressing.



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thehova

posted June 18, 2010 at 3:23 am


Erin Manning makes a good point.
In college I had a professor who would take points off for using the passive voice. So I never used the passive voice and as a result my papers in that class were written in a very odd, robotic manner.



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clasqm

posted June 18, 2010 at 3:35 am


Alert the news bureaux, retrreat to your bomb shelters and pray to whatever you believe in, for here is a sure sign of the end of the world:
I agree with Erin.
Indeed, I would go as far as to state, without mental reserve of any kind, that I fully, totally and unreservedly agree with the perceptive, sagacious yet succinct statements made above, emanating from the ever-productive pen (or, in this electronic age, rather, the ever-clattering keyboard) of that regular contributor to this illustrious forum known to all and sundry as Ms. Erin Manning.
;-)



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Troy Camplin

posted June 18, 2010 at 6:18 am


King’s advice is the same as John Barthe’s advice to his creative writing students, that they must read every work of great fiction first before they begin writing. When they asked the visiting Don Barthelme about this, he told them, “Absolutely. And you have to read every work of philosophy and history and science, too!” True enough. You have to read tons of great writing before you can be a great writer.
As for King’s prose — personally, I found him to be one of the most boring writers I have ever read. Never found anything scary at all.
Good writing advice, though.



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stefanie

posted June 21, 2010 at 11:37 am


Re: the adverbs/adjectives debate & Stephen King. I’m reading It right now, and here’s an example. There’s a fat kid in the story named Ben Hanscom. King could have written, “Ben was fat,” but instead (in one example) he says, “Ben’s stomach slogged up and down as he ran.” Much more effective & dynamic, IMO.
IIRC from On Writing, nowhere does King say “avoid all adverbs.” What he really doesn’t like is what you see in a lot of (for instance) romance-novel writing, where characters “titter breathlessly” or “recite rapidly” or “said anxiously.” Here, the adverb serves as a particularly bad example of “tell rather than show.” There are other ways to show anxiety and other emotional states besides adverbs.
Similarly, the “dirt-spattered, mangy mongrel” may work in some writing, but in others it’s simply another bad example of “telling” vs. “showing.”
What I like best about King’s writing is how well he does the third-person mode, getting inside the characters’ heads & letting us experience their states of mind.
He also relies a lot on metonyms, which can work *if* people know the references. For instance, Stu in The Stand often gets called “East Texas,” and it does describe him well.



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