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.
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!