Book: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I enjoyed this book because of King’s no nonsense style of writing. I liked that his advice was to use your vocabulary exactly as it is. His basic rule is to use the first word that comes to mind if appropriate and colourful. Try not to hesitate – that last bit is usually my downfall! ‘The word is only a representation of meaning.’ – there is something incredibly deep in this small sentence. No matter which word I pick, it will never encompass the entire thing I am trying to convey so I guess I should stop over thinking everything so much.

He recommends avoiding the passive tense like the plague so this is something to look out for and advocates making life as easy as possible for the reader.

Recommends The Elements of Style – William Strunk Jr & E.B. White for the second layer of things to worry about after Vocabulary and Grammar so I will focus on structure when I have read that book.

King believes that you only need to read and write a lot to become a writer. I am a little more skeptical but take heart from the fact that I certainly read a lot! I am looking forward to this section of the course as I need a push to start writing more. King’s rule for himself is that “under no circumstances do I let myself shut down before 2,000 words”. With my fatigue issues I will need to find the best balance between writing regularly and not burning myself out by pushing too hard too early. King also advocates ritual and this is something that I am pretty good at as I love routines.

“Write about anything but as long as you tell the truth” I love this quote as it feeds into that idea that we all have our own truth (crossover here with the idea of history from Assignment One). I think it is about being open and true to yourself with the ability to get straight to the point. Waffling is definitely one of my weak points but I guess that editing is for honing the prose. I have enjoyed writing Flash Fiction in the past as it was interesting to see how much you could portray in a minimal amount of words.

Stories are made up of 3 parts:

  1. narration – move the story forward
  2. description – creates sensory reality
  3. dialogue – brings characters to life through speech

Put characters in some sort of predicament and watch them work their way free! Situation comes first. By wanting the characters to work their own way out, the writer becomes the story’s first reader which sounds a far more exciting way of thinking about writing as I always struggle to plot out stories in advance.

King recommends not describing the characters too much as each reader will visualise something slightly different and if anything contradicts it will jar with the reader’s mental image. Locale and texture give strongest sense of being in the story. Pick a few well-chosen details to focus on. This is the sort of thing I tend to do naturally (probably from reading lots) but it was good to be conscious of why to do this.

Writers that King recommends as good at dialogue:

  • George V Higgins
  • Peter Straub
  • Graham Greene

King recommends using the second draft to bring out symbolism and themes that would have emerged from a finished first draft – don’t start with questions or thematic concerns. He recommends attempting to dump everything from your head onto paper as quickly as possible without looking back too much to outrun self doubt. This is an interesting comment as I am often so worried about what I have already written that I can’t move forward with the story.

On first read through (preferably after 6 weeks etc so you can’t remember much) he focusses first on looking for inconsistencies and spelling mistakes (housekeeping) but forbids getting depressed with glaring plot holes etc as they happen. He aims that his second draft = first draft – 10% which makes sense after playing with Flash Fiction since less can be more powerful.

Recommends Harry Potter books as a good example as to how to recap what came before effortlessly!

I found the section about his fear of being unable to write after his accident fascinating. He mentioned that with the pain he could only write about 1000 words per day which was half of his usual amount. If someone as prolific as Stephen King still gets nervous then I don’t feel so bad about it.

Quotes:

When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story…when you rewrite, your main job, is taking out all the things that are not the story.

Writer’s original perception of a character[s] may be as erroneous as the readers’ [King didn’t like Carrie]…stopping a piece of work just because it is hard, emotionally or imaginatively is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, sometimes doing good work, even when it feels like shovelling shit from a sitting position.

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