A couple of years ago I took a course that required me to try my hand at writing small texts on different themes. It was fun and made me realize how much I enjoyed writing, how good I thought I was, and how horrible I really was… .This was a course that simply asked me to write small texts, not literary masterpieces, but I always felt that if I am to show someone a text I produced it has to be good. I didn’t want to “just pass” a course, I wanted to be the best, I wanted to catch the attention of the teacher, I wanted to be THAT student that tries extra much. Basically, I wanted to know that I did everything that I could do before I submitted that assignment. The problem was, I never felt like I did everything I could for my prose; I always had the sensation that I could have done more, like I was missing a piece of the puzzle. It was a dilemma, since the course itself didn’t offer any support on writing technique and I felt like I was lost at sea and my boat was leaking as hell. And so I thought that maybe I should just buy a book on writing. Upon googling around this subject, I concluded that there are two major groups: people who think that writing is just something you have or you don’t, a gift that can’t be learned; and people who think a textbook is vital to get you started, giving the young writer a solid base to build upon. I personally believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle (doesn’t it always?) I think a textbook can improve your writing a lot, giving you ideas and hints on how to find your inspiration, or answer some questions you might have regarding the craft itself.
It so happens that whenever I really like an author’s style I tend to google him/her and see if I can find an interview where they talk about their writing. This, combined with my before-mentioned dilemma, helped me find a great book- On Writing by Stephen King. Yes, I came to find the book because I am a great fan of King, but this has really nothing to do with him or his books (in essence). The book contains some really good advices for beginner writers like me. Since I finished reading this book, I got my hands on other creative writing books and I took a real course on it (I am actually doing the second part now), but every now and then I come back to this one for reference. There are small things that stayed with me, like his thought on the overuse of adverbs: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”. I never really understood what he meant until I saw it in my own prose. And when I stopped doing that mistake, my peer reviewers appreciated it, the text flowed better, and my paragraphs stopped sounding like something out of a novel with a couple making out on the cover (yeah, you know which ones, you are as guilty as I am).
I guess I read/listened to many such advices before but it doesn’t mean I heard them. When you really look up to an author his /her words tend to have a different weight than some random text, written on a random blog, by a random author (see what I did here). This, however, doesn’t mean I blindly take author’s advices as the absolute truth. There are many things I respectfully disagree with in S. King’s book, like his opinion that creative writing courses do not help one bit. I believe, from my personal experience, that they help tremendously if not to increase the quality of one’s writing then to better understand one’s self (especially creative non-fiction).
The book is divided in chapters that are more autobiographical and chapters that have more to do with writing. Of course they intertwine a lot since I believe it’s hard for any author to completely separate their life like this; I mean, when you love writing as much as S. King does, you live through your writing and you write through your life (if that makes sense to anyone except me).
The autobiography part is raw and unexpectedly honest. He talks about his past drug addiction, his horrible accident when he almost lost his life, his family life, and younger years. It’s a glimpse at someone’s life, Stephen King or not, and I really appreciated it. It was the writing part that I was really after but I found myself reading the personal part with great interest. However, I must admit, this part is more relevant to King’s fans than the normal reader interested in writing advice.
In the writing part I found great ideas about certain exercises one can do to get started on those days when the pen is just not moving, and general advices that improved my writing quite a lot:
- I understood that I was making errors that were ruining the flow of my text: I now gave up my love for unnecessary adverbs, and learned to kill (and bury) my darlings (those parts of the text that make perfect sense to me but are confusing for anyone else).
- I understood that there is no perfect place to write, and inspiration comes when it wants to come; therefore, I always carry pen and paper wherever I go.
- It was the first time I really understood what they say by “show, don’t tell”. I always knew what they meant but never really understood it enough as to make it show in my own text. King makes perfect sense explaining this and I am forever grateful.
- He explains the process of drafting very well. Me, like many other beginners, thought that writers just wake up one day, open their text editor, and write brilliant stuff. This is the reason why many years I deleted most of my work- because it sounded horrible on a second read. To see a draft and see how you work with a text is somehow revelatory if one doesn’t have the time to take a course on creative writing.
These are basic things to me now, but back then they weren’t. I didn’t have anyone to teach me and I wanted to do something to improve my writing. I was two years away from the first chance to take the course on writing but very eager to improve on my own as much as possible. Overall, reading this book was a really good idea (even I have a couple of those every year).
In conclusion, I believe there are better textbooks that try to teach creative writing. However, if you want to read about this in a more relaxed context, this is a great book. King doesn’t tell YOU how to do it, but merely tells the story of how HE does it. Writing is something very personal and it takes time to learn what works and what doesn’t. Either way, like in everything, we can all accept good advice. Don’t expect to find the secret of how to become a bestselling author. As a matter of fact, don’t expect anything; the book is what it is- a memoir of the craft.
Some of my favorite quotes from the book:
“ Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine, if you like, Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. Maybe it’s the first really good paragraph you ever wrote, something so fragile and yet so full of possibility that you are frightened. You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes. Oh my God, it’s breathing, you realize. Maybe it’s even thinking. What in the hell’s name do I do next? “
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s”
“I have my own dislikes – I believe that anyone using the phrase ´That is so cool´ should have to stand in the corner and that those using the far more odious phrases ´at this point in time´ and ´at the end of the day´ should be sent to bed without supper (or writing paper, for that matter).”