Monday, February 22, 2010
This book came recommended highly enough by many people whose opinions I value that I knew it wasn't going to be as silly as King's fiction sometimes can be. And King does have some good advice to impart. Not all parts of his very specific formula for how he produces his fiction, edits and re-writes will work for all writers, but the trip inside his mind sure is fun to read.
King begins his "memoir of the craft" with actual tidbits of memoir. From his nanny who used to fart in his face to the day he met is wife, King describes all the seminal events of his life that have influenced his writing. A lot here will be familiar to King fans — how he wrote Carrie in the laundry room of a double-wide trailer while near financial collapse, and how his wife Tabitha had to intervene to cure him of a nasty early-80s cocaine habit and addiction to booze.
King introduces the actual advice-on-writing section with an anecdote about his grandfather's toolbox, and why it's important to bring all your "tools" as a writer with you every time you sit down to compose. Not exactly an original approach, and the section includes tips that won't exactly be revelations to anyone who's had a college writing class, but they're still good reminders: Write every single day, with a specific output goal in mind (1,000 words/day, eg.); read as much as humanly possible; avoid adverbs, especially in dialogue tags (...he said angrily, eg.); don't use passive voice; have thick skin and accept that rejection will be part of life.
The book builds to King's two central theses. Good fiction must be real and authentic. You can write about whatever you want, as long as you tell the truth and be honest, he says. Which leads to Thesis #2: To write good fiction, writers must understand that the story's the only thing that truly matters. The situation or spark comes first, then the characters, then you just narrate what happens. Every literary trick you can imagine plays second fiddle to the story itself.
And that's where things get dicey. It's not so much that I "disagree" with some of King's assertions, because he's really talking about what's been successful for him and only suggests it might work for you, too. Besides, what right does an unpublished schmuck like me have to "disagree" with a novelist who has sold millions and millions of copies? It's more that some of King's assertions seem to go against the grain a bit.
I'm not exactly a prolific fiction writer, but all this runs precisely 180 degrees in opposition to how I've tried to write my own stories. It does, however, explain a lot about King's fiction — especially the atrocious ending, strange plot twists and one-dimensional characters in his latest book Under the Dome.
The strength of On Writing is its breezy, often sarcastic, and frequently hilarious style. One example: In the discussion of the evils of the passive voice, King provides a particularly odious sentence to hammer home his point, which he does thusly: "Oh, man — who farted, right?" He's even funny as he wraps up the book talking about getting hit by a van in the summer of 1999 — an accident that nearly killed him.
Have you read On Writing? Any parts you found particularly helpful? Any parts you take issue with?
Posted by Greg Zimmerman at 1:48 PM