Thursday, May 26, 2005

Stephen King's Real Masterpiece

Last night I finished reading Stephen King's On Writing. Wow. What an amazing writer he is.

I say this having only read a couple of his short stories. I've never been a fan of Stephen King. And it's funny because in saying that, I'm giving him the highest compliment possible. The reason I've never read any of his stuff is because his books scare the living daylights out of me. I hate to be scared. I think the entire horror genre is probably last on my list of things I'd choose to read, and only twice have I ever allowed myself to be dragged kicking and screaming into a slasher/horror movie. So I pretty much shiver when anyone suggests the latest King title as a good read. I have no doubt it would be an excellent read. And no doubt that reading it would give me nightmares for weeks.

So I went into his On Writing kind of reluctantly. I thought it was probably one of those essay type books in which a famous writer waxes philosophical about the art of writing. Since I'm one of those nuts and bolts, tell me how to do it kind of people, I don't enjoy reading essays that discuss. I want the facts, the rules, the guidelines. Or, as Stephen called me on my shit, I'm looking for the magic bullet a famous author can give me. (It doesn't exist, I've been assured.)

The book starts off with an autobiography of sorts. King gives us readers just enough of his own background - told in highly entertaining anecdotal style - to help us understand why and how he came to be a writer, and even more interesting, how and why he writes the types of things he writes. I'd always figured a guy with a macabre imagination like Stephen King's must have some major trauma in his past or at the very least a slight psychotic streak. In actuality, King seems like a normal guy who just grew up loving those old b-horror movies.

After taking us on a short jaunt down memory lane, King devotes the next segment of the book on the craft of writing. He's handled this brilliantly in that he hasn't simply provided a list of dos and don'ts. Mostly he discusses the key ingredients in story telling in a very straight-forward, matter-of-fact way, cutting out a lot of the bulk to get down to the basics. What he says isn't anything I haven't heard a million time before (kill the adverbs, use the speech attributes "he said/she said", remember that the story is what is important). But he says it so plainly that it seems quite simple. There is no magic bullet, but the secret to being a good writer isn't that complicated. It all boils down to this: read a lot and write a lot.

One of the things that King states I found very profound. He says that writers stack up in a pyramid-fashion. The bottom and biggest portion of writers are bad. Sorry, but it's a hard truth of life that applies to all areas of creativity. Next comes a slightly smaller portion of writers who are competent. Above the competent writers comes and even smaller group of writers who are good. And capping off the pyramid, comprising a very small number, are the writers who are excellent (think Steinbeck, Hemingway, Shakespeare). All of this makes sense to me, and I'm throwing myself into that second rung of competent writers hoping to God that I'm not completely deluding myself.

Because, King says, bad writers can never become competent writers. That's because bad writers are lacking something so fundamental - be it a grasp of language and grammar or just an inability to tell good story - that no amount of practice will ever push them into competency.

This is the same situation when it comes to good writers becoming excellent writers. It just can't happen. Only a handful of people have the genius of the truly greats, and such genius is inborn. It can't be copied or recreated or attained by practice. Either you've got it or you don't.

But there is a good chance that if you fall into the competent writers plane that you can move up to become a good writer. This is where the practice practice practice comes in. Where learning the craft and honing it and reading all come to play. This gives me great hope. If I'm competent now, perhaps in time I can become good.

Another thing that King discussed as imperative to becoming a good writer is discipline. Again, I've heard it a million times before. A writer must write every day. Yet King gave it weight for me, giving me permission to call myself a writer and to demand that I be allowed the time to work at it. He advocates a writing space with a closed door, and I'm now in search for such a place in my own home.

Really, if you haven't read this book and are serious about writing, I do suggest you take a look. I enjoyed it immensely. King has such a comfortable writing style, I felt like he was sitting in my living room talking to me. He never panders to beginning writers, and considering his amount of success, he would not be out of line in acting superior. I think that even with all of his success, King still views himself as just a guy who likes to write stories.

But he doesn't hesitate to tell it like it is. He doesn't claim that *everyone* can become a good writer if they want to. Nor does he hold back in siting examples of other "successful" writers that have what he considers bad form or who engage in sloppy writing. He points out his own failings and doesn't pull any punches for others.

I liked this book so much I'm sorely tempted to actually read a King novel. Except I don't want to be scared out of my wits. I'm still haunted by one of his short stories I found in his Night Shift anthology, and I read that back when I was in the eighth grade.


Ronn said...

I've only ever read this book by King, but I agree that it is a great book on the craft of writing. I loved it. Good common sense advice on writing that is handed out without the preachy soapboxing of so many other writing books.

marty said...

I love King's books (I've got all but two :) ) and On Writing is great stuff.

Some of King's works that might not scare you:

Eyes of the Dragon -- a fantasy, not quite a horror
Insomnia -- there are supernatural stuff, but not much scary stuff. Not his best work though
Dolores Clairborn isn't very scary but does have a bit of grue

haze said...

A lot of what you said I can relate to. As for Mr. King, when I first read "The Stand", I had to put it away in a drawer at night because it scared me. Could not read that book after sundown. His characterization is awe inspiring and he makes it look so damn simple.