Monday, March 19, 2012

On Writing

From the cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I live in a glass house, so I don’t do book reviews.  I’ve found that there are enough people anxious to give their opinions and judgments that as a writer I needn’t pour anymore gasoline on that fire. You might expect that authors would have wonderful insights. Who better to evaluate a building than a carpenter or architect. And yet writers I think, make very poor reviewers for the same reason carpenters or architects would not make the best judges of houses. For while they live in them, most houses are built for non-industry residents. Architects  might focus on the placement of load bearing walls, and carpenters on the quality of drywall, or the zinc content of the nails. Assuming the house is structurally sound, most residents don’t care about such things. For them it’s closet space and the fact that the toilet paper dispenser is in an awkward place. And just as the best evaluators of homes are residents that live there, the best judges of books are readers. Authors would be picky about the strangest things. I know, I’m one of them, and because I’ve spent years training myself to see imperfections in my own writing, I can’t turn that off when I look at others' works. Also being an author makes writing book reviews feel akin to being a deer who puts on an orange vest and goes hunting whitetail each year along with the other sportsmen, unless all you’re doing is raving about a book, and if that’s all you’re doing that’s not a review—that’s gushing.  Not that any author has a problem with gushing. The more gushing the better.

All that said, I recently read my first book about the craft of writing—On Writing, by Stephen King—and while I want to share some thoughts I have concerning it, I want to be clear, this is not a review.

I read On Writing mostly out of curiosity. For those of you who don’t know, while I have written upwards of some twenty novels and published six in ten languages as well as a couple of short stories, I don’t actually have any formal—and not even much informal—education in creative writing. Someone recently wrote me stating that her friends insist writers must have a degree in writing in order to create a good novel. She asked my opinion, wondering what my credentials were. I had to reply that I don’t have any. Outside of one creative writing class I had in tenth grade, I've had no education in creative writing at all.

After high school I attended one year at an art school. Precious little English taught there, I can tell you. Then a semester or two at a community college, where I only took commercial art classes until I landed a job, after that I never resumed college.  I did not take any seminars. I did not read any books on writing. I spoke to no one who had any interest in writing much less experience, talent, or skill, and I did not join a writing group until after my first book (Crown) was published. All I did was read and write, but I did that a lot and for a long time. Mostly in a remote house in a snowbound northern section of Vermont. Just imagine any number of martial arts films, or maybe Rocky IV (the one in Russia) and I’m certain you can picture me in a simple house alone in a snowy mountain wilderness spending day after day practicing and catching flies with chopsticks. 

Given my isolation I was curious about what I might have missed, and what other writers do. Having heard so many good things about King’s book, and liking King’s work, I read it to see how I measured up. I wanted to know how a real writer worked.

I assumed the contrast to be night and day and yet I was surprised to find so many similarities. As King mentions, he is known to be a prolific author and yet he only writes for about three hours a day—the length of time it usually takes for him to complete 2000 words, which allows him to finish a rough draft in about three months. Now that I have resumed writing after years of intensive editing, I find I do just about the same. I used to write faster, but I’m getting older now—King also mentioned experiencing the same change. Still I had thought I was lazy. Most people work eight hours a day, right? Of course exactly how much of an eight hour day are people productive, not just responding to email, speaking on the phone and such? Writers do that stuff too we just don’t lump that part into what we usually call work hours. And as a writer, I work all the time really—even while sleeping. Just two days ago I was in a New York hotel room in the middle of the night with a sort of nightmare, but luckily I had my notebook and pen on the nightstand. I took them, crossed the room to the light that bled in from the window and jotted down notes. Ideas just don’t understand “work hours.”

Still I was pleasantly amazed to find that King and I both write from nine in the morning to around noon, depending on how well things are going, and how long it takes to get 2000 words done. His writing/editing relationship with his wife is eerily similar to my wife and I, right down to reading manuscripts in the car on long trips and having me trying to sneak peeks at where she is, while I should instead be concentrating on driving.

Given that I was not part of any workshop or school course that might account of the standardization  of attitude, I was stunned to find his opinions and conclusions about the craft mimicked my own.  So similar were many of the ideas about writing that I was glad I had finished my own series of writing tips before reading this, or I’d have a hard time separating out what were my thoughts and what were his.

The only point of contention I found was King’s attitude on outlining, but I feel this might be more a matter of semantics. He defines the word “story” and the word “plot” differently than I do. He likes story and distrusts plot, suggesting (I think, if I understand him right) that story is the whole thing, setting, character and the events, but plot is only the events and needs to be subordinate to the other two. I on the other hand see story and plot as the same things, the “plot” is merely “story” applied to a written work as I can’t imagine telling the plot of a story without including the characters and setting. I was left wondering if this might be at the heart of the difference, because—like me—he too takes walks and works out the story problems, as he did with The Stand, and that to me is outlining, but to him that might be considered something else. As big and with as many synonyms  as English has, we still appear to lack words for some things.

The most valuable bit of information was where he mentions grammar (which he used to teach) and suggests Warriner's English Grammar & Composition as a good book to learn from.  Again looking to find what I might have missed, I found a copy and have been studying it. He’s right, it’s a good book.

Also the last portion of On Writing is an account of his near fatal accident when a car hit him while he was walking along the roadside. This portion of the book I felt was some of the best writing I’ve read in decades. I was riveted. I laughed out loud once, and was brought near tears at another portion. It lacked the normal jaunty and irreverent tone of most of his works, less cute, less over-the-top. Maybe because it was real, or because I knew it was, but the power I found to be amazing and that portion alone was worth twice the cost of the book. It might also have been that I felt a certain kinship with him by that time, and while I’m not half the writer, I could easily imagine myself walking that road in the evening planning to go to a movie later with my wife and kids, when the unthinkable happens.

Like I said this isn’t a review, but if you’re one of the ones who have read my writing tips—the ones on the top of the side bar—and found them useful, you might also consider On Writing.

The part about the hair dryer is funny as hell.


  1. Looked for Warriner's English Grammar & Composition but it seems to be out of print!

  2. I agree with you about writers living in a glass houses (I assume you meant a metaphorical glass house). I think there is the fear that if I make criticisms against other writers, the same criticisms can be said of my own work. But unlike yourself, I spent many years studying writing with other writers. I do not believe that was necessary for me to achieve success, in fact, I sometimes feel it might be a hindrance. But what we spent most of our time doing in those classes is analyzing other people's works. Much of our discussion was very insightful. It helped us to understand why certain stories worked or didn't. I don't agree with you about the carpenter/architect analogy. After all, carpenters and architects need to live in homes too, and they typically have the skill and talent to make some pretty wonderful homes. The difference between a casual reader and a professional reader is that the casual reader may know what books they enjoy, but can't explain why---it's the same in the food industry. I manage a restaurant full time and it's my job to be food critic and food preparer. When people don't like a certain dish, they typically can't explain what's wrong with it. It's my job to know whether the dish has too much salt or not enough. In this way, and for this reason, I think writers can make good critics (just look at Stephen King) as long as they keep in mind typical reader perspectives, which is what writers need to do anyway to evaluate their own work. I enjoy more esoteric works such as French and Russian literature, Finnish mythology, and dusty old classics like H.P. Lovecraft; but I am well aware that casual readers may find such works a chore to read. But I can also appreciate popular fare like "The Hunger Games" also. Understanding why those books succeed is part of my job and as a writer and reader I feel I have something to add to the discussion.

  3. schultzie, there are lots of used copies available on Amazon.

  4. Michael, this is one of my favorite memoirs on writing. There are a lot of other good ones out there, too - though some of the ones that are most lauded were really difficult for me to get into.

    I find the argument of whether or not one needs a formal education to be a good writer intriguing. I find myself in the middle of the road on this one. On the cusp of finishing my master's in writing, I can say without a doubt that my writing has improved tremendously over the last three years; I can also say that with each course completed, I realize how much more there is for me to learn. And the truth is, only so much can be learned in the classroom - much of what I have yet to learn will only be accomplished in the doing, of dedicating my time and energy to my writing.

    Much of what you know/have learned as a writer comes from the practice of writing over many years, and this applies to Stephen King as well. Even so, you've both had an education that you're not giving full credit in this post. Stephen King spent many years teaching English to high school students (and attended college to do so) before he sold his first book, which undoubtedly left him with a strong foundation in literature and grammar.

    Similarly, your background in advertising helped shape your knowledge of character, setting, motivation, etc. When putting together a print ad or a tv spot, you have to put together a story; every component in that ad has to be precise in order to convey this story within the limits of your medium. There is no doubt in my mind that your experience in advertising has provided a strong foundation for your writing.

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