“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.”
BEFORE you are tempted to take out your feather plume and dip it in the black ink, before you type in the password on your computer, or whatever medium you might employ to embark on a cherished memoir, novel, TV play, speech, business report or other serious piece of writing, I urge you to read this masterful primer first. Please.
Here we have the nuts and bolts of good writing, the bonnet of the novel car raised to expose carburettor, battery, leads, gas tank et al. The book is set out in two/three parts opening with a memoir. Then, from page 94 in my edition, is a brilliant appraisal of the skills of the craft, analogous to Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Writing (which he wrote originally as an article for the New Yorker) but more in depth, more practical. King breezes through his very candid construction. He opens with the power of telepathy and moves on to the toolbox of vocabulary, sentences and grammar and thereafter all the commonly posed questions like agents, writer’s groups, peer review, self doubt, editing etc… You will not become a great writer from reading this, he argues, but if you are good, you might get better.
For King, writing is easy. Even the short examples he quotes sing off the page, little hand me downs from an accomplished practitioner. I am not a fan of his genre of horror as in Carrie or Misery, but I do admire his serial novel The Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption. His advice on adverbs is exemplary – i just deleted a ‘greatly’ before admire from the above, as instructed.
His most radical suggestion is that plot is secondary, even an adjunct to, situation. Get the situation right and the characters will form themselves and grow into the story. It is an important distinction. It separates the function of the screenwriter – who has a need for plot lines to follow – from the craft of the originating story teller – whose only loyalty is to his or her reader to his or her story. The creative elements are separated, allocated different job titles. It is a curve you can follow in much popular contemporary fiction from the likes of best sellers like John Grisham, Michael Crichton and King himself. And it is a curve that is helpfully judgmental and definitive. Plot is objective. Situation is subjective. Writer versus critic, different perspectives.
King, of course, is in the first rank of the well known, most rewarded of the airport stationer’s top shelf bestsellers. The lessons he outlines here – including a fascinating suggestion for a DIY project – are as applicable across genres be they literary, corporate or just a desire to communicate. Verbs count.
To dismiss his work as pulp is to misunderstand the job in hand, a point self evident when he discusses how a character might be made to take on motive, to advance an argument.
In the first part he recounts how he began writing for short story magazines – now mostly sadly defunct – for a few dollars and pasting rejection slips on his wall. And the unexpected arrival of his first big pay check when paperback rights were sold. And his struggle with drugs and alcoholism which he points out did not help his writing at all – except in the detail that The Shining would revolve around an alcoholic writer and ex-schoolteacher. As a bonus he also quotes some of his favourite lines like this one from Raymond Chandler: “I lit a cigarette (that) tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief”.
The end has a penetrating human twist drawing a line between fact, fiction and mortality. But from a writing perspective, one comes away with the sure knowledge that King is pretty good at what he does. Sound advice.
There is also a reading list at the end, as good a list as any for the 20th century.