Saturday, September 4, 2010

On Stevie

I just finished reading Stephen King's memoir "On Writing," which ought more appropriate to have been titled, "On Stevie." I'll summarize King's writing advice to spare you all the time it would take to read and distill it:

1. Read.

2. Write.

3. Be born a member of the elect.

Suffice to say I was pretty disappointed by this book. King makes a beautiful story out of his life, just like he makes beautiful stories out of the lives of his characters; but this is a story King should never have written. As an aspiring writer, I look to the advice of professional writers to inspire and motivate me to do great things. But Stevie's point number three--which he more tactfully couches in the language that you can't make a good writer out of a bad one, i.e., writers are born--really struck me as an awful thing to put into a book that is supposedly about writing.

But, for one thing, it isn't. "On Writing" is mostly an autobiography. This ties in with its general lack of any magical illumination, and rather throws into stark relief King's deterministic philosophy. The philosopher Immanuel Kant once suggested that the faculty of reason causes human beings to think about--if not believe--the idea of freedom. But despite some of his more fantastical writings, Stephen King obviously doesn't believe in magic. His view of the writer's life is sad: according to King, either you've got it, or you don't.

Afterwards, I realized that the book as a whole pretty much keeps with King's fictional writing style. He does a great job writing about characters (such as himself), but his sense of the supramundane--despite his frequent use of the supernatural in his work--is about as sophisticated as my butthole. And no, my butthole is not a wormhole to another dimension. Rather, my butthole conceives the entire universe in terms of simplistic, black and white, good versus evil dichotomies, and, when speaking (usually in a low rumble), uses the attendant lame, pseudo-Christian symbolism to make uninspiring metaphors.

If you want to be inspired in your quest to become a writer, and if you want to hear the advice and ruminations of people who actually believe writing is a craft and would probably tell you that, yes, if you practice hard, one day you can be a writer also, go check out Writing Excuses. Despite the name, the Writing Excuses podcast is--unlike King's memoir--devoid of excuses. The crew offers useful advice and a lot of encouragement. Go check it out.

According to the library's automatic notification service, Orson Scott Card's "Characters and Viewpoint" is ready for me to pick up. I expect it will be superior to King's instructional method--the reading of which made me really glad that I got it out from the library. I am going to jam "On Writing" into the RETURN slot so hard.

But before I get on to Card's book, I need to go join Edgard Rice Burroughs on Mars.




  1. I read On Writing a long time ago... I think I might have just started college. I remember it being a good story, but don't recall much practical advice. I think I just took it as Stephen King's musings on his life as a writer, which I found interesting enough.
    Orson Scott Card's "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy" was a good one though for lots of practical advice. How to world-build, the types of stories in speculative fiction, avoiding info-dumps, strong beginnings, etc etc.
    I haven't read his "Characters and Viewpoints" though, but I'm pretty sure my library has all the books in that series (Plot, Setting, etc). Perhaps I should check them out one day.

  2. Well, I liked it. But I wasn't reading it for writing advice. I got all the writing advice I'll ever need from George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language".

    I do like Writing Excuses, though, because I like listening to creative people engage in witty banter. Which is why I need to start my own podcast.

  3. Yeah, my mistake was probably in the approach; reading a memoir and expecting it to provide writing advice.

    And, in apology to poor Stevie, there were a few bits of information I liked... they just didn't come through in the initial outpouring of rage.


  4. I never read the book, but I sympathize with your disappointment. Every book can't connect with every reader, but at least you have something that does help you. I have read Mr. Card's book, and love it. I'm pretty sure you won't be disappointed there. :)

  5. I love Card's character and viewpoint, and there's a lot of golden knowledge to be had, but I'm really surprised that you didn't like King's memoir.

    I'll be the first to admit it: The book has been very improperly titled and marketed. It's not really a book about writing so much as it is a book about a man's life, and then how that life led him to a career as a writer.

    I think the section(s) on The Craft are solid as a rock, but maybe I'm biased as a huge, huge King fan. I wouldn't be doing what I am if it wasn't for his influence.

    The story, I must say, I found to be immensely enjoyable. I loved the glimpses into his long and successful life, and I think he illustrates them with admirable humility and finesse. Sure, the man has an ego -- he even admits it in the book -- but I think that perhaps you read too much into his harsher comments.

    I think he's trying, like many ill-received advisors of the writing industry, to whip young writers into shape. It's a tough job. Marines don't get tough and combat-ready by being given a soft pat on the ass and saucerful of cookies (if they do, sign me up!).

    Give it another pass sometime down the road, man, after you've attained a certain degree of success. The book is the only reason I'm shooting for this career at present. If he hadn't been so firm with me (through that memoir), I might have waited years to begin Writing Seriously.


    Anyway, every text is only one voice's opinion. Use what you like, discard the rest. Enjoy Card's book -- it's phenomenal. I also recommend the short -- but incredibly useful and illuminating -- How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. A more editorial, post-first-draft-based read is Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, which I also found to be a huge help.

  6. Steven King's viewpoint on becoming a great writer is kind of disappointing for us mortals...but there's also something that rings not quite true in the sort of view expounded in books like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, that tons and tons of practice will make you a genius.

    I's hard for me to imagine someone writing great works _without_ alot of practice, and effort...but...then...what separates good writers from great writers? Or from bad writers?

    So, I like the science fiction novels of David Weber. But I do not think they're as good as, say...Thomas Disch, or John Brunner...

    All the writers involved clearly worked pretty hard. They've all put in at least their ten thousand hours. Why are some writers better than others? There's clearly some sort of leap, some kind of vision...thing...that separates writers.

    But it's not really clear what that vision thing is. What are some writers doing, such that they, while engaging in the same amount of effort, are producing work that excites people much more? What was Philip K. Dick doing that, say, Lloyd Biggle Jr. was not doing? (other than massive quantities of amphetamines)

    Unless that thing can somehow be taught, then there does seem an element of truth to the notion that some writers "have it" and some don't. That doesn't mean you can tell the difference at an early stage. Maybe writers don't figure out how to do that thing until they're well on in their careers. Maybe each writer figures out a different thing...

    ...or maybe there is no thing. It could be that what I perceive as systemic differences in scope of vision are just my own preferences.

  7. Rahul: points for the observation that there are has's and has-nots. It is an observation I routinely shirk despite its complete validity.



  8. Yes, I find it really scary that being published is not the actual threshold for success as a writer....the threshold isn't even "being a good writer". The threshold is producing one really good work. And that's a lot harder than being published.