Visions of Paradise

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

On Writing

One of my bookshelves is devoted to books about writing. After all, I devoted nearly 20 years to writing science fiction, and I still spend a portion of my writing time writing fiction–although much less time than previously. So when Stephen King published On Writing, I was naturally intrigued by it.

I am not a fanatical Stephen King fan. Although he is a fine writer, he tends to overwrite at times, and his subject matter doesn’t always appeal to me. I enjoyed both The Shining and The Stand a lot, and thought the collection Different Seasons was superb. But I was disappointed with both Christine and Cujo, considered them both single punchlines padded to outrageous length. Since then I’ve only bought two of his collections Nightmares and Dreamscapes and Four Past Midnight. The reviews of Hearts in Atlantis intrigued me, but I have not read it yet.

So when Ben Indick–whose opinions I respect since he has never disappointed me so far–recommended On Writing, I took his advice and bought it. On Writing is a relatively short book, which immediately pleased me since one of King’s main faults is his long-windedness. Its first third contains a brief autobiography of King. My enjoyment at reading memoirs depends more on the writing style of the author than how exciting their live is, so while King’s childhood was not particularly exciting, King’s telling of it was brisk and pleasant, as well as quite informative as to how he became the writer he now is.

And I learned a lot about why Cujo was such a bad book. King wrote Cujo during the peak of his “drug years,” stuffing his nostrils with cotton swabs to prevent cocaine-induced bleeding while typing, confessing that he does not recall any of the actual writing of that book. King claims that Misery was his personal drug-nightmare book, in which he was represented by the James Caan character (in the movie version) while the Kathy Bates character represented drugs.

Although King did not say so, I suspect that Cujo was really his drug book. Think about the plot: the main character is trapped with her child against a big, life-threatening monster whose major form of aggression is blocking the heroine from getting any help for her problem. That sounds like drugs to me, and since King admits he wrote the novel in the throes of a drug haze against which he felt helpless, so what else could the novel have been but a cry for help? That also explains why the novel was so bad.

The remaining two-thirds of the book are King’s advice on writing. In many ways it is no different than all the other writing books I’ve read, and he repeats a lot of familiar advice, although it definitely does not hurt to read some of it again. King’s advice is a lot snappier than that of most writing gurus, as well as a lot more enjoyable reading, and his enthusiasm is so infectious that periodically you find yourself anxious to run off and do some fiction writing yourself.

But for me the writing advice came crashing to an immediate halt on page 142 when King gave his two theses, one of which was while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

All the years I’ve been writing fiction–thirty and counting now–I’ve basically assumed I am a competent writer trying to make the transition to one good enough to publish. I’ve certainly been dedicated (especially for the first 25 years before I started devoting most of my time to nonfiction) and done lots of hard work, but I still am unsure whether I have ever made the jump from “competent” to “good”. If my lack of success at enticing editors is any indication, I have not done so. Why is that? Haven’t I worked hard enough? Or been dedicated enough? Perhaps I haven’t had sufficient “timely help”?

Well, King suggests that I’ve been fooling myself. Perhaps I’ve been living under a delusion that I am competent as a writer of fiction when I am actually trying to make a transition King claims is impossible, that I am really an untalented (bad) writer trying to make the unsurmountable leap to competence.

I recommend On Writing highly to beginning writers or wannabe writers. If you are already “good” or disinterested in writing it might not have much to offer except the first one-third, and the concluding section about King’s recent life-threatening accident. It might be a steep price to pay for one-third of a book, unless you buy the mass market paperback. But for the rest of us, it’s a damned good book which makes me want to buy a copy of Hearts in Atlantis and read some post-drugs, post-accident Stephen King fiction.


  • Re: Hearts In Atlantis. I recently read it, and it's definitely worth it. I think it's his best work in years - I look forward to your views.

    By Blogger JP, At 2:18 AM  

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