Review of Stephen King’s On Writing

I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), which I found to be interesting. I’ve read a few other books on writing recently, so I figured it’d be interesting to compare King to other writers.

In the past I’d heard that King’s book was not really all that great for a writer, so I approached it with a certain amount of skepticism.

I split my reading across four days; the first two days covered roughly a third of the book each, then I split the remaining third up between the rest of the main text and the appendices.

At the end of the first day, I was in agreement with the skeptics. On Writing contains enough autobiographical content to be considered King’s memoir (which, coincidentally, is mentioned right on the cover, so there’s not really a surprise there). If you like King’s writing (I do) it will be a pleasant enough read, but other than seeing some traits and habits you can emulate there’s not a whole lot there in the way of practical advice.

The rest of the book, the remaining days of reading, were much more effective. King launches into a top-to-bottom overview of his writing process, which is quite interesting. Although it generally doesn’t do a whole lot of coaching on some of the elements, it gives a certain amount of insight to each.

And this is really where the recommendation gets tricky.

You see, King doesn’t give a whole lot of details about how you should write. He gives points you’ll need to address if you want to be a good writer, sometimes in a very basic way (e.g. “What is a good starting seed for a story and how can you tell?”) and sometimes being more specific (e.g. “How should you structure paragraphs?”), but he never goes into meticulous detail about anything.

For me, as someone who’s a fairly comfortable writer who wants to open up the world of creative writing, that’s useful. But I taught English, and while I don’t always adhere to best practices (do as I say, not as I do), I am at least familiar with them.

If you’re writing and you worry that the quality isn’t good enough, King doesn’t really have a lot of stuff for you, other than the reminder that he practiced a ton and wrote a lot of subpar stuff before he got good (which is largely communicated in the memoir portion of the book). If you’re putting out work that other people find unintelligible, you’re going to need to learn to fix that elsewhere.

I think this is best illustrated by his example for editing.

Now, this comes from work that was contemporary with On Writing, so it’s after he’s already become an expert writer, but his first drafts look tremendous compared to any first draft I’m currently in the realm of (not that I’m a good benchmark for quality), or any I’ve ever seen outside Stephen King’s (people do not usually rush to present me with first drafts, so again I’m not the best benchmark here).

By the time King’s showing us the process, the manuscript would probably be in a publication-worthy state for a lesser writer.

Now, a lot of that’s because King doesn’t want to waste his reader’s time time; proofreading isn’t the focus, revision is.

But it is an example of how the book generally goes.

As someone who’s been through four books on writing in two (three?) months, I think it’s a great example of a companion to other books. A more advanced, less specific book that leaves more to the individual and treats them like a journeyman or master instead of as an apprentice.

Plus, it’s written by Stephen King. Even if the lessons are occasionally thin, the writing is good enough that I found it a pleasant read; King intersperses humor and examples well enough that you forget you’re reading what could be an incredibly dry book (and I’ve read the dry writing manuals, ones with exercises, for crying out loud!).

The Curse of the Writer

Yesterday I woke from sleep (or, rather, trying to sleep, because the process has always been a drawn-out one for me) twice to work on a story. Both times I was consumed by a fit of energy and a desire to write so fervent that it was just a step below a religious experience.

This energy is brilliant, it flows through me like a river flows when a dam has burst, it fills me with a joy that is difficult to describe because it is something so pure that it lacks words. It is purpose, completion, motivation, drive, flow, unification of the self, inspiration.

I’ve felt it before, but not as strongly, not as vividly. It still echoes and resounds in my soul.

But there are things that threaten to drive it away, and not just sleep deprivation.

Going back and getting a master’s in creative writing was supposed to help me teach, but the mere act of pushing myself into that stream has awakened the writer that has been dormant for some time. But it also opens a door to the unknown.

You see, for all the joy that I’m feeling as I give myself more permission to write and bask in the presence of like-minded individuals, there is a lingering shadow that comes along.

I’m losing the mysticism. Now, that’s not a literal statement. After reading Carl Jung, a part of me will always be drawn to mystery and secrets, a part of me that also knows that they will never be achieved.

But actually opening the door to craft, that’s something that’s scary. You step into a shallow stream, and you can walk across to the other side. You step into a deep river, and you’ll be pulled to the bottom.

I’ve only been a critical reader for a minority of my life, and one who reads for the sake of writing for a short time.

And it makes me nervous to go forward and take that plunge. I’ve been reading King’s On Writing, and one of the things that he talks about regularly is the idea that one grows as a writer by writing and reading.

But I’ve always read as a reader.

My first memories involve books. Most of my second ones too. I stop and read signs. I read all the legalese in contracts and license agreements (well, in contracts at least). I even play games you have to read, for crying out loud.

I’m slightly obsessive, in the sense that if I don’t have something to do I slip into anxiety. Reading is one of those things that can satisfy that, so that I don’t have to run around the room pacing (in multiples of five steps), wash my hands until they bleed, or chatter excitedly to myself. Usually I combine these things, when possible (especially the pacing; I like to get the steps for my fitness tracker and it makes the anxious reptile brain part of me very proud when big numbers show up), but in the case of the last resort reading by itself is enough.

And the curse of the writer is that you cultivate something inside you that reads in a different way than my adolescent reading for pleasure. You read to learn.

But, looking back on it, did I ever read except to learn? Poetry, perhaps, or the master-works of someone like Ishiguro or Dostoevsky (or Tolkien), whose prose can transcend the banality of life.

Isn’t the beauty just a way to teach? Isn’t the consumption of beauty just an attempt to learn?

In the introduction to his book, The Stuff of Fiction, Douglas Bauer writes of reading a story and analyzing it:

After coldly, ruthlessly, dissecting it, all you have to do to bring it back to life is read it again.

Douglas Bauer, The Stuff of Fiction, page 4

The problem is that I’m not sure I believe him.

But this joy of writing is something that could transform me. All change comes with the risk of destruction, but I also suspect that the changes we bring upon ourselves are not really changes, but awakenings.

So I will seek that awakening, risking the writer’s curse.

At the very worst, I’ll be pacing about wringing my hands at the end of it, which is not all that different from how I am now.

Becoming a Writer

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), and I just had an epiphany that I figured I’d write about. Obviously a lot of it is inspired by King’s ideas, and I just hit a section about two-fifths of the way into the book where he talks about paragraph structure (of all things).

Context

I’m in the process of going back and getting my Master’s degree, a MFA in creative writing. I don’t think I’m a great writer, at least not in the traditional sense. I write a lot, certainly. My output is good, probably in the top 1%, maybe in the top 10% of the top 1%, if you just look at words published over time that aren’t about myself (though I’m not sure that you can count anything as being written about anyone but the author).

Creative writing kills me.

I’m just not a novelist. I’ve written a ton of shorter stuff, but there’s a reason why the longest thing I can recall writing that was pure creative writing (i.e. not a game) capped out at twenty-thousand words.

It’s because I don’t tell stories well.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. I love telling stories.

But I also love writing in general.

And if I may toot my own horn, I write pretty well. I don’t always hold myself to a high standard on my blogs, but I taught writing and I learned writing and if I have to get down in the dirt and seriously write I can turn out some stuff that you wouldn’t expect.

That doesn’t mean I can write anything.

My most painful writing experience, and one of my greatest triumphs, wasn’t rejection in the traditional sense. It came in an English class in my freshman year of college, ENG 104 (yeah, I’m an honors student, I do the combine two-semesters-in-one and try to over-achieve thing).

I forget what exactly the prompt for the essay was, but the professor had already made clear to me that she thought I had a lot of potential (this is the academic way of saying that you’re giving someone an A but don’t think they should get cocky).

This is not surprising. I probably write up to a million words a year, even if a lot of my output gets thrown out (metaphorically; I keep everything unless I lose it) or winds up little tiny things that don’t go anywhere.

One of the reasons why creative writing slays me is that I don’t do it very often relative to everything else. I like blogging and writing about stuff in general. I suppose in school we’d call it “expository writing” or “descriptive writing”, though in reality those terms mean about as much as a liar’s promise.

The Epiphany

And that’s where my epiphany comes in. I was pacing around reading (gotta get those step goals for the fitness tracker), and I had a sudden realization that the secret to mastering creative writing is the same as the secret to mastering the sort of writing that I feel pretty comfortable with.

You get your butt in seat and you do it.

I realized while reading about paragraph length of all things that there was some truth here.

You see, other than when I fret over an intro paragraph (always the most important point of your work) or a conclusion containing or not containing something, I’ve put any thoughts of proper paragraph length aside for a very long time.

This is technically untrue; as a teacher I’d lecture students on how to write a formula paragraph, but I never had to think about it when I was writing. I just knew whether I’d said what had to be said in a paragraph.

And that’s something that I need to figure out about creative writing. I’m comfortable with my paragraphs, but I’m not comfortable with my stories. Yet.

So that’s what I’m working toward. The only way there is to do, to keep doing, and to do again.

The Dust Part 2: Arrival

I think that before I really started working on the Dust, I hadn’t really thought of a whole lot of the setting, and then I just sort of made it up as  I went along.

You can tell that there’s some inspirations in mythological tales for the names, but there’s also elements of American culture and other things as well.

Irkalla is mythological, Nuada and Atreon are references to things (I think? Atreon may just be “It sounds cool”), and Aspera is based off of the Latin word for hope (or, more particularly, the saying “Ad astra per aspera”).

Extropy is named after the transhuman Extropian movement, while Providence, Liberty, and Opportunity are all inspired by early American trappings.

The little intro exposition for this piece is inspired by Biblical stylings, and it was really the first effort I made in defining the setting’s boundaries outside of the titular dust of New Haven. I don’t remember if this was the first or second story I wrote after Grace, but I think it came really close after.

Eynsford is inspired in name by the Eynsford-Hills of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”, though I don’t know if there’s really any significance to the choice of the name. I’ve sort of taken to picturing him like Sadavir Errinwright (spelling?) from The Expanse, for no particular reason other than the beginnings of their names and their similar political role.

The focus of this story was to introduce who the Federals were in a relatively “objective” light. They’re the “villains” of the setting, but I wanted them to not be mustachio-twirling damsel kidnappers. They provide for their own, but they’re also willing to foster conflict and perpetuate themselves where they aren’t needed.

Apparently I’m really fond of Bradford as a military name. I feel like that’s due to the influence of a particular historical figure, but I can’t put a face to the name, as it were. Likewise, I think I got Mikkelsen from a random name generator, but I at least remember Mads Mikkelsen’s existence.

Or it could just be that I went with the first Swedish/Scandinavian name I could think of, though Rose isn’t a particularly Nordic name.


And it was recorded among the first arrivals that there were six-hundred thousand among the frozen. Around the binary stars of Aspera, there were six colonies: Irkalla on New Haven closest to the sun,  Providence and Liberty on Jefferson, Extropy on Narcissus, Opportunity on Atreon, and Dublin-II on Nuada.

Eynsford leaned back in his chair and sighed. Despite his triumph, he could not help but feel a bittersweet twinge of regret in the founding of a new empire. “So it is settled then?”

Aspera had never seen a real war. They were conspiring to shatter that peace. Such had been the vogue on old Earth, or so he had been told. Such things were far in the past.

Of course, so were shooting wars.

The reply came from a gravel voice with the patience of one rarely interrupted underpinned by the urgency of one used to making demands. “The coalition is solid. There is no reason for us not to cooperate. After all, New Haven’s resources are barred from us if we lack a military capable of taking them.”

“You always worry, Secretary Eynsford. Our worlds are more than capable of coming together to mutual prosperity.” Rose Mikkelsen was Aspera’s most dangerous woman, whether or not Extropy would formally pledge allegiance to her, and Patrick Eynsford had to admit that he had thought of her more than once when he was nursing a glass of wine alone after a diplomatic hearing. Her red dress was the sort of thing one expected to see at a gala, not the negotiating table, but he couldn’t help staring just a little.

That was her intention.

“I’ve already prepared replicants for deployment. Give the signal, and we’ll launch a precision strike on Irkalla and bring New Haven to its knees—if we can count on Providence for naval cover.” General Bradford’s rough voice and straightforwardness only added weight to Eynsford’s sorrow, and he found himself reflexively reaching to pour his new cabal drinks. The rumor was that the general was a quiet drunk. Eynsford felt the pressure of wearing his face very distinctly now. It was bad enough to want Mikkelsen and be so close to her without a chance of even the smallest romance, but to have Bradford cheerfully buying into the cult of destruction was too much for his stomach.

He poured each glass himself, passing them to the heads of state from the whole system—barring, of course, the unfortunates of New Haven. They would find out what had transpired the next day, when they found out that they had been condemned to die. He raised his glass, hoping that the poison inside would work on him the same effects their venomous coalition would work on Aspera.

“To the Aspera Federation, may it last beyond our days.”

The estimates had been wrong. Irkalla was not difficult to assail, and each combat replicant was worth dozens of New Haven’s soldiers. The first newsfeeds showed that the new Federal forces were capable of covering the ball of red dust with an ocean of blood.

The elites rejoiced, proclaiming a mission accomplished and anointing their followers with promises of land to settle and minerals to exploit. In exchange for New Haven’s resources, the Federation promised order, law, uniformity. Each citizen would be equal because of their inherent dignity, not their altered carbon sheathes, being the metric of their worth. The tiny settlements squabbling over water and held in the grasp of cybernetic warlords would see their world turned into an oasis and a model for the system.

But when they went on the broadcasts to announce the annexation of New Haven, the rebels punctuated it with violence. He supposed that frauds built on other frauds ought to be repaid in such a way, but the opposition raised a sleeping anger within him: the spite a booted foot feels as it plants its heel into a dissident skull.

Eynsford remembered the confusion in the moment. A bomb had gone off on the stage, turning his earlier proclamation of the Federation’s era of peace and stability into an ironic echo of itself. Bradford and Mikkelsen disappeared in the blast as he had been walking back to the seats. Only the premature detonation had saved his life, not that he had very much of his body left. The doctors were patching him back up, and the vat would regrow his flesh, but he felt he had lost something else, something more important.

The rebels had taken responsibility immediately,  wearing the labels heaped on them by the media with pride and defiance. On New Haven the Federal garrison was hit with a viral attack. Footage circulated of men and women clawing at their faces, the pirate streams reaching out across the mesh on waves of fascination and horror. An image of a soldier who had wandered into the dust and fallen in the scorching sun, his scarred body blackened by the heat was seared in Eynsford’s mind, a haunting image that was the talk of every newscaster on Jefferson.

The victim’s family could not be reached for comment, but that wasn’t enough to buy silence. Everyone had an opinion, and for a while it looked like the Federation might bring its guns on itself, dividing into cells and organs of disparate interest.

It was too early to be sure that the bombing was even a rebel act. There were factions operating behind the scenes, and there were many inside the Federation who would be happy to open up the higher echelons of control for themselves.

Eynsford wanted to cry in the cold blue nebula of the healing pod.

This was the image that had broken his sleep for months. From the first talk of exploiting the reserves of New Haven to the formation of the Federal state. Such a structure was beyond men and women, beyond humanity, somehow greater and more horrible and more terrible. The factories were retooled for war, their labors turned from plowshares to swords. The replicants were too few. Boys and girls were sent to war alongside them.

For every rebel they killed, more took up the banner. The most fervent agitators proclaimed that New Haven’s resources would be opened up all the greater with the extermination of its people. Instead of the expected capitulation, bombs went off on Jefferson and Atreon, the wages of sin. Eynsford’s people paid the price.

Eynsford had become accustomed to eating alone. At the state dinners there were too many ghosts, seats left unfilled by faction or by death. He tried to remember that his intentions had been pure, that this was the natural outcome of unification. The next day would show that it was worth it, that the small pieces of the system came together for a greater machine.

The filet mignon turned to ash with the sorrow. There had been no great intention, no great hope. Just the promise of opportunity. Each grasping hand reached for a rung above it, until the only move left was to claw past others for a clear hold.

He thought of the latest news, a troop transport holed by accidental friendly fire. Fifteen sons and daughters of the Federation who would not be returning home. He had killed them. Eynsford pushed the thought out of his head. Stray railgun rounds had killed them, nothing more or less than the uncaring calculations of a universe in which humanity was an accidental combination of particles and energy.

He wondered when his glass had become empty, and filled it once again. The bitterness washed the ash away, but it was only temporary. The next bite was just as barren as its predecessor. He got up and looked out the window. The light from outside washed over him, casting shadowy reflections across the polished steel surfaces of the flat.

Despite his folly, Providence looked the same as it had for decades before his birth. The same towers slid out of the ground and into the sky, their inhabitants had circulated like blood through the living organism of the colony, but the bones stood tall. The bombings had stopped in recent months. The rebels withdrew to their homefront. It would be over soon.

The security system gently chimed to announce authorized access. Eynsford didn’t bother looking to the doorway. He knew what had come for him. The first shot missed, shattering the window.

They hadn’t even bothered to send a professional. A tear rolled downward, battered by the wind. The second shot pushed him forward, and he felt the sensation of weightlessness.

The Dust Part 1: Grace

The first part of the Dust collection was inspired by the dust storms that occasionally sweep through the Phoenix area.

Out in the middle of the desert there’s not really anything to stop the winds and the sun, so the city winds up getting some pretty big storms. Monsoon season is pretty dramatic, but the dust storms are tremendous by themselves.

Continue reading “The Dust Part 1: Grace”

Trying to Write a Character with Meaning

I’ve been trying to keep on top of writing recently, and while I’ve been fairly bad about actually writing anything fictional (at least on purpose), I’ve been doing some musing about why a lot of the stories that I’m coming up with the seeds for turn out to be non-starters.

Continue reading “Trying to Write a Character with Meaning”

Fall of Babylon

in myriad ten-fold they stood to watch their leader

“trust in me” he said, holding armageddon in his hand

so they trusted, looking to the skies with war straightening their spines each held a lance and each wore a crown because they were free as they followed their leader they wore crowns

they did not know God or the cosmos or the order of creation they did not know the path to peace nor did they care to learn it and they stood with their backs straight and their souls empty

only the wailing of the children left behind remained

Enjoying Writing

Yesterday I talked a little about writing as a Stoic, which is all about self-discipline and making choices because they’re what you should do to become your ideal writer.

Today I’m going to talk about how to kick back as a writer and really enjoy it (or at least the things that help me destress, relax, and create a “contented plan” for the future when I am writing).

Continue reading “Enjoying Writing”

Gods of Babylon

They worship gods of Babylon, noble in vain self-conception.

Creating edifices of self-destruction, they cast their bones into the sky, sacrificing the stars for mastery of the world.

Profane flame burns in their chests, and nothing supports their feet.

Under a sunless sky they will meet eternity, weeping at their loss, purging their minds and bodies of what they knew in their first breath.

They worship, and come away unfulfilled.

Their temples are hollow, their eyes soulless, their hopes dashed on the rocks and shattered into the splinters of a thousand wasted words.

And still they worship gods of Babylon.