Monday, May 9, 2011

"On Writing"

For those of you don't know, On Writing is a book by Stephen King, part autobiographical, part anecdotal, part instructional on his experiences with the craft, and the craft itself.  I'm only about two thirds of the way through, a good several pages into the second part of the book where he starts to talk about writing itself.

Even though i don't boast King's achievements, I thought I would share some of my own thoughts on the craft alongside some of his.

Getting Good:
The only way to become a good writer is to read a lot and write even more.  That sentiment is echoed in several areas of the book, and it is true...with an asterisk.  King has a hatred of television, which makes sense because it is a large competitor of his, and it requires neither the effort to produce, nor the effort to enjoy, that a novel does.  Still to present it as completely useless is being a bit bigoted in my opinion.  A large part of writing anything is the idea behind it, maybe it's most of writing.  And ideas can come from anywhere.  Television and movies can spawn the next great novel just as easily as the last one can.  Personally I derive a lot of my inspiration from movies.  While there is certainly a different method of storytelling, I think that the exposure to such a visual medium only helps me.  The chief goal in writing is to create a picture in the reader's head, and what better to derive inspiration from than pictures themselves.  No harm comes from striving for the untainted sweetness of perfection.

Volume:
King writes 2,000 words a day, which is considered to be a fairly sizable amount.  He recommends at least half that.  My schedule is not nearly as consistent.  There will be day's when I'll manage thirty pages and 20,000 words, and days when I'll manage one paragraph and 200 words.  On average, while working on a project, I would guess that I come in between two and three thousand on average.  I make no such recommendations on length, but I will say that writing every day will never hurt.  Ideas can come and go quickly so the more you get down on paper and out of your head, the better off you are, and the better off your work is.

Quality:
King said something that I agree with wholeheartedly on the quality of one's work.  I forget the exact line, but I'll tell you the story.  King thought his first novel Carrie was shit covered shit with shit sprinkles.  He trashed the project and had it not been for his wife he might still be standing in front of apathetic students instead of rows of naked supermodels.  (I imagine that's what he does in his spare time.)  You CANNOT be a critic while you're writing.  That's what editing is for.  Even if you think what you're writing is complete garbage, you've got to write it.  I can't count the number of times I've put stuff down knowing that it was turd mignon and that I'd be red penning the hell out of it, only to come back and be relatively impressed.  And even if it is still turd mignon when you come back, sometimes you need crappy ideas and crappy writing to be an intermediate step that leads you to something better.  It is INFINITELY better to put something down that might be shit and move on with the work, than to wait until the perfect pages unfold themselves.  They won't.

Editing:
"An artists work is never complete, merely abandoned."  Since I paraphrased the shit out of that quote, let's attribute it to me.  There will always be shit you want to fix, passages you think could be better, ideas left to explore.  Editing is good, it makes for better writing, but there comes a point in which one must lay down the sharpie.  This is easier for some than others.  I know people who will edit their stuff 30-40 times which is just ridiculous to me.  I usually get around 8-12 edits in before I'm sick of doing it (which is kind of impressive because I hate editing).

There is one trick that is invaluable when it comes to editing.  Reading it aloud.  If you have trouble reading it aloud, it needs to be fixed.  You can't fumble awkwardly through anything and call it good writing.

"When someone tells you something is unclear in your work, they are most often right.  When they tell you how to fix it, they are most often wrong."  Unknown.  Probably the biggest issue in writing is having a perfect picture in your head of what you're scrawling, only to have your reader not understand it, or worse, misinterpret.  Readers are great at telling what's confusing, what's inconsistent, and what's contradictory in a story.  They are not, however, great at offering suggestions at how those things could be rectified.  Why?  It's not their god damn story.

Getting Published:
This is where I've fallen short so far, and while King hasn't much of anything on it yet, I assume he'll come to it sooner or later.  Literary Agents are complete fucking morons who are no better at choosing what should be published than a trained monkey would be.  If they were any good at their jobs, J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer wouldn't have gotten a combined 24 rejections and then gone on to sell over 500 million books.  King himself wouldn't have gotten a mailbox full of rejections.  For every published writer out there, there's probably a hundred Agents and Publishers that thought their stuff wasn't good enough.

One of the things King has said on the subject is that a hundred rejections isn't anytime to quit, and after a thousand it's only time to start considering the notion.  Getting published, so far as I can tell, is a war of attrition.  Quality is subjective, there is someone out there who will like your stuff, there are publishers who will take a chance on an unknown author because no one really knows which work they might buy for $2,000 and sell to a major publisher for $100,000 (which is what happened with the first Harry Potter novel).

Post Publication:
Again, no experience here, but it is something I have thought a lot about.  I'm realistic, I know that the average first contract for an author is around $2,000, that royalties are 6-8%, and that very few novels hit quadruple figures.  In short, you need to work for your money.  But getting published automatically makes you famous, even in a small regard.  There are a number of opportunities that become available to publicize yourself.  Offer to do book signings at local bookstores.  (Everyone wants to plaster HOLY SHIT LOCAL AUTHOR! signs everywhere and drive in customers.)  Try to talk to aspiring writers at your alma mater, get in touch with your old teachers and offer to give a guest lecture when they start a writing unit.  Stand on a street corner and start throwing your books at pedestrians like they're grenades and it's France circa 1917.  Get on local news stations, or the local paper (because they seriously have nothing better to cover).  Do something mannnn.

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