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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

Lessons from Stephen King, Part One

Lessons from Stephen King, Part One

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Four Elements
I've been reading Stephen King's On Writing (well, okay, actually I've been listening to a recording of King himself doing an unabridged reading of the book). It's written as a memior, but contains some useful gems of advice and wisdom for writers.

Lessons I've noted so far:

  • There will always be someone, somewhere, who will try to make you feel bad about the kind of writing you’re doing, whatever it is.
  • A response from an editor that says “This is good, but it’s not for us; do try again,” is a sign that you’re on the verge of breaking in.
  • The writer’s first impression of his/her characters is sometimes dead wrong.
  • It’s generally a mistake to stop a piece of writing because it has become difficult or unpleasant to finish.

Those last two lessons King learned while writing Carrie. His description of the high school acquaintances, deceased by the time he began writing the novel, the memory of whom greatly informed his understanding of his protagonist, had me in tears. He surely is a powerful writer.
  • Wow, that was some advise! I was startled to read that Carrie was based on former high school acquaintances. I think Carrie was the first novel he ever wrote. He caused such a sensation with Carrie, Christine, etc. I read some very early short stories of his, long before his first novel. . One very strange one still sticks in my mind. In that, the TV soap bored housewife accidently shoots herself in the head. Didn't hurt, so she stuck a band aid over her forehead. Afterwards, she would absently play with the wound, sticking a pencil in it. That story was at times funny and grotesque, and gave me nightmares!

    Anyway, some very sage advise, I must say.
    • Hi Rachel. I haven't read Carrie, but I'm interested now. King's original inspiration for the story was actually totally unrelated to the two acquaintances -- he was doing summer janitorial work in a high school and was cleaning the girl's shower room. But after he began working on the story (and after his wife told himnot to give up on it, to finish it instead), he related the ideas back them.
  • I'm glad you're enjoying the book as much as I did. He really does have some gems of wisdom, doesn't he?
  • It is a wonderful book, isn't it? People dismiss King as a hack writer, and I'll admit that he tends to run out of steam 7/8 of the way through his long works and just kind of slap an ending on them, but his short stories and novellas are works of art. Even in his longer stories, he has an incredible ability to paint the emotions, movements, and circumstances of his characters that makes you really feel for them as people, whether you approve of their personalities and choices or not.

    The fact that he would steal Jo and run away with her to a desert island if they didn't each have spouses and kids already is something else that endears him to me. His praise of her always makes me smile because of the enthusiasm he clearly has for her work.
    • Hi, Val! I love hearing from you.

      I must confess that this is the first King writing I've ever read. (I've seen movies, yeah, but that's not the same thing.) But what he says about writing makes so much sense that I think I'm going to read his fiction. He also seems to be fiercely honest about his own life and how it relates to his work, and I admire that.

      As far as stealing Jo is concerned, well, I'm closer to her age than he is... ;)
  • I'm *such* a Stephen King fan girl, even though I don't read horror. I loved this book because it's so straightforward and so common-sensical (is that a word? Not sure) I'm also enamoured with him because of the amazing charity work he has done for the people of northern Maine. The entire seventh floor of Bangor Medical Center is for pediatrics - and was funded by Tabitha and Stephen King. He also built a beautiful library for the city. Funny the affinity he's shown for JKR - not too many authors would be able to relate to the fame and the down-side of it.
    • Oh! On the subject of fame!

      e_cunningham highly recommends both The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing and The Marshall Plan Workbook. I was browsing the Workbook on Amazon, and I came across this wonderful passage:

      Some of the happiest and most fulfilled writers I know have reached what many would consider only a modest level of success -- success being the operative word. Early in their careers, these writers defined (consciously or unconsciously) what success would mean for them. What would it take for them to feel they had achieved what they'd set out to achieve? They established these criteria realistically and according to their own definitions of writing success, not according to the image of "best-selling author" that many "civilians" hold but which few writers actually achieve. When they attained this succes as they had defined it, they were fulfilled; they had "done it"; they were happy and at peace.

      Sad to say, in my years as an editor and agent, I have known a large number of novelists who have achieved the public's stereotypical view of writing success but who are not at peace, not happy or creatively fulfilled by what they have accomplished. In fact, they are anything but. They are perpetually unhappy, driven by a desire to be richer, more famous, to sell more and more books, to make their publishers love themmore. They are eaten up by envy of other writers' successes -- the best-seller lists they've appeared on, the attention their publishers give them and so on. If you asked these unhappy writers what they're aiming for, what would make them happy, they would have no answer because they don't really know; they've never stopped to figure out what success really means to them.

      • They established these criteria realistically and according to their own definitions of writing success, not according to the image of "best-selling author" that many "civilians" hold but which few writers actually achieve.

        I know I keep harping on Julia Cameron, but in her book The Artisit's Way, she actually walks you through exercises to help you figure out what success means to you (and where in your past that need came from). Maybe some people are naturally that self-enlightened, but not me. :)

        So I agree with this statement and understand what he's saying - hopefully the Marshall plan also has exercise to help the writer find that definition of success.
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