Despite being an aficionado of books and writing, almost everything I've learned about writing has come from actual human interaction. It took Virginia Kidd five years to get me to the point where she didn't have to retype my manuscripts before sending them to editors. Most of what I know about the grammar and structure of writing comes from her. These are things I have not forgotten:
"What ever you want to put between quotes is your business. Misspell, mispunctuate, have a blast. Once you're outside the quotes you're in public. One does not read insulting grammar."
"This document suffers an infusion of adverbs. One does not wish to see them or this manuscript again."
"People 'say' things. He 'said,' is all that is appropriate. People do not 'smirk' words, or 'sneer' words, they say them. We have returned insert title here. It is beyond repair. Write something in which dialog is spoken rather than extruded."
And my favorite, "Our new UPS man is simply eye candy. We put down your latest to enjoy his delivery technique and lost our place. Afraid insert title here just didn't hold our attention."
For ten years the female version of Strunk weighed my every written word. It was brutal on my ego. If anything could have been hammered into my thick skull, Virginia Kidd took the time to hammer it in. Perhaps those of you with liberal arts degrees experienced the same thing in your writing classes. As an electrical engineer, my writing never benefited from such scrutiny. And having it done by an icon of American science fiction was a blessing most writers never have.
I'm sure over the years there were hundreds, if not thousands of writing tidbits she passed on that would have turned me into a veritable Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had I been able to absorb them all. Alas, now some 16 years after our initial meeting, those listed above are the ones I can recall consciously. More lurk, possibly, in the volumes of paper correspondence we exchanged. If anyone writes my biography those will be uncovered.
Readers will scratch their heads. "How could he have gone so wrong with all of this? He deserved what he got (nothing)."
Before I worked with V (and now that she's gone), guidance of my authorship came from books. Writing books are to me what exercise machines are to fat people. No matter the frequency or mental volume with which my logical brain informs me that buying writing books only makes me poorer, the compulsive addict in me spews bald lies to my guts that buying them will make me better. And there's a certain sense of accomplishment one gets strolling to the counter at Barnes and Noble and plopping down the pile you've harvested from the reference section. My wife was convinced I had an addiction for proclaiming the sincerity of my desire to write well-formed prose to 19-year old bookstore clerks because between 1981 and 1989 I bought a copy of "The Elements of Style" every year.
For all the good writing books have done me, hers is a valid observation. (And despite buying them so frequently, I cannot lay a finger on a single copy of "Elements".)
Perhaps as it is with politics, we tend to like the writing books that support the poor habits we have developed over the years. Perhaps some of them are just better written than others. Whatever the reason, there have been only two books on writing that have had enough impact on me I can remember something about them days, if not years later.
The first is "Wild Mind" by Natalie Goldberg. I read half that book at a lodge on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The next morning, while my pregnant wife sat in a lawn chair at the rim and tried to find enough air at 8700 feet to keep herself conscious, I hiked alone to Plateau Point, and then back. That night and the next day, aching from the climb, I read the other half.
What I remember from "Wild Mind" is this:
- If you write your heart-wrenching, tear jerking magnum opus, and are sitting in front of your typewriter (in those days we used them) having to wipe the tears from your own eyes, then tear up the manuscript and start over, because it is most certainly trash.
It never occurred to me to write about ordeal of that hike, or to use my tribulation as the basis for a story. I had broken every tenderfoot rule in the boy scout handbook: My brand new, unbroken-in hiking boots had given me terrible seeping blisters, I was dizzy from dehydration because I only brought a single canteen on a 15-mile desert hike with a massive climb. My ears were pockmarked in miniscule pustules because my baseball cap didn't shade them.
All I remember is that if I wrote something sad, and it made me cry while I was writing it, I hadn't done it right. If ever there was a sorry excuse for a writer wannabe, it's got to be a guy who nearly kills himself and doesn't think it's worth writing about.
Oh, and I also remember her seemingly vivid description of her first lesbian sexual experience, which wasn't actually vivid, but masterfully constructed to keep all the details in the mind of the reader.
For the next nineteen years I read many books on writing, forgetting them completely as my eyes left the final period of the last page. Because I am an engineer, I loaded my computer with writer-assistant software. My head was swimming with technical detail--plotting devices, smearing decks of 5"x7" file cards across my living room floor, protagonists, antagonists, moderation of paragraph length, modulation of sentence length, vocabulary, description, realistic dialog. Etc.
Exercises: write three pages every morning. Write two pages every night. Force yourself. Write longhand. Keep a journal.
Axioms: If the gun appears in Act I, it must be fired by Act III. (In the last two years I have heard this from at least eight sources, starting with riverrun.)
One thing is certain, if you're reading about writing, if you're over analyzing your writing, you are not writing. Trying to become a better writer by reading about it is about as effective as trying to become a better piano player by reading about it. The only way to get good at something is to do it repeatedly. Emulate a model. Evaluate your progress toward that ideal. Honestly. Modify your performance to get yourself closer to the ideal.
If you're an amateur playing the piano, it's pretty easy to tell if you sound like Van Kilburn or not. You can make great strides alone, and then you need someone to drill you on technique and to give you the secrets. If you're an amateur and you're writing, it can be difficult to tell if you sound like Hemingway, or Joyce, or Raymond Chandler, or Dickens, or Joan Didion, or Jacqueline Suzanne because the little you in your head knows what you wrote and so you think you sound just like them. But when the act of reading puts you into someone else's head, that person thinks you sound like the kid in the fourth year of high school reading his "What I did this Summer" theme in front of class.
We all need help learning to write. Every last one of us.
I was having a nice discussion with a noder and she said to me: "STOP. You must buy Stephen King's 'On Writing' right now. You must read it. Don't take another step." Or something like that. Through the miracle of the internet, the moment I received that e-mail I ordered the book.
It turned out to be the best book on writing I have ever read. And I wonder why I say that, because honestly, Stephen doesn't say one thing I haven't read in another book somewhere. Perhaps it's in the way he presents it. Or perhaps, more likely, his methodology is exactly the same as what I have evolved to over all these 30 or so years I've been writing. Politically speaking, people most enjoy listening to (or reading) political pundits who have opinions that most closely resemble their own. People don't actually want to be convinced of something--that requires conflict, and most people watching Sean Hannity on TV would rather take his side and watch him verbally abuse someone with the opposite opinion. My guess is that if there was a show where Sean Hannity was summarily eviscerated daily by someone with the opposing viewpoint, the original viewers would stop watching and a whole new crew would replace them.
So it must be with books about writing.
I have, until now, read exactly zero Stephen King books. Horror is not my "thing". Since H.P. Lovecraft named the "unnamable" without giving it a name, I've lost interest. There are only so many flesh-starved monsters, or vampires, or chain saw murderers, or psychic killers, or dream demons, that I can take. The real world has enough plausible horror for me. There is no need to go looking to my imagination for more.
And I went into the King book presuming I'd get the whole spiel about putting plot elements onto cards and then shuffling them around and tossing out a certain percentage. The whole thing about second drafts, and then thirds. The whole thing about writing something for years and years in loops of every increasing refinement.
In the words of the master of superficiality--yadda.
Nah. He says (everything that follows is my paraphrase of his words), "pshaw." Well, actually, he says, "Fuck that."
He says, "Look, here's what I do." and then between the lines -- I have 52 novels published, and lots of movies made, countless other essays and book reports and editorials. You want to argue with me? Have at it. By the way, my next novel comes out in December and the movie version in 2005.
He says, quite my paraphrase -- "Some people say you won't be the next (such and such) writing that way. I say, what the hell do you need to be the next (such and such) for? If you're writing to impress somebody, you're going to be in sad sad shape because in the end, people have to be willing to be impressed and it doesn't matter if you're good or not. By the way, the people you have to impress to be called the next Hemingway are really good at not being impressed even if you are the next Hemingway, where the people who enjoyed Cujo were having fun at the beach."
He says -- "There are a whole lot of really crummy writers. There's a smaller amount of just plain good writers. And then there is the upper 0.0001% who are the geniuses (Joyce, Hemingway, etc.) Despite conventional wisdom, if you work hard, and you have talent and you're crummy, you might get to be a good writer. Then books like this will help you. If you don't have any talent, try music. And if you're already a goddamned genius, then you don't need help. Good luck. We're all jealous as hell."
He says -- "Plotting devices? You know what I do? I bring all my characters into a room. I set up a situation. Then I let them go and see what happens. They tell me the story. Most of the time, I have no idea how the book is going to end when I start it."
Dear lord, you don't know how happy I am to hear that.
He says -- "I write the first draft of a book in three months. If it takes longer, I know it's going to suck. Your mileage will vary. But then I put the draft away for no less than six weeks and forget about it. I don't start the second draft until it's far enough out of my mind that it seems, partly, like someone else wrote it."
He says -- "Where do these ideas come from?" And then he tells the story of his life, of growing up reasonably poor, of working in a laundry, cleaning maggots off festering restaurant linen when he graduated, of getting married and not having enough money to buy antibiotics for his newborn baby when she had an ear infection. Etc.
This means -- have an actual life. The ideas come from actual life. If you're not stressed in some way, you get nothing.
He says -- "I wrote three novels under the influence of alcohol, illegal drugs, and illegally obtained prescription drugs. My wife organized an intervention and saved my life. Irrespective of how successful you think Hemingway was, substances wreck you. You will die. It won't improve your writing. It may not destroy your writing. You might write well right up until your heart stops."
La lah de dah.
Then he proceeds to tear apart the writing abilities of several bestselling authors.
I think-- Woah. Steve. I thought they sucked, too.
He says -- "When you pick up something and say to yourself, 'this totally SUCKS, I can do better,' then why the hell don't you? The difference between them and you is elbow grease. The difference between them and you is encouragement. All writers need their egos stroked. All writers fall apart without encouragement. Get some."
(Again, my paraphrasing)
He says -- "You won't believe me. I don't care. I don't do this for the money. I do it because I love it, and people give me money afterward. If you're writing to impress somebody, if you're writing to make money, good luck. Most writers are poor. I was. I got lucky."
Suddenly, I'm liking Stephen King. Suddenly I'm thinking--here's a guy who just outright deserves to be where he is. He had nothing, and now he has a whole lot. Millions of people like his writing. He got run over by a van in 1999 and almost died, and started writing again while his hips and legs were still being held together by pins that stuck out of his body.
If he didn't start writing again, he would die.
Yeah. Steve. That's it. That's just fucking it.
I imagine him saying, as I close the rear cover and put the book down: "Any questions? No? Good. Get the hell out of here, I'm busy."
There's only so much you're going to learn from a book on writing, especially one you agree with. I'm not going to change one bloody thing as a result of reading "On Writing". And I'm still going to miss Virginia's tearing me apart at every turn. Worrying about her blue pen made me write better. It did.
I'm done with books on writing, now. Thanks for taking the time to write that one, Stephen. And thanks, fair noder, for recommending it.
I dunno what happens next.