Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bedside Tables -- Writing with the King, Part Two

NOTE: This is part two of a sort of live-blogging of the book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King. Why would I do such a thing?  Click Here here for the introduction/explanation.

Peanuts creator Charles M. Schultz once wrote a forward for a Calvin & Hobbes collection in which he praised Bill Watterson's ability to draw bedside tables.  "Bill Watterson draws wonderful bedside tables.  I admire that.  He also draws great water splashes and living room couches and chairs and lamps and yawns and screams and all the things that make a comic strip fun to look at."

Stephen King draws amazing bedside tables.

Monsters are one thing, but I've often wondered about the ability King has to make us unsettled by the relatively commonplace.  I think it has to do with his ability to draw the bedside tables so clearly.  King's grasp of the real world is so great that he can recreate it for us in all its banality.  This ability to capture the commonplace is his greatest asset and what allows his best work to shine.

Perhaps owing to the periodic disruptions of his childhood idylls by the constant moves and adversities of his hardscrabble upbringing, King as a refined sense of disruption.  He creates a world of complacency and normalcy where his characters begin their journey with everyday problems, ensconced in the daily dreams we know so well.  Because King knows better than anyone that any disruption is measured in relation to these things.  The more comfortable yesterday was, the greater the psychological impact of tomorrow's disruptions.

King never comes out and tells us this, but all of his focus in the first few chapters of the writing section harken to the enforced simplicity of composition and prose championed by grammar mavens mssr's Strunk & White, as well as the bards of King's generation: Hemingway, Steinbeck and Salinger.  Through the chapter on dialogue, King focuses on creating a reality that is clearly defined and drawn in the simplest strokes, offering the reader the maximum opportunity to fill in the blanks themselves, investing in the story.

It is the simplest recipe for compelling, character-driven fiction.  The more invested we are in the normal lives of the characters, the more we pull for them to get through whatever hardship the author has in store.  And the more we are affected by their disruptions and peril.

My feelings about King's writing advice are sometimes mixed.  He presents his opposition to plotting a novel in stark terms just shy of good versus evil.  His absolute conviction that he can throw a bunch of characters into a situation and let them find their own way out is compelling.  And this approach has brought him some fiction that is sublime and some fiction that (I think) falls apart ere the conclusion.  Much of the former certainly could not be improved by imposing a plot outline upon it.  But I'm given to think that a lot of the latter could have been improved had he a bit more of a roadmap to follow from page 1 to page 501.

If the book had been written by a "straight" thriller writer, I'm sure we would have been given the opposite viewpoint and as is so often the case when I am presented with an extreme viewpoint, I tend to think that there's a happy medium between the two.  A 'sweet spot' if you will where the balance is achieved.

And while it may sound arrogant for me of few bylines to contradict the writing advice of a lifetime member of the New York Times bestseller's list, I think that every writing book should, by law, be required to bear a warning label: "Actual mileage may vary."  The only single bit of writing advice that is applicable in all situations and to all writers is "Sit in chair, put words on page."  (And I'm told that the chair is optional.) 

Oh, and read.  I will happily and wholeheartedly endorse King's urging to never stop reading and that those who don't read have no business writing.  I'm reminded of Twain's maxim that "Those who won't read have no advantage of those who can't."  Failure to read means you have no idea what's already been done, and like a driver who watches his GPS instead of the road, you may get where your going, but you'll hit every pothole, pedestrian and cliche between you and your goal.

Next: Writing exercises!

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).