Thursday, March 4, 2010

Writing With the King

In January I made the vow that I was going to 'get you to write' this year.  At the time I had no idea how I was going to pull that off.  I still don't.  As Indiana Jones said in Raiders, "Plan?  I'm making this up as I go...

So far this has involved posting a lot of writing advice and links to writing advice written by others.  But here's the thing... it's all bullshit.  Every word of it.  No advice applies to every writer in every situation and most of it only applies to the person who wrote it under the universal caveat "This is what worked for me...".

I've read a lot of books of writing advice.  I did this partly in my former capacity as a bookseller (the travel and reference section was my beat for awhile) and partly as a blogger reviewing these things, but mostly I did it because I like them.  I really do.  In all their contradictory quirky glory, they have a certain charm.  Most of them are at least half biography and there's comfort in knowing that the backgrounds and inner workings of the authors I look up to are just as goofy as I am.

Novels are generally so polished by the time they hit the shelves that the general reader has but a fleeting impression of the man or woman behind the words.  It's a bit like seeing the deck but not the shuffle and assuming that the cards are always in that neat package.  We touch the author's minds when they are at their best (it is hoped) and only in fleeting interviews and at readings do we get to glimpse the authors.  Writing guides show us that even the  best authors start out with the same tools we do.

Last week I posted a link and reaction to a list of lists, the accumulated writing wisdom of the great and the good all gathered in one place.  It really is a great list, and contradicts itself regularly and well worth the time spent reading it.  I find it heartwarming how often the lists contradict one another and the breadth of advice offered is breathtaking. But it underlines certain facts which bear out the central thesis of this blog (if it has one) that there's no magical path between "I want to write" and "I have written" except to sit down and start putting words on a page.

If a writer's to-do list or writing guide cannot be summed up as "Butt in chair, fingers on keys" then ditch it; it's not worth reading.

I don't actually recommend you spend a lot of time reading writing guides (certainly not as many as I have).  One of the reasons why I periodically recommend one here is because there are too many out there and there's such a mindnumbing sameness to them that it's easy to miss the gems.  I talk to agents and editors who tell me that too few aspiring writers spend too little time reading them, but I'd wager that as many aspiring writers spend too much time reading them.  At some point you have to put down the writing book and write your book.

And go easy on the bullshit.  Even if it's mine.

Some few of them are wonderfully light on the bull.  Among the many writing guides on the shelf next to my writing chair, there are three that still have crisp new covers.  They look like that because I keep giving away my copies to friends and other writers I meet who've never read them. There are many good ones out there, but I feel that these are the most honest and straightforward of the bunch and also the most fun to read.  (Humor is important to me in a writing guide.) I've reviewed two of them here: Telling Lies for Fun & Profit by Lawrence Block and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  The third is On Writing by Stephen King.

It's worth noting (or maybe it isn't) that as I sit writing this, an Eric Clapton/BB King song is playing overhead called 'Riding with the King'.  I'm not one to believe in omens, but I choose to take that as a good sign.  I want to spend a bit of time with you, exploring the inside of Stephen King's head.

Don't worry, it's not as scary as it sounds.

We're going to talk a bit about grammar, the value of popular fiction, the ways in which personal experience bleeds into our writing and the value of drawing a decent bedside table.  And along the way I think we should do our due diligence and perform the writing exercises and post the results.  I'm going to whether you do it or not.  So I invite you to come write with me and take a ride with the King.

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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).