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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Discussing Published Hooks & Books » "On Writing" by Stephen King

   
Author Topic: "On Writing" by Stephen King
History
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I'm (finally) reading "On Writing" by Stephen King.

It is fun on many levels:

1. It is a memoir

2. It contains good writing pearls, including:

Never use a passive verb and never (or nearly never) use adverbs.
Also never use many words when one will do, but avoid pretentious stilted words merely to show your erudition (see what I mean?).

3. It also mentions my next door neighbor Dr. David Brown by name. Dave's the orthopedic surgeon who reconstructing Mr. King's pelvis when he was hit by a van a decade ago. I still chuckle when Dave was over the house and shared that the night he was in the ER and OR with Mr. King, Stephen jokingly asked if Dave was a fan or a critic. Dave, who is a great surgeon and his hobbies, and side interests, are surgery and surgery, had to admit he had never read a single novel, short story, or even a single word written by Mr. King. Later, he received a signed galley proof of "Bag of Bones" and asked me what he should do with it. I told him it's junk and I'd take it off his hands.....no, wait, that was the voice of my yetzer hara (evil inclination) inside my head. I actually said it would be very valuable to collectors and he could sell it or keep it safe.

I recommend "On Writing" to Forum members, particularly if you're a fan or have interest in Mr. King's experience becoming a published author. I met him many years ago and he is (or was) as unpretentious as this memoir depicts.

Respectfully,

Dr. Bob


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Dark Warrior
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I've always had that in the back of my head as a future read, but have always heard mixed reviews.

quote:
"Also never use many words when one will do, but avoid pretentious stilted words merely to show your erudition"

I thought the same thing when reading the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Despite needing a thesaurus that is one of my favorite series.


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BenM
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It's high on my to-read list, though by 'read' I mean 'listen' as I'd like to buy the audiobook (being read by Stephen King). One of these days I really should stop thinking about ordering it and just order it
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Wordcaster
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From previous threads, I think there are many who have read this book (myself included). It is a nice blend of memoir and writerly advice. King was also my childhood favorite author and I think I read every one written pre-1995. I haven't read anything recent by him, however.
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Tiergan
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Its a good book and a good read. While reading I remember the impression of don't worry so much on the rules, but the story as a whole, where a lot of writing books concentrate on the rules.
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LDWriter2
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Tiergan, Dean Wesley Smith, in his teaching mode, has stated that you need to know the rules before you can break them, but once you do know them break them.
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LDWriter2
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quote:

Never use a passive verb and never (or nearly never) use adverbs.
Also never use many words when one will do, but avoid pretentious stilted words merely to show your erudition (see what I mean?).

I have heard that from other source; obviously I'm having problems with all three, even though I haven't done much with adverbs yet. I have tried to cut down on passive verbs but evidently not nearly enough.

However, as a reader I don't see much difference between passive and active lines.

He was reading while she yelled and vented

Is to me as a reader not that much different from

He read as she yelled and vented.

Of course those are very short examples but I've been gotten after for even short passive sentences.

[This message has been edited by LDWriter2 (edited May 06, 2011).]


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JohnColgrove
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It's as I say, good writers learn the rules, great writers learn to break them.
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KayTi
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King's book has some great tips, definitely worth the read/listen. BenM, reserve it at your library, stat!

I personally found some of his memoir a bit much for me (I'm a speculative fiction reader, don't much care for the grit of real life, lol) so I skimmed and moved to the writing topics. Very very very very interesting, many bits worth taking note of and trying out in your own works. Definitely one of the most hands-on, least pretentious writing books out there.


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Robert Nowall
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An account of (I think) one of his fellow-high-school-students as inspiration for Carrie, didn't do wonders for my writing, but did make me wonder---what kind of jerk is this Stephen King person? This wasn't some fictional character, but a real girl in real pain---what did he do about it? There was no way to tell from the narrative...
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jcavonpark
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I actually just posted another topic about this book and didn't realize this one existed, so I'll just rewrite what I said there.

I found it had some of the best advice on the craft, especially about the editing process. Specifically, King says what he does is, he writes his story (usually dedicates himself to writing 2000 words a day no matter what), sets the story aside for a few weeks, continues to write something else, then goes back to the first story and edits it. When he edits it, he's able to look at it from a different perspective (the ideas aren't fresh anymore and he has more or less forgotten the details of what he's written, so it feels like he's reading it for the first time). He edits it, then sends it out to his trusted beta-readers, who give him the necessary feedback, which he uses to revise a third time. After that, he's done, and he sends it out. He's done it this way for decades now, and it really sounds like one of the better ways to revise.

There's also a lot of advice on various other areas of the craft. King hates adverbs and believes "the road to hell is paved with adverbs". I find it to be true in most fiction, although first person narratives seem to accept them a little easier than third, which makes sense.

Personally, I skipped the parts about his childhood and focused more on his techniques and adult experiences, which included getting Carrie (his first novel) published and the trouble he had with writing it; the way he dealt with all the rejection letters and how he thought he'd never make it; and of course the car accident he was in which has since become a landmark incident in his life (he writes it very entertainingly). He also discusses the drugs!

Pretty cool read if you want great advice from a seasoned pro whose name has essentially become its own franchise. Highly recommended.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I remember reading a review of this book in which the reviewer pointed out that King seemed unaware of the fact that his characters and situations start out compelling, and therefore, his method of writing is already off to a powerful start--not something every writers who tries his methods can be sure of.
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TMR Beste
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I loved this book the first time I read it-sometime, a long time ago, can't remember when. I like his ideas, "When in doubt, go for the gross-out. Never reveal the evil character too quickly, 'cause as soon as the reader sees the evil character he is not nearly as scary. The unknown is scarier." or something like that. So true. I think back to the "Alien" movies, or any really frightening movie or book, "Signs"-as soon as we know the enemy, they are no longer so exciting.

I need to buy the darn thing and read it again. i am sure that there are little nuggets of wisdom that I have forgotten. King is such a visual writer. I can always 'see' the action. I absolutely loved "The Green Mile."


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LDWriter2
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Finally remembered to respond to this.


even though it may surprise some here I've read the whole book once, and the writing section once more totally and certain sections a third time. Not bad at all. Some of his advice is echoed by other pros so I would assume he is partially right.

Seriously, some of his advice may not work with every writer-each writer is different after all- but it is still something to study.


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JohnColgrove
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I agree with LDWriter. If you tried it out and it didn't work than you can say that you at least tried it.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Seems to me that the "go with the gross-out" advice is in King's book, DANSE MACABRE, and not in ON WRITING. It may be in both, but I remember it from the former and not the latter.
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wetwilly
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LDWriter, I think you misunderstood the advice about passive and active verbs. The two examples you listed are both active verbs. A passive verb is a grammatical construction in which the performer of the verb is the object of the sentence instead of the subject. For example:

"The fools were devoured by the aliens."

That's passive because the verb (devoured) is being performed by the object (aliens) and not the subject (fools). Another way of looking at it is the subject of the sentence is being acted upon instead of acting. To make it an active verb, you need to rearrange things so the subject of the sentence is performing the action:

"The aliens devoured the fools."

I think those two sentences do have a different flavor to them.


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LDWriter2
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I may be misunderstanding something. But I have been told -ing words and was-s had-s etc. make a sentence passive. You used were in the first sentence. From what I have understood that is what makes the sentence passive.

Rats, can't find the right link. But it was page from a certain university's grammar instructions. It listed all types of passive and active verbs. I'll look again later.

But to me even though your two sentences have a different flavor, they say the same thing and I wouldn't care which one was used. I would barely notice if at all.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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"To be" verbs, such as "was" and "are" do not make a sentence passive, though I see people here using the term "passive" to refer to such sentences. I have given up on trying to straighten people out about it.

"To be" verbs make a sentence STATIC as opposed to DYNAMIC.

As wetwilly has pointed out, static and dynamic are not the same thing as PASSIVE and ACTIVE.

"-ing words," among other things, can imply what is known as "simultaneity" or "happening at the same time." But they are neither passive nor static in and of themselves.

"-ing words" can also be a way to turn verbs into adjectives: as in "the gathering darkness" or "the threatening clouds" and those examples are neither passive nor static.

"Had" and its variations can indicate possession, but they can also indicate past forms of verbs, and are neither passive nor static in and of themselves either.

If you want to read a whole series of discussions on passive voice, please look at the topics linked to in this topic:

http://www.hatrack.com/forums/writers/forum/Forum3/HTML/000016.html

And you will see why I get a little frustrated when people use "passive" incorrectly. It happens over and over and over again, no matter how many times someone explains what it really means.


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Tiergan
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My favorite saying is "was" doesnt make a sentence passive but makes it less active. She was standing in the hall. versus. She stood in the hall.
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wetwilly
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The anti-passive verb school of thought is that they remove you from the action of the scene and make it less immediate and interesting.

One problem with passive verbs in fiction writing is that they can remove the performer of the verb from the sentence completely.

"He got axed in the face." (Passive construction)

Now, that's an interesting action that perks me right up, but this sneaky writer didn't tell me who is swinging the axe. That's what I'm really interested in.

"Demarco axed him in the face." (Active construction)

Now I'm right in the action watching this happen in my mind's eye. Not so with the passive verb example.

I think this is the effect King was probably warning us about in his book (which I also found interesting, educational, and inspiring).


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LDWriter2
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Hmm, as I said I can't find the link now so they either changed the page on me or I lost it. But as to what Kathleen said, It is possible that a university's english deportment could be wrong but that is what I was going by. As I said up above they listed passive verbs and were, was, had, etc. were all included. I might have missed something even though I read it three or four times but that is what I got from the list.

I forget if they mentioned -ing words but I know at least three different people have stated editors do not like -ing words. I might have gotten things mixed up and thought that was because it made the sentence too passive.



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LDWriter2
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quote:

ne problem with passive verbs in fiction writing is that they can remove the performer of the verb from the sentence completely.

"He got axed in the face." (Passive construction)

Now, that's an interesting action that perks me right up, but this sneaky writer didn't tell me who is swinging the axe. That's what I'm really interested in.

"Demarco axed him in the face." (Active construction)

Now I'm right in the action watching this happen in my mind's eye. Not so with the passive verb example.


wetwilly, for me it depends if Demarco is in the story or not. But in either case I would not notice if I am "removed" from the action. I might be a different reader than most but that is my experience. Of coursed while writing we need to do what editors like.

And going back to if Demarco is in the story, if he is then more than likely he will be mentioned even if not in that sentence.


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wetwilly
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Well, like any "rules" of writing, they're made to be broken (but I do believe you have to understand the rule in order to break it effectively). In the end, the only rule is, "if it works for your story, do it."
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KayTi
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quote:
while writing we need to do what editors like.

Nah, I disagree. While I might submit a short here and there to a traditional market, I'm heading indie with my publishing goals. When writing, we need to write what readers want to read.

And the feedback on passive forms is very good feedback, because readers don't know if a story is written in third person past participle future tense gerund form. They don't give a hoot, but they know good stories. Most good stories keep the pace moving, keep the actors acting, and keep the readers caring about what happens next. Avoiding passive forms, over-reliance on adverbs, and other linguistic shortcuts (it's often shorter/faster to use an adverb than to rethink the structure of the sentence and figure out if a stronger verb would convey the same thought) can strengthen one's writing.

But then again, some writers write compelling stuff even with all that in their stories. There are so many tom swifties ("Hush", she said quietly.) in at least the first 1-2 Harry Potters, but who gives a darn? I've read each of them at least 3-4 times and I don't care!

So, write what you love to read yourself, as you'll be the best judge of whether this form or that form will work best for what you're trying to accomplish.


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Tiergan
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quote:
They don't give a hoot, but they know good stories.

How true it is. I couldn't agree more.

Is always good to know how to write, but is best to know how to tell a good story.


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Brendan
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quote:

And you will see why I get a little frustrated when people use "passive" incorrectly. It happens over and over and over again, no matter how many times someone explains what it really means.


There is also the concept of a passive character, which confuses the issue. Its one that KDW (she who must be impressed, not kdw or she who must be obeyed) often talks about. This is a character that has things happen to them, rather than them making things happen. As these characters are often written using static forms, I sometimes hear (or say) that it has a passive feel.


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