Books on Writing

I am not a fan of Stephen King. After pressure from a few friends, I tried Carrie and found it puerile; I gave him a second chance with The Shining and found it only little less. It may be that I’m not much into the horror genre, but I found the plots were just a little too obvious (and I have not seen either movie, so hadn’t much of an idea what to expect). The characterisation was alright, but the characters themselves were neither very deep nor very interesting, and although the characters had internal conflicts, the external and supernatural events drove the plot as much as those conflicts.

So it was until I read Stephen King’s On Writing.

Part autobiography and part craft, it is a small book with much to offer. The first chunk of the book deals with him and his brother’s upbringing in a low-income family in the 1950s and 60s. The story is told with grace and humour, and goes through childhood, adolescent, the death of his mother, and his early success. By the time we come to an end of this, we are with a successful author who is drinking and snorting himself into a deep hole. He doesn’t tell us how he got out of that hole, but he did.

The second half deals with writing itself. He is not prescriptive on this: he presents it as what works for him, but claims no authority on what works for others. Like Robert Ludlum, King starts not with a plot, but with a situation and a character, and more or less leaves the character to get on with it. He doesn’t plot the book in advance, though he does have a notion of where he wants him or her to go. He goes through the processes of revision and rewriting, and the final audience (in his case, his lifelong wife, Tatty). He’s encouraging without setting expectations. All around a nice work to read. So perhaps I’ll give some of his later work a try one of these days.

King’s approach is in sharp contrast to that in Jonathan Falla’s The Craft of Fiction. Falla teaches at a creative writing school, and his book is for all practical purposes a text book. As such, it is quite prescriptive, setting out a methodology. Like King, he acknowledges that different authors have different approaches, but, unlike King, there is a kind of sub-text that the best approach is the one he proposes: a kind of fossicking approach where we wander out, find characters, find situations, insert conflict and – boom-ta-ra! – plot.

(An interesting approach to plot surfaced in an interview in the FT with William Boyd, starts with the closing scene, works backwards from there, researching in detail his settings, and not writing the book until it’s been extensively planned (Sophie Hannah, who writes psychological thrillers, said at a book that she also plots and plans before she writes), so not every author starts with the situation.)

Most of The Craft, however, is taken up with the intricacies of craft, and in this respect it is useful in a way that King’s is not. If you take the book as a load of hints, it is very useful. My main criticism is that one of the most important parts of writing – editing and revision – is crammed into the last of seventeen chapters. By contrast, King gives this process a lot of space, including reproductions of some of his own revisions.

Not a bad complement to these two is Scott Meredith’s Writing to Sell. The late Scott Meredith was the agent of P.G. Wodehouse and, as such, had a large hand in changing the American publishing business from the collegial one it was (and that Britain’s still is) to the much more hard-nosed, auction-driven business it’s become. Unlike King and Falla, Meredith devotes quite a lot of pages to the plot. Any sellable book – and the only reason to write is to sell – consists of a series of escalating problems and, at each step, the solution to one problem creates a bigger problem.

This is, of course, very formulaic. Meredith makes no apologies for this: his book is what the title states. Writing to sell is not writing to win a Nobel prize (although Camus, Hemingway and other laureates were bestsellers of their day), but to make a living.

That is something to which I aspire, and, though I’m losing hope it will ever happen, which brings me to the last and most surprising book in this little review: Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, 2018. The last time I bought one of these was over a decade ago, and it has grown. It now contains lots of useful articles by authors, agents and everyone else in the process, most just a thousand words or so long, so very digestible. The nicest thing about what has become a collection of essays is that there is no theme, no authoritative voice to put up with. That, plus an up-to-date list of everyone you may need to know in the British publishing industry, makes it a sterling acquisition.