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Andrea K Höst

Australian writer of science fiction and fantasy.

On Writing

On Writing - Stephen King "On Writing" is a combination memoir and guide for writers. The autobiographical section is, unsurprisingly, fascinating. King vividly recounts childhood scrapes, early influences, a dangerously inventive older brother, and a junior newspaper industry. On top of that the rags-to-riches sale of the paperback rights to "Carrie", something to warm the heart of any aspiring author.Much of the writing advice is sensible and common to most guides: read a lot to expose yourself to both vocabulary and style; know your grammar; be wary of cliché, said-bookisms, adverbs; cut what is unnecessary; step away from the book after the first draft; get feedback from a few first readers – and most of all organise yourself to avoid procrastination and distractions, because to be a writer you must write. King is apparently a discovery writer rather than an outliner, so his discussion of story as a fossil to be unearthed (after thinking up the initial idea and characters) is not something which will work for every writer (though it sounds like we start books in much the same way). He also trots out the "avoid passive voice" stricture, which I always modify with "unless active voice makes what you're saying impossibly clumsy". "Avoid passive voice" is one of those pieces of writing advice which is handed out as if passive voice was arsenic, and the mere existence of "was" in a sentence will cause an entire chapter to be sucked into a slow-moving morass. But (like adverbs and even the occasional said-bookism) passive voice is merely a tool that you use when necessary, but not in excess (I think of them as the purple spices – a sprinkle is fine, too much and you're drowning in violet doldrums). Since this is King, the examples he uses from his various books are made more interesting by the recognition of many of the stories he's written. And since this is King, he cheerfully excoriates a couple of writers in his examples of bad writing techniques - some anonymously and others not. One thing that struck me is how many of King's pieces of advice condense down to "remove the unnecessary". This is one of the greatest pieces of writing advice I've learned myself, though my lesson was from Sylvia Kelso (whose writing is so compact it's two steps from poetry). Back when I was inflicting my earliest manuscripts on her, Sylvia repeated to me the "Lesson of the Spartans", which I reproduce (in highly mangled form) below: --- The Lesson of the Spartans The Athenians were running out of food. They decided to send an a envoy to the Spartans to ask them for food. The speech the Athenian envoy made was eloquent and passionate, a triumph of the Athenian style. It was also rather long, and the Spartan representative began to fidget, and look around, and pay less attention. When the Athenian had finally finished, the Spartan looked back at him and said: “That was an amazing speech. It sounded really heart-felt. But I lost track half-way through. What was it you wanted again?” The Athenian envoy, knowing that the Spartans prided themselves on their own style of speechmaking (the Spartan style of speechmaking is the source of the word ‘laconic’ associated with Australians), went back to his advisors and thought hard about what to say. The need for food was desperate, and they could not risk being refused. Finally, he picked up a sack and returned to the Spartan representative. Holding up the sack, he said: “Bag needs grain.” The Spartan grinned and nodded. “Not bad,” he said. “But you could have left out ‘bag’.” --- I thoroughly enjoyed reading "On Writing" – a book as much about King's journey as a writer as it is about the craft.