A couple of times this week, I read posts about writing.
One was from a much better blogger than myself, named Bottledworder. She talked about whether writing advice actually helps. I won’t go into details, but I’ll attach the link at the bottom for you own enjoyment… just click the link AFTER you’ve read my meager blog, ok? I also came across a post on Stephen King’s Facebook page, talking about his most hated expressions. Those he mentioned included using the phrase “That’s so cool”, “at this point in time”, “at the end of the day”, “Some people say”, “Many believe”, “The consensus is”, and various short-forms/ texting words, like IMHO, YOLO, and LOL. All of these are extensions of things King mentions in his book “On Writing”.
Years ago, when I was focusing on screenwriting, I read “On Writing”. How could I not! Stephen King was my favourite writer. I had enjoyed a number of his books, including the Dark Tower series, Christine, The Stand, Tommyknockers, The Dead Zone, the Green Mile, and so on. Despite being a different medium (writing novels Vs. writing screenplays), I figured there had to be some nuggets of advice and wisdom within those pages.
Maybe I’m an idiot, but… it wasn’t as helpful as I had hoped. Sure there were some interesting stories about his past, his struggle to get started, the hardship he faced, and so on. All very interesting, about the man. As for the craft, well it just didn’t open up my mind and make me go “Whoa! That is brilliant! I have to start doing that from now on!” It was more like, “Oh, hmm, ok.”
Don’t get me wrong, Mr. King is an incredible writer, still one of my favourite. But reading “On Writing” just made me realize that just because he was popular, famous, and could churn out books like dairy farmers churn out butter, didn’t mean he knew everything.
Which brings me to Bottledworder’s blog. It asked the question “Does writing advice from other writers actually help?” During my screenwriting phase, there were hundreds of books out there telling me how to write the perfect, sellable script. Some were by no one I had heard of. Many of these guys were making living off people like me, yet I had not heard of them actually writing a completed film. This brought to mind that old saying “Those who can’t do, teach.”, or in this case, “Those who can’t do, bilk people out of money for something they should already know or have the skill in.” Or maybe, as Bottledworder mentions, these writers are in a dry spell and need some income. Thus, the How-to/ writing advice book/ website is born.
Now, like anything, there are good and bad. I have come across websites where the writer either doesn’t ask for money and just posts their advice and opinions. But there seem to be many who just want their book to land in some wanna-be writer’s lap, so they can pour through the pages like a Born-Again Christian soaking up the Bible.
Here’s the thing about all of this, whether it is Stephen King, William Goldman, Alan Moore, or Syd Field telling you how to write whatever it is you are writing, you need one very important skill to make it all worthwhile. You have to be able to create a story. All the advice, teachings, insight won’t mean a load of Dingo’s kidneys if you can’t understand the simple principle of a story.
This is where the best, and most simple advice any writer can bestow onto another writer comes in, and I learned it from Stephen King. To paraphrase, he said “Read everything.” and “Keep writing.”
I didn’t even need to by his book to learn that!
Simple right! “Read everything.” Even if your story of choice is Sci-Fi, check out some historical fiction, or a crime drama. Read different people’s stuff, see how they string their words together to make their story. Breakdown how the story evolved, the character’s arc and such. If it doesn’t interest you, at least you know what not to do to make your story work.
“Keep writing” is also important. There will be days where it will be difficult to get your head in the game. You will think of anything else to do than sitting down and writing. Does that mean you aren’t committed to writing? No! It just means you don’t have your shit together at that moment. But at some point, you have to put pen or pencil to paper, or fingers to the keyboard. If you wait for that creative burst of inspiration, you may never get anything done.
If you can’t figure out either of these two simple things… well, you are going to have a hell of a time writing anything.
The final thing I’m gonna talk about is grammar. As Mr. King stated, he gets irritated by some of those phrases I mentioned earlier. He has a point. Some words and phrases are over-used, used incorrectly, and so on. The best way you can discover this is if you see them used too frequently, or you break down the phrase to understand its idiocy.
Which brings me to my point about grammar; it is already screwed up. It has been screwed up since people got a hold of it! If you get a chance, read Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, or anything by H.G. Wells. Not only are they classic novels, and some of my favourites, but you can see how proper English was spoken over one hundred years ago, when English was still proper, and not slangified. Today’s English has been screwed up, twisted, fractured, rode hard and put away wet. But if you have an average, modern-day characters talking, they will be using that screwed up grammar! If, in your novel, you make some good ol’ boy from the country talk in Iambic pentameter, the reader will either think you are a tool, or may expect some character twist later. When that twister doesn’t come, THEN they’ll think you’re a tool.
Grammar is important, but honestly, very few people talk with proper grammar. People talk the way they do based on how they were raised, where they were raised, and are continually influenced by the media (social media, favourite TV shows, movies, etc.). If all your characters talked the same, grammatically correct tone, how would which one was talking? How would you differentiate between them?
If you have gotten to this part, thinking I’m just as bad as all those other writers, adding their two-cents worth to the pot, I’m not. Even if I were successful, I still wouldn’t expect any writers to take anything I said as gospel. After my rambling, I would tell any writer the same thing I would tell anyone after giving them my opinions or advice; make your own decision. Take whatever info I may have said, find the parts you find useful, and jettison the rest. If you seek advice from anyone, about anything, don’t seek it only in one place.
After all, they may have a book to sell you.
As promised, here is the link. Read!