In the second of our series on the Books that Help Us Write, Claire Fuller, Terry Stiastny and Louise Walters review books on writing that they believe have made a difference:
ON WRITING by Stephen King – Terry Stiatsny
‘This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.’ Stephen King’s foreword is as pithy and direct as the rest of the book. On Writing is a disjointed book: part memoir; part style guide; part practical manual. Although I don’t agree with everything King has to say, there are three main lessons I draw from the book. King is insistent about the importance of story. ‘Stories,’ he says ‘are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.’ He likens the process of finding a story to that of a palaeontologist digging a fossil from the ground. Maybe I’m just not a great dinosaur hunter, but I’m not sure about that. Too often I find a bone that could be an arm or a leg or a piece of discarded KFC and I’m not sure where it belongs, let alone what kind of creature I have unearthed. Rarely is there a full, intact ammonite.
A second tenet, one that’s underlined in my copy, is ‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open’. By this, King means that writers should get the story down first, without stopping to think too much about the opinions of others. Only after letting a draft mellow and returning to it can you approach it as a reader would and edit it accordingly. The third lesson is that ‘life comes first’. Stephen King’s life is littered with dramas; his addictions to alcohol and drugs were so severe that there’s one novel (Cujo) that he barely remembers writing at all. He was nearly killed when he was run over by a speeding van that broke his leg in nine places, but he was back at his desk five weeks later. It’s about showing up, he says — letting the muse know where you’re going to be, at your desk — rather than waiting around for it. ‘Life isn’t a support-system for art,’ King says, ‘It’s the other way around.’
READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose – Claire Fuller
If you’re someone who reads quickly, who skips and skims, but knows you shouldn’t, and thinks you’re probably missing something, then Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer – A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them is something I would urge you to pick up. It’s all about ‘close reading’ and how useful this technique is to writers. The book takes a look at words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue and more, using examples of writing from authors including Philip Roth, Jane Austen and Alice Munro to demonstrate in detail how they’ve achieved a particular effect.
I regularly dip into this book and there’s always something I want to apply to my own writing. In the chapter on gesture for example, Prose says, “Too often gestures are used as markers, to create beats or pauses in a conversation, that we fear may rush by too quickly without them.” Don’t just have a man pour two glasses of wine during some dialogue; how much more revealing the scene and character becomes if he “poured one glass of wine, and then remembered, and poured two.” The book is full of many practical examples such as this that can easily be applied to my own writing, if I can only slow down and look closely at what I’m reading.
INTO THE WOODS by John Yorke – Louise Walters
In a recent bid to educate myself about writing, I’ve been reading some classics of the “story” genre. Not “how to” books as such: I wanted to read explanations of what a story is; how it functions and fits together to make a satisfying read (or watch). Many of this type of book are geared towards screenplays, but I think the advice applies to all stories, including novels. I found Into the Woods by John Yorke particularly illuminating. There is much to think about, such as the advantage of a five act structure over a three act, something I never even considered when writing Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase. (Red-faced confession: I thought only stage plays had “acts”). But the one thing I’ve taken from Into the Woods, and I know I will carry with me for ever more in my writing, is what Yorke says about back story. It is this: “The less back-story a character has, the more readily an audience is able to identify with them – the more we can see they’re like us and not like someone else. We may want to know more, but it’s the not knowing that keeps us watching.” I was immediately arrested by this concept and I’ve underlined the passage (p.147) and marked in the margin: “Important! – USE THIS!” There are many such lightbulb moments in Into the Woods and I recommend it without hesitation for anybody who is serious about their writing.