Today’s title is one of the last sentences in Stephen King’s On Writing — and if you haven’t read this book, writers and readers, then you should! The first part talks about his journey from aspiring writer to published writer and is interesting in itself, and the second half looks at the dos and don’ts of good writing. While some might retain an element of snobbery about Stephen King, commercial genre fiction — take heed. He knows how to write and how to write well and he used to teach writing. If I could bag that kind of success I would never stop dancing!
I heard the book is on a lot of creative writing university lists.
I think what it taught me — and I could do with reading it again (I might just do that!) is how to make sure your writing flows, has a sharpness to it. One of the things we all do as new writers is trying to say things the way a writer does, all wordy and clever, and not the way a ‘normal’ person would. And therein lies the error. While writers indeed embellish and illiterate, and it is indeed their intention to make the world look the same — but different, that’s fine BUT if we overdo the lavish language it can feel stunted, awkward, like water from a broken tap that comes in gushes and dribbles. Find those delicious phrases but make it feel like water flowing effortlessly. Now if only it was that easy right?
But there is a distinction I see in my own writing when I started out, and in the writing of the newer writer, to let’s say my published work and others’ published work that stands out. And it’s hard to define it precisely. But it’s that difference that shows me why someone is not YET being published and why someone else is. And I do have to try to fathom this because I do see one of roles as a teacher too — and that means teasing apart the form enough to work out what makes something work and what doesn’t. And believe me I am only on the same journey as you all, we’re just all at different stages. We can all learn from one another!
A common issue is flow (I will and have talked about story and plot before so we will leave that for now) but how you use your language. It needs to feel completely natural. I often mark MSs with ‘awkward’ or ‘clunky’ and I mean it’s wordy and could be said in a much simpler way. Something like And so the fact was that they needed to get going and they needed to get going now. What about They needed to get going — and now. Something like that. Some of it will be the way the narrator speaks, so for example my character Lydia in While No One Was Watching with her very African-American Vernacular, likes to repeat but that’s voice. So something like I told him we were goin’ and that was it. Yes Sir I told him. We be goin’ like it or not. Some might argue this is overdoing it but the trick is to use the repetition (essentially here one of my voice devices) for emphasising an important point and not all the time. But things like ‘The fact of the matter was — you could lose. Unless it’s some aspect of voice that adds quirk. But in general narrative, not needed. You could even lose The fact was — just say it. They needed to leave — plain and simple!
I often see either long or odd phrases like The sensation of excitement filled her up — odd? The moment was so tantalising it seemed to fill her with such hope. These sound wrong but they are what people write.
And the other thing is to use really clever words that gets your reader reaching for the dictionary. Now I love to be challenged and I always look up words I don’t know, but every other line? Now I completely lose the flow of the story and I think the writer is just trying to be ‘too clever’. There is a difference between the skilful erudite writer who knows how to make the words flow but still uses this kind of language to add texture, and I love a good, be it literary or commercial, novel that has these factors. But it’s when it’s there and there is a better, simpler word then use it. Stephen King talks about this in his book quoting example of ‘pompous’ language by many of the ‘greats.’ You also have to consider the character and when the book was written of course for some of these. But what I always remember, that has stayed with me from when I first read this book (some time ago now), is how there really is only one word that is perfect (even looking in a thesaurus you are only finding words with ‘similar’ meanings — not exactly the same) and so if the word ‘fat’ or ‘pretty’ is right — use it. And show the movement, the bulk of someone ‘fat’ etc in the action to bring it to life. Do you need to say ‘corpulent’? I guess it depends who’s narrating — but I think the real style of a writer is not so much in the words used but in how they’re used.
Do you agree?
I think that needs repeating for emphasis: I think the real style of a writer is not so much in the words used but in how they’re used.
I think the real style of a writer is not so much in the words used but in how they’re used.
I just finished reading Michael Sala’s The Last Thread on the Commonwealth Book Prize list. At first the flow was so seamless and fast I slid from one thought to another and I took a little while to get into his style (to keep up) but once I was settled in I marvelled at the simplicity and the grace of the language. It’s not a plot-driven story and therefore literary in form, but elegant and I can see why it’s on the list. But one thing it’s not despite it’s use of language is wordy. I would say Sarah Dobbs’s writing has this same effortless feel and every word feels like the right one. Look at it on Amazon and read the opening of The Last Thread-– Television on. Living room swims in light and noise. The shhh from the speakers sounds like rain. LINK
Simple spare honest language. Beautiful.
No matter the genre I think this rule is a good one to heed.
So as Stephen King says, Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.
Have a wonderful day quenching those thirsts!