Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen King has been lauded as one of the greatest books on writing out there. So when I got it for Christmas, I thought I may as well give it shot. I worked my way through it slowly, and, having started it on New Year's Eve, I just finished it a few weeks ago. Now I have had some time to think over it, and it is only now that I have decided to write the review I knew would come.

The first half of the book is in autobiographical form, as Mr. King gives his history, not just about writing, but everything. He tells, in often painful frankness, about his childhood mishaps and his adult struggles. It is a fun read, if only for his distinct voice. I read this half of it fairly quickly, enjoying the anecdotes and tales he spun with the deftness of an accomplished author.

Then comes the section on writing. He gives it all in an all-up-front manner, and he leaves no room for doubt about what he means in your mind. (I guess writers have the freedom to do that when they've written 56 novels and 200 short stories.) Mr. King is brutally honest about the life of a writer, what it takes to be one, and how to get there. He doesn't sugar-coat it, and he doesn't try to make it sound more glamorous than it is. He tells it like he sees it, and he tells that he's going to do that right up front. I respected that about this book almost more than anything else.

This book isn't so renowned because a wanna-be writer puts it down and proceeds to churn out one-draft greatness. This books treasure is in the small, single sentences that are tucked away. I found several of these, and I  read over it, got to the next paragraph, paused, and looked at that sentence again before scrambling for a note book or some sticky notes to jot it down. I now have about a million quotable lines nearly memorized from this book. Never have I found so many great, helpful, stand-alone quotes in the space of 120 pages.

Now, I realize that book reviews are often wholly subjective, but I have tried to keep all subjectivity out of those three paragraphs above. Allow me my voice now.

Did I like this book? Yes. Absolutely. It brought some things to my attention that I had never thought of before. It made me think in ways that hadn't occurred to me before, and I liked the challenge. I read it slowly, reading a chapter a night, mulling it over, chewing on it, sleeping on it. Then when I sat down to write the next day, I tried to put one thing that I learned into practice. Some days were trickier than others, but in the end, I think that I am a better writer for it. Not only because of what he said, but also because of what I did.

Reading this book made me more conscious of my own writing, my own stories. It made me more excited to write (is that possible?) and it challenged me to be better every time I sat in front of my laptop, fingers poised over the keyboard. I think that often a writer will sit down (or stand up, whatever floats your boat) to write, and he does it like a mummy, a zombie who types words in quick succession, unsure a paragraph later what it was he just wrote. But after reading this book, I am more aware of what I am writing, why, and what could make it better.

Another thing I really liked about this book was it's tone. It felt like Mr. King was having a conversation with me, and I don't know about you, but I like that. It made it easier for me to connect with it, to relate, and to understand what he was trying to convey. He seemed to me like the kind of guy that wouldn't mind if you called him up with a question, the kind of guy who would be willing to help you out in a crisis. Now, I don't know if he is that kind of a person, but it felt like it in the book.

So, on to the downsides. I didn't like his flippant use of foul language. Before you who have read it start citing the book, I know that Mr. King was being honest with his readers, writing in his work like he would speak in real life, and to a certain extent I even respect that. But I had a hard time quoting him without making the sailors blush. That is a bit of a let down, to be honest. I feel like I can't recommend this book to high schoolers, even though it is one of the most practical books on writing that I have read. That saddens me.

Honestly though, that is my only complaint. And in the grand scheme of things, that is not much at all.

So, would I recommend this book? Yes. For sure. (But would always warn you of the language before handing it over.) I think that this a very practical book, useful and insightful.

Rating: Four and a half Stars.

Great Quote: "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or tools) to write." -Stephen King, On Writing; A Memoir of the Craft

Give the book a try, and learn something new. Write often, read much.

And, as always, Happy Reading!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Writing Tips: The Beta Reader

Writing can be a great experience. It can leave you breathless and excited, it can leave you heartsick and quiet; it can take you on all the ups and downs of life. That's what makes it so beautiful.

But at some point, this beautiful experience will have to be shared. You cannot stay forever in The Cave of Writerly Isolation. You'll have to come out of it, and when you do, you'll have to share what you have to show for all the time you were away in that that Cave. Chances are, you already have a list of the people you want to see your manuscript first (people we writers like to call Beta Readers). But, on the off chance you haven't thought about it, or have and can't find anyone you think would give you unbiased criticism, I am here to help. That's what I do, right?

Let's get started.

When thinking about who to add to your beta reader list (between 5-10 people, optimally), you generally go through the people closest to you that you want to have read your work, be it your mom, friend, coach, co-worker. And any of these are fine, but I want you to ask yourself, honestly, Will these people give me an unbiased opinion? Will I profit from handing my baby over to them? If the answer is not immediately a resounding Yes! or even a convicted Probably, then I would say go for it. Give your novel over to that person and let them have a go at it.

But how (and who?) do you choose your beta readers? It's a hard choice, sometimes, but one that, if done well, will service you in ways you cannot yet imagine. So let's get down to it and ask the question you're all thinking: How do I pick readers?? 

First off, don't be embarrassed if you really don't think your best friend would be a good reader; sometimes it's like that. And it's okay, too, if your mom can't give you the most unbiased opinion. She's your mom; she's paid to be biased when it comes to your work. And what if both your friends and family are not good fits? Well, think about it: just because your friends don't write a lot doesn't mean they don't read a lot. And you are not looking for beta writers, but beta readers. So, think: do you have a friend that likes to read? Even if he/she is not public about it, does he/she have a stuffed bookshelf at home? A tattered, well-used library card? A good vocabulary? All of these are good signs that your friend is a reader. And that's what we're going for.

You don't need someone who can tell you what to do; you need someone to tell you where there are problems, so that you can turn creative and fix them.

Also, if you stress to your friends that what they say will not hurt your feelings in any way (particularly if you are a female), and tell them that it's okay to be wild with their suggestions, comments and tips, more often than not, I think you would be surprised by what they have to say.

What about family? Okay, let me disappoint some of you-- family may not be the best way to go on your first round of betas. That's not to say that they can never be beta readers for you, but maybe you should wait until the second round to let them in on the loop. Why? Family tends to being more biased than even your family. You are more likely to hear the dreaded phrase: It was a nice story. That is not what you are going for. Does it help? No. Will it make you a better writer? No. Will it make you a worse writer? Maybe. And why would you spend the fifteen bucks to print your manuscript for someone who will do you no good whatsoever?

This isn't to say that there are no exceptions to this rule; there most certainly are. I'm just saying, choose your readers wisely, especially if they are in your family. For instance, I have an aunt who will always give healthy criticism, and I have no qualms about giving her my books to read. However, my grandmother is not the same. She would probably smile as she read all the choppy, badly written places thinking, My granddaughter, whose diapers I once changed, wrote this. She grew up and became a writer! This, as you know, is less than ideal. Extremely unhelpful, it is a waste of time, energy and resources. So, seek out those in your family (if you must) who will benefit you the most. Those who are not afraid to tell you just what's wrong with your story are the most helpful.

So, some of you are probably thinking, I have the one family member and one friend. But didn't you suggest five to ten people for optimal results? To which I answer, Yes. yes I did. Now you may ask, Well, where will I find the other eight? These two are all I've got! First, don't panic. Sometimes two is more than enough. But before you stop looking for others, let me tell you of the phenomenon that is the Internet.

There are online beta reader communities for those of us who may or may not have a sufficient amount of IRL readers. There is a Goodreads Community, for one, and one on Pub-Hub, too. There's a world of options. How do you find them? Well, you can start by Googling Online Beta Reader Communities, for one. Find what you can find, see what you can see. The net can be a marvelous thing, if put to good use.

Also, if you are (or have been) part of the NaNoWriMo (Camp or regular) community, or some other form of an online Writing commune, there is a whole network of beta readers for you right there. Make some writing buddies, and do what writing buddies do best: Buddy up to Write. Two of my writing buddies from November will be reading for me in May, and I think that they will give me some of the best feedback.

In closing, I would like to say this: the most important thing about using beta readers is that you never do everything they say. I'm sure that, had your favorite author given you your favorite book and asked you to beta read it, you would have suggested some change to it that is not there. Does that stop you from loving it? By no means! Everyone will give you some entirely subjective suggestions, and that is all they are: suggestions. You use them or you don't, it's your story. If many of them all agree on the same things, you should consider it, but after that? It's your story, not theirs. So write it.

Be sure not to take it personally, either, if they suggest you kill your darlings. After all, it's about the story, not you.

Now, I need to stop writing about writing and actually start writing. And maybe you should stop reading about writing and do what you need to do: Write. 

As always, Happy Writing!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Some Musings on the Origins of Stories--

Imagine this scene: You are sitting at an outdoor table at some quaint and charming cafe, and you clutch a warm, frothy beverage of your choice. You squint in the warm sun beams, and a person walks by on the street. This person has a purple wig, green nail polish, and a sad looking pup in her purse. Now you tell me: what's her story?

Now imagine this: You are in an airplane, traveling out of the country. As you take off, the thrill in your stomach crashes down on you, making you want to jump out of your skin. And then you wonder: can someone jump out of their skin? 

Now, before you start calling me crazy (which I am, I thought we already discussed this), think on this: this is where stories come from. They don't come from some sudden realization, from some Magic Story Muse. They come from you, from what you observe, what you think, what you imagine. Stories don't just fall into your lap willy-nilly. You have to work for them, to discover them.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: When you open a blank document, when all the nerves of starting a new book, a new novel, a new story, don't think of it as blank; rather think of it as full, bursting with possibilities and ideas. It's simply your job to find your story among it all and tell it. Only you can.

Happy Writing.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Hope for the Three Stages of Writerly Hardships--

Writing is hard. Or rather, it can be hard. That's the thing about writing: it can be an exhilarating ride that sweeps you up in it and carries you away to other worlds, or it can be something that you do to pay the bills, get the desired grade, or just to be able to say you did it.

I will try to help the three main stages of writerly hardships here. That is, the person who just wants to write, the person who's flailing in the depths of their rough draft, and the person who has finished the rough draft but wondering where the heck to go from here. Chances are, you're in one of these categories right now.

Let me stop right there and say this: if you find yourself sitting at the keyboard day after day after day, doggedly punching those keys and making words form sentences, if it is a drudgery for you, then this is probably not for you. BUT: if you have been on a Writerly Roller Coaster, loving the excellent highs, struggling not to lose your lunch as you plummet into the unimaginable depths of writer lowness, then stick around and see what you can see.

That said, let's get on with it.

For The Person Who Just Wants to Write: So. You want to write. Congratulations! You have now joined the 87% of other Americans who want to do the same. But why should you stay with majority, when you can be the person who actually writes?

How do you do that? Simple. You write. 

Now, I know what you're thinking: It's not that simple, because [Enter Lame Excuse Here]! But I am here to tell you, it is that simple. You are a newbie writer; don't expect greatness. You are not J.K. Rowling, you're not Charles Dickens. You're just not. At least, not yet. I might even go so far as to say don't expect mediocrity. Let me regale you for a second.

I wrote my first complete novel (really it was more a novella, but even that is a stretch.) when I was twelve. When I was writing it, I was swept up in this grand adventure, sure that someday this would be a bestseller. I mean, it felt so awesome to put the words on to the paper, to watch the stack of lined paper grow and grow (yes, I used to write everything longhand). I just knew I could do this! And then I put it away and began my next story. That story (which I named Shattered) is such utter garbage that I have trouble reading it now. It's full of writing no-nos and author faux pas that I can't even stomach the darned thing. But do I regret it? Of course not. I learned so so so much when writing this crappy little story written on mini legal pads in my nearly illegible handwriting.

I went on to write several more stories, each a little longer and a little better. By the time I was fourteen, I had begun my first series. (Though I only ever wrote the first book of it.) I read as much as I wrote, if not more, and I was always improving. Now, I'm still not the greatest author in the world, but I have learned so much from those first years, and each year brings something new to my writerly mind. I'm always learning, and you can too. So get out there, get reading, and just write. And if it's crappy, oh well. At least you did something. And if you keep at it, maybe someday your own books will be in print.

So, all that summed up? Don't be afraid to do badly. It's going to happen. So just read everything you can, and write just as much as you read. You'll get there, one word at a time.

For The Person Flailing Around in the First Draft: You have this idea, and it's burning in your mind, itching to come out, to be this wonderful, splendid, beautifully crafted story that will be utterly gripping and intoxicatingly exciting. But when you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), it all started to crash and burn.

Nothing is coming out the way you wanted it to, you're not as wonderful as you hoped, and with each page you write, you just want to get up. Your story is going nowhere.

Let me stop you write there (yes, pun intended). And let me share a quote with you from Stephen King's book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: "Here's something else-- if no one says to you: "Oh, Sam (or Amy)! This is wonderful!," you are a lot less apt to slack off or to start concentrating on the wrong thing... being wonderful, for instance, instead of telling the darn story."

There is a reason that the first draft of a story is also called a rough draft. Because it's rough. All it'll be is words on the page, or, as I've said before, a hunk of clay on the table. It's not going to come out as your ornate clay chalice on the first go. But you have to start somewhere, and you have to start with something, so stop whining and get to work. Don't worry if your prose is less than ideal, or if your dialogue is unbelievable. Just get down to it and tell the darn story. That is your main job. Cleaning it up and making it smell nice comes later, once you have your words on a page. But you can't fix it if there's nothing to fix, so keep at it, tell the story, and then move on to the next step-- revision. 

You can do it-- I know you can, and I also know that you know you can. So what are you waiting for?

For The Person Struggling With Revision: You have gotten over the fear of writing, and you have written your rough draft. You have picked up that hunk of clay and moved it to your work table. And now your are trying to turn this blob of words into something readable, something that is intriguing and believable and original. But you don't know the first thing about sculpting words on a page. You're losing steam, and fast. If you keep this up, soon you'll have no more momentum at all. So you scream at the top of your lungs, Help! 

Well, help is here.

Revision can be the most challenging part of writing a piece of fiction, or even non-fiction for that matter. You have a story, you have the clay, you have to tools, but you don't know what to do first, or how to keep going. Let me encourage you: You are not alone. Revision is universally acknowledged as the hardest part. Why? Because you can't just write at break-neck speed anymore and ignore the typos. You can't just close the door and have alone time with your novel. And that is difficult. You have entered a new stage in your relationship with that novel of yours. You have gone from creator to editor.

So, what should you do?

The first thing to do is to sit down and read your novel. I would recommend reading it in one sitting if you can, as to get the feel of the whole thing and pick up on inconsistencies more easily. Go ahead and fix the misspellings and grammatical errors. And take notes on the storyline: what's clear and what's not, what need's cleaning up, and what needs to go. Then sit back and pat yourself on the back: you have just finished another draft.

After that, you move on, notes in hand. Look at each scene closely, determining whether or not it is necessary to the story. If it's not, cut it, if it is, look at it again to clean it up. Take out as many adverbs as you can (they're really not necessary), and see what you can do to make it pick up pace. When you have done that, move on to the next scene and do the same.

Now, some of you are pulling out your hair because you are stuck in the revision process, and the tunnel is long and dark, you're tired of stumbling around, and you just can't see the light at the end. I understand. I was there myself not too long ago. So let me give you some advice: this is when you get crafty. You become editor-turned-creative. You're in a dark tunnel? Well, look-a-there, you just found some shiny crystals hanging from the ceiling that glow. You have light! You may not be able to see the end of the tunnel, but who says you can't see that bit that's just in front of you? And if you can see that, then you can move forward, inch by inch, until the end is nigh.

Be creative, let your imagination go wild, and tell your story. Don't let dialogue or description or prose or anything else get in the way of what is most important: Story.

And then, bearing that in mind, with fresh eyes and renewed hearts, remind yourself why you are telling this story. Why you decided to write this one. Why did you fall a little bit in love with these characters? Why should the world have this story?

Only you can tell.

So get out there, get writing, and tell your story.

And, as always, Happy Writing!