Everything You Need To Know About Writing Successfully In Ten Minutes 2
I’m looking at Stephen King’s popular essay on writing, referenced in the post title above. King is an extremely influential writer but I feel that the advice he gives out to writers, and people on the road to being writers, often comes in the form of unbreakable rules. This approach is unhelpful and a kind of literary snobbishness. In doing so, King attempts to establish a kind of hierarchy in which he naturally places himself at the top. He ignores the possibility of a multitude of successful approaches to writing and fails to explain the existence of writers who have had more success than himself without using his rules. Also, sometimes he is just plain wrong. As I believe in the plurality of voices, I should not deny King his own. This is his take on the tools of the writer’s trade: dictionary, thesaurus and encyclopaedia.
Rule 5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopaedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right - and breaking your train of thought and the writer's trance in the bargain - or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don't have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it ... but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don't do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.
Seems like good advice, delivered with a confidence that selling thousands and thousands of books can lend you. There are problems, however, and I draw attention to these not because I dislike King’s writing or fail to rate him as a writer. King’s advice is oft-quoted on the internet and in the kinds of ‘How To...’ books that many burgeoning writers have consulted at the beginnings of their careers. His advice is then presumably followed by many people who, if they had been allowed to follow their own path, might have generated something unique and exciting. Advice can be over-rated. To quote the Sunscreen song, “Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth”.
One of King’s assertions that I believe to be unnecessarily brutal is the authoritative indication that, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” (Oops, Jon – that’s you and me gone!) I just do not buy this one at all. It’s like stripping a professional photographer of their lens attachments or a painter of their mixing palette. Use a thesaurus or don’t use a thesaurus – whatever gets the job done for you personally – but you can’t tell writers that they can’t use one: that any word used from one is “the wrong word”. For King, beyond it being “wrong” and there being “no exceptions”, it seems the main problem is the idea that writers may break their “train of thought”, their “writer's trance”, if they have to get up and go a search out a word in a thesaurus or consult a fact in an encyclopaedia. This sounds like it makes sense but it doesn’t take into account the significant consideration of requirements particular to King: the ironic suggestion that King might be a poorer writer than his peers in comparable circumstances. New Historicism is an important branch of literary theory that has received increasing attention over the last thirty years. New Historicists claim that, regardless of the individual talent of the writer, texts are products of the circumstances in which they were written. These circumstances might be broad and influential, like political or social ideas that find a voice in texts written at the same time as their appeal. Examples of this might be the tensions between Protestants and Catholics represented in plays by Shakespeare four hundred years ago to the global economic meltdown represented in fictional form today. ‘Historical’ circumstances don’t have to be so broad: they can be intensely personal. Events occurring in an individual writer’s life can therefore have a huge effect on their writing.
How does this relate to King? He tells us himself that he has to “hunt for”, “look it up” and “go” when doing anything that takes him away from what he defines as the writing process. You can almost see him getting up and rooting around his house, or at least his bookshelf, for his thesaurus. Actual writing for Stephen King is done, “When you sit down”. It suggests that he needs this unbroken concentration to write. This shouldn’t surprise us (from a New Historicist point of view) since it is well known that King wrote his early fiction - Carrie for example - in a caravan, on a manual typewriter.
We can see that King’s insistence on not using a thesaurus might come from two factors. Firstly, his initial writing experiences benefitted from a pattern of behaviour that included a sense of isolation – shutting himself away in a caravan and getting the job done undisturbed. Given what we know about King’s early poverty (making his own personal story all the more appealing) it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that he did not own all of the reference books he cites as belonging in the “wastebasket”. If he started out that way in the 1980s and generated some success from that approach, you can see why he feels he has not needed them subsequently. The second factor is technology. Most writers that came after King do not use manual typewriters. They use word processors and now have the benefit of the internet, where there is very little hunting for reference books required. Modern writers do not need a trip to the library or have to turn over their houses to find an encyclopaedia, to validate a fact or piece of information. Every reference source a writer might ever want (and many they won’t) is there at their fingertips, with very little to break their “train of thought”. Many modern writers have to maintain the “writer’s trance” while carrying out other activities or surrounded by their families in busy households. Many do not have the ‘luxury’ of an isolated caravan or cabin in the woods to retreat to every time they wish to write.
I do not intend to criticise Stephen King. He is undoubtedly a successful writer of clear skill. His advice, on the other hand, can be dangerous when taken out of the context in which it was given. King cannot be considered without bias. What works for King might not work for other writers. What works for other writers might not have worked for King. The biggest danger comes not from writers emulating King’s approach: it is everyone else accepting it unquestioningly. If everyone involved in the process, from the publishing industry to the readers, believe that good writing comes from stripping out texts of anything that might have come been found in a thesaurus - the “wrong” words as King puts it – then all novels will start to sound like screenplays and schematics. It is interesting to note that Stephen King himself has had a long standing interest in such writing – insisting on writing the script adaptations for his own novels. Writers at the beginning of their careers are often warned not to allow their texts to become ‘overgrown’ with adjectives and adverbs etc, the suggested image here being a crowded garden. There is something in this: you can have too much of even a good thing. On the other hand, ‘gardens’ stripped of any descriptive prose and devoid of thesaurus-consultation might be considered concreted over and bare. They are economical and easy to maintain but they are not places people wish to spend their time. They do the job but they lack ambition and beauty. I find it hard to believe that these are the equivalents of ‘good’ writing. The kind of writing, of which Stephen King in the 1980s, might have approved.