Category Archives: Stephen King

A plea to new writers, while treading carefully…

A certain author, on a certain online group, recently posted, with evident pride, a chapter of their work-in-progress. I looked it over. It was not a happy experience.

One of the greatest problems with online self-publishing, in all its forms, is that it makes it entirely too easy to put out work that is in no way, shape or form ready for public viewing. And in this instance it wasn’t just poor writing– the author obviously had no grasp of basic grammar or punctuation, the very things Stephen King calls the writer’s fundamental toolbox. Comma splices, run-on sentences, misused or missing capitalization, long interior monologues, and adverbs– dear God in Heaven, not just over-used, but used in bizarre and novel ways…you probably get the picture, and it ain’t gonna be hanging in the Louvre. It’s the sort of thing that gives ammunition to those who denigrate self-published works as amateur and unreadable.

It is a simple truth that, to write effectively in English, you must master– and not just master, but internalize– certain rules and nuances of the language and how it is expressed in symbolic form. You can’t get away from it, not if you want your work to be readable and to rise above the status of laughing-stock. You ignore those rules at your peril.

Now, having said that, you will notice that I have not named the author, nor their work, nor have I quoted any of the more wretched passages (a strong temptation, if for no other reason than to bear witness to those adverbs…). It is not my desire, nor my purpose, to denigrate or belittle any author, just as you would not denigrate a student struggling with a math problem (at least, I hope you wouldn’t). In the first place, we all have to start somewhere. The difficulty is that self-publishing allows thousands and thousands of neophyte writers to plunge straight off into the deep end, with the result that the self-publishing sea is layered thick with their corpses….

In the second place, I am not sure I would personally have many stones to throw. I think I write fairly effective sentences, and I have been at this a very long while (depressingly so), but, even so, I trip up all the time. The hard-copy edit of Princess of Fire has rubbed my nose in that fact (more about that below). And I remember quite clearly how long it has taken me to get to whatever level of competence I have achieved.

Here’s the truth– English is a hard language, even for native speakers. This bastard child of German and French, bespangled with a host of ‘loan’ words (more like, hijacked), is tricky and ever-shifting– and it hasn’t helped that formal grammarians have long insisted on imposing Latinate rules of grammar on an essentially Germanic tongue, which has basically gummed things up even worse for generations (but that’s another post).

To handle this language effectively, you have to learn the rules. You have to study. You have to read good writing, by good authors. I have already name-dropped Stephen King, so I’ll go the whole hog and mention his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, as an excellent primer on not just what tools a writer needs, but as an outline of how life influences a writer. Among other things, King hammers hard on the idea that to write effectively, you must read widely. And then you have to write, write, write, over and over again, figuring out what works and getting rid of what doesn’t.

And while I’m mentioning books, if you don’t have a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, stop reading this and go get one. Now. I’m not kidding.

All of this takes time. And time, I fear, is something many new or young writers don’t want to part with. Worse, they don’t understand that there is no other way to become a good writer than by putting in the effort and the time. Instead they charge ahead, afire with the enthusiasm of seeing their work online, on Kindle or Smashwords or Nook, and then wonder why the reviews are cruel, if they get reviews at all. This is, frankly, one of the downsides of the self-publishing revolution.

I’m saying nothing new here, but I think these truths need to be repeated every so often. More than that, though, I want to try end on a hopeful note. The fact is, everyone starts in the same place with writing, except for those extremely rare native geniuses who are born with pen in hand. Most of us have to do it the hard way. And that should be encouraging to anyone struggling to learn how to write. You need to write, and read, and persist. Therein lies your hope.

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On another note–

Re: Princess of Fire , yes, progress is being made, but my first estimate of a week to put in the hard-copy changes was, unsurprisingly, way, way off. Part of the problem is that I am in the process of re-writing, from scratch, a climactic piece of action; also, the real life demands of being unemployed, of dealing with medical Cobras and unemployment insurance issues, having been seriously distracting. But I’m closing in….

Later.

Stephen King’s “Carrie”, power, and love.

I have started what I hope and pray is the final edit of Princess of Shadows. Initial progress is slow, but that was the pattern with Princess of Wonders and Princess of Secrets as well, so I expect the pace will pick up.

So far no major issues have turned up, but I am finding that certain bits of inattentive writing still linger after four drafts (or is it five? I’ve lost count…). Here’s a fairly representative example–

The guard and Swallow conducted Kathy down a corridor
and out a door. Steps led down to a wide courtyard. It was wide,
nearly a hundred feet or so, and perhaps half that across.

Sigh. Fortunately, as I mentioned before, the CreateSpace proof PDF is proving to be very useful at spotting this sort of thing.

Meanwhile, as part of my research for my unnamed superhero novel, I have been reading Stephen King’s Carrie. That may seem like a strange choice as a superhero story, because, of course, Carrie’s not a superhero, but I am not approaching the subject in the traditional manner. This goes back to my discussion of the movie Chronicle (see the May archive) and the theme of what ordinary people do when suddenly given incredible power.

Full disclosure– I am not a horror fan, nor am I a particular fan of Stephen King. I have never read any of his books, other than an abortive attempt at The Gunslinger some years ago. On the other hand, I can, at least from a distance, recognize a skilled writer.

I picked up Carrie because it has some superficial similarities to the nascent concept I have in my head. As with Chronicle, I wanted to see how other authors have handled this subject, mainly because my own thinking about my story remains pretty nebulous.

(Mild spoilers– mild for me, at least– herein follow)

Stephen King himself has said that Carrie was “a young book by a young writer“, and at times I can see that– there are places where the narrative is thin, and some of the characterizations are two-dimensional. One of the devices King employed was the insertion of passages from reports, investigation testimony, and books written by characters after Prom Night, as it’s called, which tends to telegraph the action, perhaps more than we want it to.

On the other hand, King’s writing in general is taut, and his depiction of Carrie, her mother, and their relationship is harrowing, and form the effective core of the book. Margaret, Carrie’s mother, is a fanatic with a twisted religious lens, through which she views the world and her daughter. Her abuse of Carrie lays the foundation for Carrie’s inability to handle the power she has (in this case, hereditary), as well as her victimization by the outside world. Carrie has no foundational love on which to fall back.

For a moment, when Sue Snell, a girl who thoughtlessly participated in the moment of public humiliation of Carrie that starts the novel, tries to make amends by inducing her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom, it looks as if maybe Carrie will defy her mother, come out of her shell, and start to find some joy in life. This is taken away from her in an instant by the vindictive petty vengeance of a spoiled rich girl, which tips Carrie over the edge into creating a holocaust.

Parts of this novel are hard to read, and not just the horrifying interactions between Carrie and her mother. Carrie’s humiliation at the prom is painful, because you want this kid to emerge from the hell of her previous life, and that chance is taken away by shallow cruelty. There is not a lot of redemption in this book, except possibly for Sue Snell, the one character who appears to grow as a consequence of what happens. I wish there was more redemption, more affirmation, and that is undoubtedly a critical difference (one of many, doubtless) between me and Stephen King. King isn’t afraid to look straight and unflinchingly into the heart of pain and failure. I find that difficult in my own writing. In some way or another, I need to learn how to do this.

As to power, though, Carrie seems to confirm an understanding that has been forming in my own mind. I go back, once again, to Superman. Superman has the foundational love of the Kents to anchor him and to teach him how to use his powers for good; Carrie has nothing but the abuse and psychosis of her mother, which leaves her unequipped to handle either her power or the petty cruelties of other children. When she lashes out, it is rather analogous to a teenager opening fire in a classroom with an AK-47– a school-shooting by other means.

Of course, that analogy is part of the point– Carrie’s superpowers are a metaphor for the power anyone has to cause pain and suffering, whether it’s with a gun or a cruel word. We learn to use our power for good rather than harm as we are taught to empathize– to understand and to love others as we love ourselves.

I can almost state the interaction of foundational love versus power as a formula–

love > power

At least, we hope it is. Myths like Superman (and it is a myth) tell us it is. Looking at the real world, though, a note of doubt interrupts our certainty. There are plenty of people who have betrayed their love for power, or wealth, or some other lie that at some moment appeared more important or of more weight than the fuel that actually makes us human. People fail to love for many different reasons, and often with catastrophically tragic results.

So there is an uncertainty in how this contest between love and power will play out in each human being. And in that uncertainty, perhaps, lies the key to my story.

Hmm– maybe I need to see Man of Steel, after all.

Later.