Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Learning From A Master

Stephen King is a rarity: a great writer.

There are lots of good writers out there, some average ones and innumerable bad and terrible ones. So what is it that makes a writer great? If you can answer that question, write a book about it and your fortune will be made.

Even it we do not have that knowledge, by reading the books of great writers, we can a lot about the craft of writing.

I've always had a negative viewpoint on Stephen King as a writer, solely due to the fact that he writes horror. I viewed his books as visceral, peppered with unnecessary expletives and more gore than you can shake a stick at. Problem is, I'd never read any of his work and my view was based on the film adaptations such as The Lawnmower Man, The Shining and Christine.

A few years ago someone mentioned a book on writing by Stephen King titled 'On Writing', and to this day I have yet to find a clearer account of how to write or what it takes. It was written in his own style, made no promises, but did give plenty of down to earth, simple advice.

One point he made early on was new writers should never worry about their perceived lack vocabulary as their knowledge of English will be enough for them to write a book. Having read Insomnia I can see what he means.

Which brings me to his own work.

As I said, I had a negative view, but, Stephen King is an internationally known author and keeps writing bestsellers. His first book, Carrie, was published in 1974 and he has written at least one novel per year since then. Some have done better than others, but they have all been bestsellers and continue to sell to this day.

So what is it that makes his writing so good that people keep coming back to him? That was a question I could only answer by reading a couple of his books.

As chance had it, I was browsing in a charity shop and they had an offer of two books for £1.50 and they had two of King's novels there, Insomnia and Dreamcatcher. Remembering his track record, the advice from almost all writers that you need to read to learn how to write, I picked them both up and bought them.

I read Insomnia first and what a book it is.

First up, the language is plain and straightforward. There are no words that you need get out a dictionary for and his descriptions are detailed without being overwhelming or overlong.

Secondly, the swear words are not scattered around on every page. The use of expletives is narrow and only where it truly fits the character and the scene, something that a LOT of 'intellectual' authors should learn how to do.

Thirdly, his ability to tell a story is superb. Although the book is over 600 pages long, at no point did I feel it needed cutting down, nor did it lag in its pace.

I have learnt a lot about writing from that one book and I will read more of his back catalogue over the coming months and years.

Who are your favourite, bestselling authors? Who are the ones that have been writing for twenty years and are still at the top of the tree? Who could you learn from?



DRC said...

It must have been Stephen King day Yesterday, what with my discovery that they are making his Dark Tower Series into a trilogy of films (Dark Tower series - make sure you add that to your list of King books to read).

I love Stephen King and have a growing collection of his work. He is one of my favourites, him and Anne Rice, although there are clear differences between styles.

Rambling Scribbler said...

I've recently read King's "On Writing" as well, and I have to agree with you it really is one of the most intelligible guides to writing I have found.

I second DRC's comment saying that you should read the Dark Tower series, because they are amazing. They're quite long, so it's a commitment, but I found it worth the time.

Along with news that they're making the series into a movie, turns out he's writing a new book to the DT series too, which is a bit surprising considering it's been a while since he wrote the last one, but exciting nonetheless.