Outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of old Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Actually it’s a statue of David by someone else. It’s a copy. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia not far away. Michelangelo’s David is truely remarkable but what is more revealing are the accompanying statues of slaves; unfinished statues. The figures seem to be emerging out of the stone; or to put it another way, they were always in the stone; Michelangelo just had to remove the marble from around them to reveal them in all their glory. Music is like that. The Clarinet Concerto always existed; Mozart just wrote it down so now it’s called Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Stories are like that too.
I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.
or, in other words; stories have always existed, writers just have to write them down as accurately as they can.
If you hear a writer say “…Oh, it just wrote itself, really,” this is what they are talking about without really understanding anything about it.
Plotting is way down on King’s list of what’s important. For him it’s narration – to move the story along; description – to create a sensory reality; and dialogue – to bring characters to life.
I’ve never plotted any more than I ‘d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible …. plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.
I’ve heard, and read, many times that Stephan King is a writer’s writer. It’s a good line, although I’m not sure what it means. I took it to mean that I should read him. I’ve been planning to but as his work is not my preferred type (hate the word ‘genre’) other books kept preempting my plan. And then this one came along: a Christmas gift from my sister.
King calls it a memoir, and it certainly is. His chapter on his early struggles – menial jobs – many rejections, a family to support – is particularly honest and heart-warming. Yet, his chapter on being an alcoholic is electric. Talk about ‘being honest.’ It’s an insider’s view, the view of an alcoholic looking out with all the denials, justifications, and excuses that are virtually the ‘brand’ of all alcoholics but while he’s being one, seem particularly applicable to him and him alone.
But the life story doesn’t take long and soon he’s into the advice: the reason for reading it. I was heartened to read that his first piece of wisdom is, if you want to write, you must read. Phew! Good. I do that. His next piece of advice was to wage war on adverbs, especially attributive adverbs in dialogue: he said dismissively, she blithely said. His argument against adverbs like these was particularly convincing. I got up and opened my computer to the writing I had done that day and erased all my attributive adverbs, well, most of them. I had to make a few other adjustments to follow his advice: it should be perfectly clear how a line of dialogue should be said from the words themselves and, of course, the accumulated tension, tone, and information. Don’t be scared of oft repeating, he said, she said.
All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.
And vocabulary? “As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got it’s how you use it.” And if you have to run to the thesaurus to find the right word, it’s probably not the right word. He quotes Earnest Hemingway to seal the point.
“He came to the river. The river was there.”
He’s equally honest and up-front about narrative, description, dialogue and a myriad of other implements from his literary toolbox. I am very happy to now know that I share his belief in dialogue as one of the best ways to built character. There are some writers who avoid dialogue. What a missed opportunity!
However, I was, at times, at a disadvantage reading this book because he often makes his point by referring, in detail, to his own work and decisions he had to make, and why. I have never read anything by King so I found these passages redundant. Not his fault, but mine.
For a new writer like me (I can’t use the adjective ‘young’ any more), who’s grappling with the second draft of a major work that at the moment is a broad, messy, and a wooly thing, reading King’s On Writing now is the most serendipitous and useful coincidence.
All writers, especially new ones, and most readers would get a lot out of his insights into the writing process, the hazards and joys of writing for a living, and the more profound elements of imagination, fiction making, and self-fulfilment. Highly recommended.
I have a gripe with Mr King. He’s down on adverbs, but he’s also down on pronouns. And so he should be; he uses them so clumsily (Yes, I now its an adverb but its necessary here.)
Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing him/her out.
The phrase ‘him or her’ is bad enough, but ‘him/her’? Unforgivable! He uses ‘he and she’ and even ‘he/she’ – but thank god, not ‘s/he’!
This is one of the English language’s greatest failings: there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun. For centuries it has been common practice to use the masculine ‘he, him, and his’ to refer to both genders. Today, this is not acceptable. But, there is a solution. What’s wrong with using the gender-neutral plural pronoun? Nothing. This has been around for a few hundred years, from the 16th century in fact* (It’s also been a solution for Jane Austin, Bernard Shaw, and Barak Obama). Yes, it’s breaking a fundamental rule of subject-pronoun agreement which maybe a small problem for some but it fixes a much bigger problem. Hence King could’ve and should’ve written,
Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing them out.
Much simpler, easier, cleaner, and no confusion, despite the broken rule.
* He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.
– J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)
You can find the Kindle edition, as well as other formats, here.
On my dining room table. Each post-it note is a chapter and/or plot point. Over the last 4 years I’ve been spewing out scenes onto my screen in some, but generally no particular order. Today was an attempt to find the narrative arc. Initially it looked a mess – well, it still is a mess, but it’s now a mess with a little more order. It also gave me some idea where the holes are. There are many.
Here’s the Prelude to give you an idea of what it’s about.
If you ask a family member – of any family – if they are happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realise that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the nameless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.
If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it.
This is a story of a boy who did just that.
I needed an idea of what this boy might look like and I found this photo on the web and immediately I knew it was him:
He’s a fifteen year old boy who was hit by puberty ridiculously early and hard.
He’s a very naughty boy but affectionate, intelligent, and often annoying
… and he’s still at school.
A boy in a man’s body.
Potential titles: Knitting with Fog, Gulliver’s Travels, or just Gulliver.
Works like this are gleaned from what novels become not how they are made. A more accurate title, if accurateness is what a title should contain, is How Novels Are.
If you are interested in such things, Mullan gives you a detailed description of the building blocks that he describes from a considerable collection of novels. Don’t worry if you haven’t read them all; one of the beauties of this book is that it whets your appetite for some of the books you had no intention of reading, such as Underworld by Don DeLillo, which is a novel that sets out to describe the second half of the 20th century via the ownership of a single object: in this case, a baseball. Mullan’s descriptions of novelistic tools also throw some intellectual light on those books you may have recently read that left you feeling a little underwhelmed: in my case Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, a ghost story by Ruth Rendell.
However don’t be fooled into thinking that these tools sit in the novelist’s brain like paint on an artist’s pallet waiting to be chosen. This is not true. No novelist thinks “Today I’ll begin a romantic mystery via a split-narrative, with a parenthetically obsessed first narrator, in an attempt to personalise her skaz, who cleverly murders the plain speaking (no contractions) second narrator where the clue to the crime rests on an ekphrasis, in the first chapter, that is proven to be false in the last causing the revelation of a huge, but oh-so-clever, coincidence that will have critics falling over themselves to categorise the bloody thing”… maybe I’ve gone too far but I think you know what I mean.
Novelists tend to write what interests them, and, more importantly, what interests them the most is how to write, describe, conjure, and explore something that up until that point they had no idea how even to begin; and there’s the crux of it all: who was the artist that, when asked how do you start a picture? said, “you start with a mark on a white canvas”. Ditto for writing a novel.
John Mullan has been Professor of English at University College, London, since 2005 and is currently head of the English Department. He was General Editor of the Pickering & Chatto seriesLives of the Great Romantics by Their Contemporaries, and Associate Editor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He is also a regular TV and radio broadcaster and a literary journalist; he writes on contemporary fiction for the Guardian and was a judge for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Since How Fiction Works was published in 2006 two other volumes have hit the stands: Anonymity. A Secret History of English Literature (Faber and Faber, 2007) and What Matters in Jane Austen?(Bloomsbury 2012). He is host of the excellent Guardian book club.
“Symbolism in a novel is risky because it presses meaning on the reader.” This is one of the rare references to the reader and quite an important one. Unfortunately he spends little time discussing the role of the reader; or maybe such investigation has only risen in importance since 2006. There is now a strong literary theory called readers response theory …
“which gained prominence in the late 1960s, that focuses on the reader or audience reaction to a particular text, perhaps more than the text itself. Reader-response criticism can be connected to post-structuralism’s emphasis on the role of the reader in actively constructing texts rather than passively consuming them … reader-response criticism argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it. (www.poetryfoundation.org)
That landscape of Uncle Harry gathering cobwebs behind the broom cupboard or the script in your bottom drawer doesn’t mean a thing until someone has a reaction to it, be it small (it’s alright) or big (Wow! How wonderful!): art isn’t art until someone consumes it.
This idea that there is an active role for the reader in literature is demonstrated by Colm Toibin’s latest novel Nora Webster (Penguin 2014). It’s a moving tale of a recently widowed middle-aged woman, mother of four, in 1960’s Ireland who finds her way back into her own life; one without her husband. No place or person is described. When Nora’s neighbour, an inquisitive old biddy from down the road, comes calling to look about a bit the reader is left to provide his or her own image of an ‘inquisitive old biddy from down the road’. This isn’t hard to do as most of us know of such a character from our past (or present). A grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters is all that is needed to conjure up in the mind of the reader exactly what Toibin wants; it isn’t important that your ‘grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters’ may not be geographically like the one in Toibin’s memory, but it’s the idea, the atmosphere, the tone, the times, that Toibin is after; and that the reader can provide.
Of course there are wonderful novelists who describe people and location in great detail but there is something nourishing for a reader when all that is needed is a key (“a belly held in by straining buttons”) that unlocks a memory for a reader and provides everything that is needed for the character (location) to come to life.
I found this book fascinating, despite its neglect of the role of the reader. It almost doubled my ‘to read’ list.
Although Mullan is an academic the prose of How Novels Work is leveled at the general reader but if you are more academically minded try How Fiction Works by literary critic James Wood (Jonathan Cape 2008) who attacks the information, fundamentally the same as in Mullan’s book, but from a completely different angle.