Monday, May 13, 2013

Starting Afresh

A little while ago, Chris Hill, who kindly did an interview here on the barge, did a post about 'How to Write' books. I found it interesting as it's not something I've ever thought much about until recently. That is, I never used to read 'how to write' articles, books, blog posts or anything of that nature. I just wrote. Simple.

But since I've been following a number of writers on Twitter and seeing links to really hundreds of such websites and articles, I've started wondering how much they might help me. I read a few blogs about editing and found them useful, and then I bought Stephen King's book, On Writing. After enjoying the autobiographical part, I waded through the advice - he's a bit dogmatic about some things, and I even felt annoyed about some of his remarks about what makes 'good' writers or 'bad' writers. Since I'm not a fan of his fiction, it wasn't difficult to react with thoughts like "And who are you to say what is good and bad," convinced as I was - and to a large extent still am - that what we think and judge to be good is mostly a matter of taste and choice. Cheeky of me, huh? For sure, I can recognise some writers as great, but I might dislike their subject matter and style. I have once or twice abandoned award winning novels half way through as heaps of self-indulgent twaddle. I won't list those that have inspired this reaction because others might think they are wonderful. And that's the point. It's about what inspires us, and as a writer, I try and write the type of books I enjoy reading. In the end, whatever we think of someone's skill as a wordsmith, it doesn't always mean we will like, respect or even want to read what they write. Apart from that, certain styles and topics come into fashion and then go again.

So what did I learn from Stephen King's book? Well one thing was a consciousness about adverbs that I never had before. He hates them and makes quite an issue of it. I'm still grappling with this one as I just love my adverbs. They give so much colour and humour, and I hate to see them go, but yes, I have to admit I use too many, so the delete key has been busy of late. That's a minor detail, though. The other, more important tips were firstly, when you finish a first edit, leave it alone yourself but print it out and send it to some trusted readers. Ask them to give you honest, constructive feedback. The second is to start doing something else so that you can go back and read your book afresh.

I have now followed both these pieces of advice. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I've recently finished an intense edit, and I am now waiting for the printed copies to send out to a few test readers.  The other tip is that I've started a new writing project. This is not fiction. It is the account of how I convert the Vereeniging (the barge in the header picture of my blog) into my home. It will, I hope,  be humorous as much of the process was very amusing and it follows on from Watery Ways, picking up just before I left off at the end of that tale. I am already enjoying the change and I'm finding it much easier to write than fiction, so it's very refreshing for me.

I hope it will move quite fast as I'd like to have the first draft done by the end of the summer. Ambitious? Maybe, but it's good to be busy with something new. And for that, despite my occasional annoyance with his pedantry, I can thank Mr King.

By the way, the man is amazing. He survived the most horrible crippling injuries when he was hit by a reckless driver, and if his book is to be believed, it is his passion for writing that helped him recover after months of hospitalisation, several operations and deep depression. It is a very inspiring book in many respects, and I do recommend it fully (see another adverb!).


  1. I love 'how to write' books. I agree with some advice, disagree with others - but it all helps me to think about my writing in a different way. Some have plenty of exercises - and I do some of them, and leave others as just too much twaddle, but everything informs my writing one way or another. And it reminds me just how much I love it!

  2. Hi Jo, I think I might read some more myself. I have definitely found the articles I've read on editing and writing very useful, and yes, you can always lose what you don't like or don't agree with. As you say, it reminds us of how much we love it. Enjoy your weekend in Venice!

  3. Val,
    I like some of his works, and I do believe he's a person that cannot help but write, as some musicians could never stop playing music. To me he seems to be the literary version of Les Paul, who was playing one night a week in a local club right up to the time he died at age 94.

  4. I worry about 'how to write' books, as they imply that one must adhere to a set of rules to be successful. Personally, I have always followed Ezra Pound's 'Make it new' mantra as much as I can. I suppose that someone who reads as widely and avidly as I do is exposing herself to example after example, all of which may (or not)influence subsequent practice. I'm also conscious of the fact that I studied literature at university and that in itself challenged me to look critically at writers' practices.
    Reading other people's draft fiction makes me also VERY aware that some people without the fortunate opportunities that I have had to imbibe good practice genuinely (adverb, haha!) need guidance, and so books which offer good advice have a value and a place.
    My sympathies lie very strongly with your points and your point of view, Valerie. You talk very good sense indeed here, but also raise some very interesting and thought-provoking questions for all writers to consider.
    I found P.D. James' 'Talking about Detective Fiction' very good indeed, particularly as it offers a critique of what writers actually (over-used adverb, haha!) do.
    I'm so looking forward to reading about how the Vereeniging came to be as she is. I can't wait!

  5. Tom, thank you so much for contributing here. That is a great analogy! Les Paul and Stephen King, both immensely popular and very skilled at their craft. Those with as much experience and talent as they have surely must have much to offer, but even so, I can admire both without necessarily liking what they produce - or everything SK advises :-)

    Christina, thank you too very much for your kind comment! What I am sure you have to your advantage is not only your literature background, passion for books and talent for writing, but also your archaeology and history studies. These must have helped to guide you into thinking critically probably even before critical thinking was a subject taught at schools and universities. My impression is growing that a healthy scepticism and ability to approach one's own work critically is of immense benefit to a writer who also self edits. I have come to this rather late in life, but I am thoroughly enjoying the learning process! And I have to say that reading your blog and your books as well as those of the other writer/bloggers I have 'met' here (Jo and Carol being cases in point) is very much part of it :-)

  6. Hi Val! When I did my blog on the subject lots of people recommended the Stephen King book - it seems to be a very popular one and you clearly found it some use too. I've not read it, maybe I should. As you know I'm in two minds about these sort of 'how to write' books and I'd really rather be reading a good novel - but I have found that, taken in moderation, they can be useful. One thing they do is expose you to a different perspective and that can make you look at your own writing with fresh eyes - which is often a good thing.

  7. Chris, I have to thank you for making me think about this 'do I or don't I' approach to the 'How to Write' books, but like Christina's, I think yours is a great perspective as well. In the end, reading these books out of interest and looking at other writers' points of view certainly makes you evaluate your own craft. The risk for me personally is losing my own voice by taking too much of what they say on board (not literally :-)) I think for writers (also like me) who have had no training, no formal acknowledgment of their skills and no real way of knowing whether what they do is good or not other than from reader feedback, books like these can be either a curse or a catalyst for improvement. I guess it's always good to be aware of both these possibilities and to keep an objective balance..

  8. I'm also addicted to adverbs. Stephen King's book sounds like a great read, and it's amazing how much he's gone through.


  9. Trouble is with 'how to write' books they are so subjective. Who was it who said: there are just three rules for writing a successful book - and nobody knows what they are!!

    Having just been told by my about to become EX agent that my current book is a pile of poo (not quite how she put it, but you get the drift) whereas others have praised it as a very funny book..or enjoyed the opening I posted on my blog a while ago, I think these books answer the question: what makes a nice colour. In other words, it's up to the individual writer/reader. (oh, and din't George Orwell set down 10 rules for writing well...Rule 10: feel free to ignore the other 9. Nuff said.

  10. Haha, Carol! I love you :-) I'm not sure I'd ever have had the courage to say that, but I am so glad you have! And get that book published on Kindle at least! I think with the profile you already have, you could do very well with it.

  11. Every time I read something about how to write it scares the pants off me.It all seems so complicated and I just love writing,I don't want it to be a chore I just want to keep on enjoying it. As many have said everyone likes different stlyes of writng,different kinds of stories.I don't think there is a formula to being successful and seling millions of copies.Fifty shades of Grey has got to be one of the most badly written books ever and yet it passed editors and was published and is making millions,I'd love to know whay S.King thinks of that one,Oh my! These last two words are used in every paragraph of fifty shades of Grey.

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  13. I agree with Anne, here! It's scary once the directions are written out. I think what I enjoy about my own writing is the freedom. As soon as there appear to be specific rules, it makes me sigh as I watch my sails droop in the doldrums...
    Writing, or any art form for that matter, is a huge personal endeavour and applying too many rules can ruin a good thing - I think this might apply to many aspects of life!
    However, having not SK's book, I cannot comment on it specifically. Maybe I will gather the courage.

  14. Anne and Dale., I am with you about the chore factor. I've actually only read the Stephen King book apart from a number of articles on editing, but as I said, I'm afraid I will lose my own voice if I follow the 'How to' books too much. I have always written just because I love it and I try to write in a different style or do different things to challenge myself and experiment.

    I spent a lot of time muttering about SK's book, but it was inspiring in many ways because of the autobiographical element. He overcame so much to be the writer he is and that in itself is very impressive. And, while I got annoyed about his rather opinionated views on what is good and bad in writing techniques, he offers some very good tips about the process of producing a book.


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