“On Writing”-Learning the Craft

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This book had been on my “to-read” list for a long time. I have never been a serious writer-the most I did was concoct stories inside my mind, and sometimes type out a few words. When that meagre habit too dwindled away, I decided to give this book a read. Perhaps, just to console myself that at least I was reading about writing, if not really writing. Also, perhaps because this qualified for the task #7 of the 2017 Reading Challenge.

It was a good decision.

I definitely did write more in the past few days than I have done in the past two years. Reading this memoir-of-sorts helped me identify my major road block to writing-extensive planning. I would spend days and days planning out the characters. And the theme. And the location. And the plot. And the names (oh! Darn the names…you never get the right ones). And the chapters. You get my point. The planning-obsessed me could never start writing if I did not envision the detailed outline beforehand. By the time it came to really writing, I was exhausted. The once enjoyable hobby started to seem like a task-and thus the stories stayed there, safely locked inside my head. Slowly fading away until what remained was only the silhouette, because the other parts had been covered by dust. It was a task to clean it all away.

When it really comes to writing, the point as the author puts it, is to stay honest to the story. And tell the story to yourself first, as soon as possible. Once the writer starts getting far from the story, inertia sets in. Yes, planning helps out—but writing is much more than the plot. Story takes the centre-stage, although without the other important elements, the stage looks very vacant. There is a beauty in exploring and excavating, too, and it might help you complete the basic outline of the story. After which, you are free to extort what you want out of the piece. This book illustrates many basics (like above mentioned) about writing without getting didactic at any point. Opinionated, maybe, but definitely not didactic.

Stephen King, the master story teller as he is, takes you through his journey as a person which somewhere (quite early) entwines with his journey as a writer. He is upfront on letting you know that the journey of a writer is not going to be easy. He also lets you know how he clung to hope by being focused on his passion, and stayed true to his writing by always being close to the origins. The books starts as an autobiography which later shifts to a conversational tone where King talks about writing in detail.

He dispels the common myths pertaining about the craft, such as the need for a great vocabulary or the need for stimulants to drive your creative process or the need for workshops; drives us back to the very basics that are sometimes overlooked by the budding writers in the quest to prove themselves; acquaints us with the common pitfalls (Swifties or excessive adverb usage, telling not showing the story, putting in unnecessary details/research); details out the process of publishing and what is to be done at each stage. The book answers the most important questions present in the minds of aspiring writers, and some other useful tips that would come in handy while writing. It does all of this, while still being a joyful read-King’s vivid imagery and beautiful descriptions establishes his credibility as a person who has a good command on his craft, which is evident even for a first time reader.

Of course, a lot of the content you’d already be aware of if you have been following any author’s interviews, but what this book adds is a good structure that helps you retain the stated basic principles. It also features a long list of books that inspired King.

Any vices? It is difficult to point out. Maybe it was the excessive reliance on the book “Element of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White or maybe it was the bluntness of King’s words that may have caused distress to some writers. As an amateur, I could not really zero down on the flaws.

Would I recommend this book? Absolutely. For anyone who dreams to be a published writer or wants to just know about the process of writing, or about the life of Stephen King, this is a book that you’d want to preserve in your bookshelf. Keep it at a place handy so that you could refer back to the advice or merely to know that you were not the only one that faced the hardships which came as collateral to the craft.

So, dear aspiring writer-you already are one. Start by putting one word at a time. You’d soon realise that the heart knows things, and so does the imagination, for you to keep going!

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Failure is a Friend

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Fingers set on the alphabets of the keyboard; the screen glaring back with a blank page. A definite invitation to write. Some thoughts dispersed in the corners of the mind were deftly collected, then framed into sentences, very creatively.  And word by word, enthusiastically, the page was adorned with lines of a lovely legend. The writer paused for a moment, browsed the article and frowned. Next moment, the backspace key came into action. The cursor blinked wildly, as wildly as the emotion that had overpowered everything else going on in his mind.

The Fear of failure. Afraid that the piece will not make the mark.

He leaned back on his chair and gulped down water. Sitting dejected, he wondered if he will ever accomplish what he had set out to do. He looked at the blank screen again, swivelled his chair, crossed his fingers and closed his eyes. He started to search his mind for various things he could write upon. Possible topics that would make his book an instant hit. Stardom? Not good. Vampires? The market is overflowing with vampire tales. Self-Help? It’s you who need it right now. Frustrated, he gave up on thinking as well, and sat staring at the ceiling.

Are you so scared that you will give up trying? Said a voice in his mind.
No, I am not giving up on trying, the writer justified, I am just looking for something….

…That would please everyone? And then, you would write things that others like. After a while, even your life will be defined by others. The voice completed, brusquely.
It’s not like that, he argued back. I just want to write something good.

And what is good? Asked the voice.
Anything well written, and has a decent story, and is liked by many, he replied, unsure.

Did you notice the “liked” in your sentence? The voice taunted. Why do you want to write something good?
I want my book to be a success, the writer shrugged.

Without even trying? The voice asked back.
No, I am trying, he said, I write every day for at least an hour.

And delete the contents. The voice added. You don’t go forth with it because you are scared that you might fail.
No one wants to fail, said the writer.

But failure isn’t as bad as you think, stated the voice.
I know how bad it is, he admitted. Every time I fail, a part of me loses faith in myself. I want to live up to my expectations.

There was silence for a while. You take it too harsh on yourself, my dear, consoled the voice. The feeling associated with failure is almost psychological. People celebrate success and mourn failures all because of the outcomes. The positive consequences of failure are often neglected. Failure is seen as a devil come to ruin your lives, but in reality it is a harsh and wise teacher. Harsh, because of its ways and wise because it is going to teach you things that you’ll remember for life.
The writer nodded, pensively.

Failure is a guide to your success, continued the voice.  By making you confront your own follies; failure crafts a surer path, and slowly eliminates the diversions. It equips you well with the knowledge that you would need to reach where you want to be. And thus, every failure is a cause to be grateful, for you’ve learned things that you might never know otherwise. And those things are important.
Therefore, you must keep trying. Even if you fail, that tiny “try” would take you a milestone nearer to your goal.
True, he said, very true.

Great people you revere today weren’t always successful. The difference was that they embraced their failures heartily, learned from it, and continued on to their paths to success. They are great, because they made use of their learnings, and learnt a lot.
“Why didn’t I think about this?”, he said out loud, smiling at his own folly.

But you are thinking, my dear, replied the voice. Yes I am, he thought. He swivelled back the chair, set his fingers on the keyboard again. As his fingers typed out all that was in his mind again, he promised himself that he would learn from his mistakes. There was beauty even in failing.

Of Books and Cooks

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I was reading A Clash of Kings (a commendable book I must say!), when this strange analogy struck my mind. How much this would suit your opinion, I cannot say, but I found it really apt. In a way, well, everything shares a common streak with everything else, if you look at it from the right angle. This one, though, was a little extraordinary. It bluntly pointed out the mistakes that we budding writers commit!

A book is quite like a recipe. The characters function as the major ingredients—veggies, let’s say, the things we can see from the very beginning; and most of it is identified when we open the dish (the book). The lesser-featured characters are also seen, a little later though, as we stir the dish. The plot is the minor ingredient—or the spices, which we realize about through our course of reading. How these two (the veggies and the spices) have been cooked completely depends on the writing style of the author.

Millions out there dream making a recipe that will one day be the most coveted one. Think day and night about a marvelous plot, brilliant characters, and plan to write it. Which remains a plan for a long while. Spotted: Flaw # 1. The recipe that you were talking about, have you ever tried cooking it? Listing down the procedure and cooking it are two very different things. Only after cooking will one see the overlying flaws. You need to write it down, not just plan. Write it down to the end. And once you get it done, you’ve many chances to re-do it, to make the appropriate changes. This time, you will be heading in a specific direction.

If you do not know much about cooking, then how do you plan to do it? Spotted: Flaw # 2. Knowledge of a field is of prime importance when you are going to do something new in that field. If you are not well-versed in the styles, how would you get about the variations? The recipe that you are trying, someone might have done it before. Despite all those hours you put in, you may not be credited for your own genuine work. So therefore, read. Read all the time that you are not writing. You will not only learn about new styles or plots, it is quite likely that you might get an idea. One that has a potential of #1 bestseller.

The book is brewed, the lines well set. But before it can hit the bookstores, a gourmet must give in his approval. The publisher, tired and frustrated, is not very impressed by your work. And there goes your rejection letter, which has you so dejected that you stop believing in the publishing industry. Spotted: Flaw # 3. Taste is a very subjective matter. The gourmet, in this case, is looking for specific things in your dish (just like the one in Ratatouille 🙂 ). So your job is to be optimistic and find the publisher who is looking for you kind of work. Well, you may make some alterations to your work, but this is a minor task. The major task is to keep trying.

Still Thinking? Don’t! Boil down the characters, flavor it with your perfect plot–baste, stew, fry or bake– then garnish it with the right ending. And your book is ready to be served!