Why I hate writing, Part 8: The craft

Stephen King image courtesy of photobucket.com

If you’ve been following along at home, you may have realized by now that I don’t really hate writing. I mostly just hate bad writing, which technically would include much of my own. But I’m not very technical. Or humble. So my writing doesn’t count. Snort!

I guess there are several ways to define what constitutes good writing from bad, and what I consider great writing you might consider very lacking indeed. Stephen King has been poo-pooed in many literary circles. Personally, I think he’s a genius, and I’d be willing to bet that many of his harshest critics have never even bothered to read any of his books or simply suffer from professional jealousy. For those who think he’s sold out and writes formulaic novels and short stories to pad his bank account, again I would encourage you to read at least three of his books, and if you’ve read his books and come away thinking they’re only horror stories, I don’t suppose there’s anything I could say to you to convince you otherwise. You just don’t get it. Despite being taken lightly by the literary world, Mr. King takes the craft of writing very seriously. I love his approach to writing, and I love what he says about the craft in the Afterword of Full Dark, No Stars. The following excerpts are just a few highlights from the Great One:

When people ask me about my work, I have developed a habit of skirting the subject with jokes and humorous personal anecdotes (which you can’t quite trust; never trust anything a fiction writer says about himself). It’s a form of deflection and a little more diplomatic than the way my Yankee forebears might have answered such questions: It’s none of your business, chummy. But beneath the jokes, I take what I do very seriously, and have since I wrote my first novel, The Long Walk, at the age of eighteen.

I have little patience with writers who don’t take the job of writing seriously, and none at all with those who see the art of story-fiction as essentially worn out. It’s not worn out, and it’s not a literary game. It’s one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us. It’s the way we answer the, How can such things be? Stories that sometimes–not always, but sometimes–there’s a reason.

From the start…I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal…if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief)…

Here’s something else I believe: if you’re going into a very dark place…then you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything. If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all? The great naturalist writer Frank Norris has always been one of my literary idols, and I’ve kept what he said on this subject in mind for over 40 years: “I never truckled; I never took off my hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth.”

But Steve, you say, you’ve made a great many pennies during your career, and as for truth…that’s variable, isn’t it? Yes, I’ve made a good amount of money writing my stories, but the money was a side effect, never the goal. Writing fiction for money is a mug’s game. And sure, truth is in the eye of the beholder. But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth, but as long as it’s the writer’s truth–as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold out his or her hat to Fashion–all is well. For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behavior for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt. Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do–to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.

~ Stephen King, Bangor, Maine, December 23 2009

There is a vunerability in King’s writing which, for me, all great writers must possess. Or as another one of my favorite writers would say, you have to be willing to write naked. Do that and you’ll have at least one loyal fan of your writing, and many more I suspect.

What say you? How do you define great writing? Do you know why you think it’s great, or do you just know?

Editor’s Note: If you haven’t read Full Dark, No Stars and are considering reading it after this post, fair warning: It is very dark. Probably some of the darkest stories I’ve read from King, and that’s saying something. But like he said, “If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all?”

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24 Responses to “Why I hate writing, Part 8: The craft”

  1. Maureen May 23, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    The best writing is honest and says in a fresh way what is universal. If it has those qualities, it can be as dark it needs to be.

  2. Jason May 23, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    I love King. Always have loved King. As for “great writing”…well, I just know it when I see it. And I wish I could write it.

  3. Laura_the_Wise May 23, 2011 at 9:31 pm #

    I happen to love Stephen King, and quite apart from being scorned by the literary world, I think he’s very well thought of (by those who actually read him instead of stewing in jealousy, haha) for his book On Writing. My favorite King novel is Misery, which is as much about writing as it is a great story. And I think very few people can do that without sounding pretentious.

  4. Simply Darlene May 23, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

    How do I define great writing?

    If a story piles data into my basket and tells me how to wash my clothes, it might be okay, or even good, but not great.

    If a story tucks me into a stinky sock, tosses me in the machine, and washes me with the rest of the laundry, then it’s been a great read. I like to get to the end of the load and realize I have become part of what needs folding.

    ~ Does that make sense?


    • katdish May 24, 2011 at 6:50 am #

      Makes perfect sense to me. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but there you go…

      • Jonathan B May 26, 2011 at 6:39 am #

        “Not sure if that’s a good thing” reminded me of this exchange from the Firefly episode “Safe”:

        Mal: Cattle on the ship three weeks, she don’t go near ’em. Suddenly we’re on Jianying, and she’s got a driving need to commune with the beasts?
        River: They weren’t cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see sky, and they remember what they are.
        Mal: Is it bad that what she said made perfect sense to me?

  5. mori May 24, 2011 at 5:59 am #

    good writing for my opinion is fluent but a little complicated and mysterious at the same time the complications makes it interesting .

    I love descriptions of characters and places that makes me feel I am really there

  6. Michelle DeRusha May 24, 2011 at 7:05 am #

    I just finished King’s memoir “On Writing” last night — loved it; lots of good advice. Who knew adverbs were a writer’s kiss of death?!

  7. Cathy May 24, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    King’s not the greatest writer alive, but Under the Dome (the only novel of his I’ve read, even though I adore him) didn’t have a SINGLE dull page in it…for more than 1000 pages.

    And I have NEVER seen another writer accomplish that.

    (By the way, the NYT review of Under the Dome basically said that King had better be careful…’cause he’s almost writing literature. They’re coming around to him.)


    • Laura W. May 24, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

      Sounds like you need to read more Stephen King, Cathy! Haha. 🙂 I mean, I wouldn’t say he’s the best writer alive–that depends a lot on personal taste and who you’re comparing him to–but I’d recommend Salem’s Lot (hands down the most frightening vampire novel I’ve ever read), or Misery, which is gruesome and has some very dark comedy.

      • Cathy May 24, 2011 at 2:24 pm #

        King’s stuff is just a little too dark for me to take on a consistent basis, but trust me…I have the deepest admiration for him, and am pretty familiar with his work. I’ve read some of his short stories, and I own not only “On Writing,” but also “Secret Windows” (which also contains a bit of his fiction.)

        If you want to know who KING thinks are some of the best writers alive, check out the edition of Best American Short Stories that he guest-edited. Those writers blow my mind. King doesn’t write with the depth, nuance, sharpness, or elegance that they do – and I suspect he’d be the first one to tell you that.

        Having said that, I also suspect that King is fully CAPABLE of writing like that…he just knows that that is not what the masses want to read. The finest writers (Alice Munro, for example) do not enjoy near the success of, say, Stephenie Meyer. I’m not saying King is selling out…I just think he’s giving people what they want.

        Which is still pretty d*** good. As I said, his editing prowess and his ability to keep the story moving ARE just about the best in the world.

        • katdish May 24, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

          Thanks, Cathy. I’m going to look for both of those books on Amazon.

          • Cathy May 24, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

            Secret Windows is out of print, but you can easily find it at powells.com, if you can’t find it on Amazon. I got my copy at Powells. 🙂

        • Laura_the_Wise May 24, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

          I find it amazing the way King makes you care about stories. I was reading one of his novella collections, “Four Past Midnight,” and one of the stories is a rather cheesy premise–an airplane accidentally goes back in time through a wormhole, and the passengers have to figure out how to “get back to the future,” as it were. And yet, I couldn’t put it down; it had me riveted. There’s a certain focused energy to his writing that really grips you.

  8. Megan Willome May 24, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    Great post, Kathy. I’ve read King’s “On Writing” and loved it but have not read any of his fiction. I’m getting there, after loving Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

    Love King’s comments about a murderer helping a little old lady across the street. Sounded like something out of the movie “Crash.”

  9. Kelly Sauer May 24, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    An inspiring post. Right up my alley.

  10. jasonS May 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    To me, good writing is real and honest and makes you think about things differently. It forces you to at least consider the author’s perspective whether you agree or not. That’s when I know it’s powerful writing. I think that makes sense. 🙂 Thanks Kat.

    • Laura W. May 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm #

      “It forces you to consider the author’s perspective whether you agree or not.” That’s so true…it also makes you sympathize with completely unsympathetic characters, like the murderer who helps little old ladies across the street.

  11. van025 May 24, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    A inspiring post with lot of good advices.Thanks for your sharing

  12. floyd May 25, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    The last King novel I read was The Green Mile. It was before the movie and of course the movie couldn’t do justice to the pictures of the mind. I remember trying to finish it before my vacation ended. As we were coming through customs they must have thought I was trying to hide something by pretending to read that book. They kept pulling the dogs back to me and my suitcase. I did finish it before we got to the car.
    I agree, real life situations that everyone can relate to is what captures our hearts.

  13. Jonathan B May 26, 2011 at 7:11 am #

    Is there anything of King’s that *isn’t* dark? I haven’t read any of his due to the content rather than anything against him as an author. I pretty much stick to Christian authors for suspense-type novels since I can count on them coming back to a godly viewpoint (most of the time, anyway).

    Frank Peretti is my favorite of that genre. Everything he writes generally flows naturally into pictures in my head, which is part of how I identify great writing. If the words blur into pictures to the point that I sometimes have to stop and go back and re-read a paragraph to get all the details because the story is flowing more in my head than on the page, that’s usually an excellent book. “The Oath” is the darkest of his books I’ve read so far, and is one of those books you can’t really tell anyone anything about without giving away the story. “Monster” is also very good for the suspense reader.

    Ted Dekker and James Byron Huggins also have places on my shelf in that genre. My most recent Dekker read was actually a collaboration with Frank Peretti, titled “House”. I think you’d really like that one. James Byron Huggins’ work sometimes ventures into areas that are Catholic rather than general Christian teaching/traditions, but I can usually hold those up against the Bible to categorize them between tradition or error and then move on. Huggins’ “Cain” is as gory as I get in “on-screen gore” typically, but the storyline makes the gore non-gratuitous, and it generally feels like it’s there to show the depth of evil rather than there to titilate. His “Leviathan” is absolutely fascinating. I was not only riveted on the first reading, but every time I’ve re-read it since. Much of it’s gore is the off-screen kind, where you know what’s about to happen but it doesn’t describe it.

    • katdish May 26, 2011 at 7:46 am #

      If you’re a fan of Peretti and Dekker, I would definitely recommend The Green Mile. It’s dark in places, but his most redemptive story in my opinion.

  14. Jake May 26, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    “It’s one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us.”

    I don’t write about things I don’t know, unless I’m just discovering them right then and there. Which is funny, I have a couple of people who text me after I post and ask questions like, “is this about me?” or “Is this about our church?” I always tell them I would like to think it’s bigger than that, but yes, the experience was _______. I don’t know what to do other than be honest, even when I’m a grumpy ho… I think we all relate to honesty a million times better than anything that’s been contrived because there’s something genuine in it. If like Stephen King’s story, we eventually get some cash out of our honesty, it doesn’t cheapen it, if anything it should reinforce a modest appreciation for vulnerability- even in fiction.

    I hate reading bad writing, but I try to see the heart behind it all. I think it makes some people’s blogs more tolerable. Fortunately, you’re not one of those people. Kathy, I always love what you have to say.

  15. bman (The Underfold) May 31, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    Hey! Thanks for this. 🙂

    You know me so well.

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