I’ve recently finished listening to an audiobook by Stephen King called “On Writing.”
This is not one of his hair-raising tales, but…well, it’s hard to describe.
It actually reads as almost two separate books.
The first half of the book details his childhood, the things he found himself interested in as he grew up, and the influences that eventually turned him onto the craft of writing.
Stephen King details his first forays into fiction, the first dollar he ever made off writing (an original four page story that his mother bought), to his first really huge success (Carrie) and the things that happened after that.
The second half details a few of the stronger lessons that he feels every writer should know, and he lays them out in a language that’s easy to understand, with arguments that are hard to ignore.
A big chunk of the advice are things that I was first introduced to by Tami, actually. The biggest offender (and the longest section) actually deals with the hated passive voice, how King hates it, and how it can be fixed.
But there are some gems in there that our dear Authoress hasn’t really covered in depth quite yet (as far as I’m aware… >.>), so I’m taking the liberty of sharing some of the advice imparted by the book.
Largely speaking, this type of advice really applies to the craft of writing, but I would assume that there’s at least a little bit of a cross into other hobbies and disciplines as well.
Read bad books.
This will help you more when you’re just starting. Once you really sort of hit your stride, this advice falls to the wayside, but I hadn’t really thought about it before.
Bad books have just as much to teach you as good books.
Actually, scratch that.
I think that bad books teach you MORE.
This is closely related to some advice I shared a while back from a guy named Ira Glass. Essentially, it comes down to a matter of taste.
If you’re a writer (and even if you’re just a reader), you have a taste for books, and that taste is killer.
You KNOW what you like, and you know what you hate.
But here’s the interesting thing.
Until you attain a certain…proficiency with writing, this will hold true.
When you finish a GREAT book, if someone were to ask you “what made you like that book so much?”, generally speaking, there isn’t much in the way of specifics.
You’ll talk about how the characters were good and well-developed. You’ll talk about how the plot was well-paced and had a certain rhythm to it. You’ll talk about how it worked to scare you, or how it made you laugh…
But if I press you?
WHAT made the story scary?
HOW were the characters well-developed?
WHAT about the plot elements made it well-paced?
Well…it’s a little hard to say exactly WHY you enjoyed those elements quite so much, only that you did.
Let’s take the opposite case, though.
Let’s say you finish a book that left a bad taste in your mouth.
If someone were you ask you, “Why didn’t you enjoy this book?” or “Why couldn’t you finish this book?”, I’ll bet that you’ll know EXACTLY why.
Your answers may include things like:
“I found the dialogue too stiff and formal. Nobody talks like that in real life. It made the characters very flat and unbelievable.”
“The plot was too jumpy. It’s great that the author is trying to show us all these different perspectives, but he jumped from character to character too fast, I didn’t get the chance to really care about anyone before they died.”
“Well, I thought it was alright until I got to the ending. And then the author just pulls a deus ex machina and has a godlike power swoop in at the last second to make everything alright? Fuck that.”
It’s a matter of taste.
In the video about writing up above, Ira Glass says that it’s all about taste.
When you fall in love with a hobby, whether it’s watching TV shows, or reading or writing or listening to music…your taste is killer.
You KNOW what you like, and you KNOW what you don’t like.
Glass says that the problem is when you start trying to emulate or create (you start by loving reading, then you try writing. Or you start by listening to music, then trying to create the music you love), your skill isn’t on par with your taste.
When you encounter something that’s GOOD, it’s usually because it was created at a skill level that you can’t attain (at the beginning at least).
You KNOW it’s good, because your taste in books is good, but you don’t know exactly WHY it’s good because your skill level isn’t quite there yet.
On the contrary, when you encounter something that’s BAD, it’s usually because it was created at a skill level that you’ve attained and surpassed.
Or, at least, you FEEL you’ve passed it. And because you are more than a match for that level of skill, most times, you can identify exactly what’s wrong with it or the specific elements that made you dislike it.
Your mileage may vary.
Once you reach a certain level of proficiency with the craft of writing, you can reliably identify exactly WHAT about a book you liked, made you enjoy it.
You can talk about the realistic development of a character that made them feel genuine.
You can talk about the subtle nods throughout the plot that led to the climax that you registered subconsciously and had you combing back through the book once you’d finished to see how it all holds together under a second reading.
You can talk about the realistic dialogue and how the book made you feel you were eavesdropping on a conversation between two characters instead of reading words off a page.
The books that you hate, or that you think are abominations tend to stand out in your mind.
You remember the foul taste of it long after you’re done with the book and a bad experience can easily cause you to shy away from an author for years to come.
I don’t think I’ll ever be reading another book by Peter Hamilton after my tragic experience with his deus ex machina nonsense.
The books that you hate…you remember exactly why you hate them. And when you turn your talents toward creation and writing, you clearly avoid making those same mistakes because it rubbed you in SUCH the wrong way.
Reading bad books impart powerful lessons, ones that will last for a damned long time.
So read an awful book now and again! Or, at least, read just long enough to know EXACTLY why you hate it before stopping, so that you can train your skill according to your taste.
Once you’ve attained a certain level of skill with writing, you can reliably STOP reading bad books…but even then. I think reading a horrible book once in a while can help keep the reminder fresh in your head…
And that reminder is?
YOU CAN DO BETTER.
…Now go out there and do it =)