It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-system for art. It's the other way around.
I don't like to talk about this author because I'm intimately familiar with a very small portion of his work and he is better known by the larger corpus of his work. When I was a kid, my Dad gave me a copy of The Gunslinger, which contains one of my all-time favorite opening lines in all of fiction:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
It may be my favorite literary sentence, just structurally. It is an introduction in itself. First, it establishes the protagonist/antagonist duality of the man in black and the gunslinger while maintaining the ambiguity we as readers will come to learn about their characters. The Gunslinger great because though its titular character is clearly the one we are supposed to be rooting for, it's not clear if he's a hero or even a good guy. Either way, it's great to see the main character on the first page, in the first line, and I love that the antagonist is introduced first. The gunslinger is in this story because of the man in black, and if you read the book, you'll see that this holds true, say thankee.
Second, the verbs are precise and paint a specific picture of the action that is unfolding. "The man in black fled," he did not run or ride or drive, because the key element of his activity is not his mode of transportation, but his motive, and that is left ambiguous. Criminals "flee the scene," but so also do people in danger. While the visible action is incontrovertible, we as readers have no idea what's going on in the character's head. We have to make our own assumptions.
The same is true of the gunslinger, the gunslinger "followed." Delightfully descriptive while simultaneously ambiguous, I can imagine the gunslinger following the man in black across the desert and also imagine the gunslinger "following suit," either fleeing (from guilt or from danger) himself or following the man in black in a moral sense, like a disciple. This sentence sets up two characters that have a distinctive reciprocal relationship to each other and the events that immediately precede the novel's opening, and I'm only twelve words into it!
Finally, the man in black is fleeing across a desert. The fact that he's fleeing sets the scale of the desert. It couldn't be small (are there such things as small deserts) because the man in black is fleeing for long enough that the gunslinger is still following him. What is the man in black fleeing from that a desert would be a more hospitable alternative? What is so important about the man in black that the gunslinger would cross a desert to meet him? In twelve words, the author has introduced the setting, the main characters, and the presence of a conflict, though all three of these components are ambiguous enough to leave questions in the reader's mind.
It is a gorgeous sentence. The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
Anyway, the rest of the novel is like this. We are dropped right into the seat of the action, and the gunslinger tells us the story of how he got to those opening lines. After that story is told, the author ushers us forward with our hero and our newfound context, and we follow the man in black with him across the desert. I won't spoil the ending.
The Gunslinger was the first of a series of novels that chronicle the last gunslinger's quest to reach the Dark Tower, the central linchpin at the nexus of all spacetime, the core of all the multiverses. The Dark Tower has been corrupted by an evil force, and it is causing all of the many worlds to deteriorate, some faster than others. It is an epic tale, and when I was a kid there were only four books because the author got famous for writing horror stories and was too busy keeping a roof over his head to finish the quest.
Until June 19th, 1999 (more on the numbers nine and nineteen later,) Stephen King was hit by a car near his home in Maine. He was shocked by his missed connection with death and resolved himself to finish the story. He wrote three more books, each longer than the last (and the first of which was already longer than Wizard and Glass) until the last gunslinger laid down his guns at the door of the Tower. That's not a spoiler, I can't tell you there's a story about a gunslinger and his quest for the Dark Tower that takes eight books to tell and doesn't end with the gunslinger reaching the tower. It's epic, and I highly recommend it.
So I'm a huge fan of Stephen King's writing, at least as far as the Dark Tower is concerned, and was thrilled when the Real Cal sent me a copy of his book On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft as a legitimate writing aid. Of course I wanted to write like Stephen King, not necessarily in his style, but using his tools. I wanted to write an opening sentence that so succinctly introduced my main characters and their conflicts, asking more question than it answered, like "the man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." (Even the comma is perfect, it creates a moment of pause as one would when trying to survey a vast expanse of empty sand.)
King begins the book with an autobiography (all writers start with an autobiography in one form or another) that explains his childhood interest in stories and the educational, professional, and creative path he took to becoming a published author. He introduces this autobiography as his "CV," the cheeky bastard, because he wants you to know that he is qualified to speak intelligently about such matters. Full disclaimer: I bear no such qualifications. I am simply a Liberal Arts graduate who spent most of his life reading until one day he picked up a pen.
The rest of the book is told in a freeform style that feels more like a conversation or telepathy than a style manual, and it addresses two key elements of writing: the practice and the content.
I want to suggest that to write to the best of your abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.
I want to emphasize the distinction here between King's goals and Goldberg's goals in Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg is teaching her students to get comfortable with holding the pen and discovering their voice as writers. King is looking at specifically the task of writing fiction.
He quotes William Strunk, saying, "It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. Unless he is certain of doing well, he will probably do best to follow the rules." King adds, "If you don't have a rudimentary grasp of how the parts of speech translate into coherent sentences, how can you be certain that you are doing well?"
So it's important to know your tools before you begin, and the most fundamental of them is your vocabulary. King says your current vocabulary is fine, don't try to artificially inflate it, let it grow with your reading. (If there's one piece of advice Stephen King reiterates throughout the work, it's read a lot, which he holds in even higher esteem than his other commandment, write a lot.)
There are seven parts of speech that anyone who's taken an English class knows and anyone else can learn from "Warriner's English Grammar," which King recommends on page -. I don't have a lot to say about nouns and verbs, except that I agree that verbs should be active verbs whenever possible. Verbs are living things, they are done by the characters of the story, and should reflect the intention of the writer.
"Avoid adverbs," has been the hardest piece of advice to garner from King's book, as I tend to use adverbs excessively, especially when writing dialogue. (When you do that, end a word with "-ly," you're creating an adverb. Stop it.) Whatever adverb you chose to embellish your sentence could have been provided to the reader by content and proper characterization of your interlocutors. King said, "the best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said."
"The paragraph," he says, "not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing–the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words." "The single-sentence paragraph more closely resembles talk than writing, and that's good. Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction." "It is a marvelous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run for pages."
Despite all of these tools, (of which you can only read a taste here, for the rest you'll have to buy a copy of the book,) King reminds us that, "language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story." So what of the story?
In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader, and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.
Good description is a "learned skill," and it can only be honed by voracious reading. I don't read nearly enough to keep up with King's and Goldberg's recommendations that I read at least as much as I write, but to be fair, I have thirty-two square feet of bookshelves loaded with the fraction of the books I've read that I felt were worth owning, so maybe I'm just balancing out the scale.
King has a lot of advice for writing dialogue, but he says, "the key to writing good dialogue is honesty. And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters' mouths, you'll find that you've let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism...Some people don't want to hear the truth, of course, but that's not your problem. What would be [your problem] is wanting to be a writer without wanting to shoot straight."
And everything he has to say about writing dialogue applies to building characters. "The job boils down to two things: pasting attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see."
In trying to find all of the relevant passages to quote for the indispensable advice they gave me on writing, I found that I would have to cite nearly the entire book, so let me leave at that, a ringing endorsement of Stephen King's On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft and this passage I found while reading during a meal with some friends at a bar near my house:
Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.