Tuesday, July 01, 2003

One man’s treasure is another man’s junk

About the only thing in common between Stephen King and myself is our first name. Other than that, our views on writing (based on those expressed in his book, titled On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft) could be worlds apart.

It’s not necessarily true that I disagree with the points he raised. Just that writing is such an individual undertaking that no hard-and-fast rule can ever hold true. And King imposes several such rules in his book.

An example is King’s insistence on the use of adverbs in dialogue attribution “only in the rarest and most special of occasions”. This may actually compromise a writer’s individual style. The point here is that not everybody aspires to be a good dialogue writer. Imagine populating a 30-page dialogue with purely “he/she said”.

While many of his advice are spot-on indeed, you can’t help but wonder if it makes sense to follow them. After all, not everybody wants to write fiction. And certainly not everybody wants to write fiction the way King does.

For instance, King harbours a deep distrust for plot. Instead, he prefers to start with a situation and mould the character from there. This approach may not work for writers whose strength lies elsewhere.

True, the story should always be the boss. But if your characters were shallow, readers would have a hard time developing a sense of association. And if readers cannot associate with the character, think of how they would feel about the story itself.

Part of the problem with On Writing is that you need to be familiar with King’s work in order to understand the points he’s driving at. I wouldn’t consider this approach as a shameless plug on the part of the author, but it does make it more difficult for non-fans to align themselves to his ideas.

All in all, On Writing is a good read if you want to gain insight into the thought processes of one of the most successful fiction writers of our times. But if you follow the tips to a T, you may end up as another Stephen King, which may not exactly be a good thing.

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