Firstly, apologies to fans of the Emerald City. This is not going to be about Frank L Baum’s fantasy world, nor about God’s Country Down Under. Today is about lifting the curtain that hides the machinery of the Wizard. The books about writing books. More specifically, it’s about “On Writing” by Stephen King. The wizard metaphor came to mind because the books we see on the shelves are the finished article. They glow, from their pristine covers to their polished prose, each word within (hopefully) considered and read many times before publication. These mighty tomes are the wizard, set forth to dazzle us with their brilliance, while behind the curtain, feverishly working to maintain this illusion, is the author.
Authors are real people. They have hopes, dreams, and only twenty four hours in the day. That’s why, for the would-be best selling author, the biggest secret we want to learn is “HOW DO YOU WRITE YOUR BOOKS?” We don’t want to know where ideas come from. We know that, we have so many ideas pounding around our mental jogging track that we can scarcely remember the shopping list. No, we want to know the physical news. When do you write? Do you get up early and work until the day begins? Do you write late at night? Do you have a separate office, or work on a laptop in a cafe?
What we’re asking is “Is there a secret to it? What do you do that I can do to get my book out of my head and onto the page?”
Stephen King may not write your brand of fiction, but I would recommend you take a look at his short story collections (Skeleton Crew, Four Past Midnight, Everything’s Eventual, Full Dark No Stars, Danse Macabre) because he lifts the curtain. Almost more than I loved the stories (he does write MY brand of fiction…) I loved him talking about why he wrote them, how they came to mind. Sometimes it’s the birth story, sometimes it’s the why that story is the way it is, but each explanation tells you about the crafting involved. So when he wrote “On Writing” his book about how he writes and what he thinks about the craft of writing, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.
Again, I urge you to ignore the voice saying “But I don’t like Stephen King books.” This book is not a gore-fest, it’s about writing, and it’s written by a man who is a phenominally successful author. The first half talks about his life, and that’s important, because a lot of the detail in his books (a lot of the truth, I like to think) comes from his memory. He talks about songs on the radio, he talks very compellingly about being a child in the fifties. So compellingly that I love those portions of “It”, though I grew up twenty years later on a different continent. When you get to the second half of the book he talks about writing, but he’s talking about REAL writing. He’s not talking about writing the Great American novel, something so literary and metaphysical that the critics cry and schoolchildren will hate you for having to study it. He’s talking about writing books that people buy, love and recommend to their friends.
My secret confession today is that, all too often, I am like Writer Bob : I grab a “How to” book from the library, and sit down, determined to follow the instructions to the letter, ending up with a complete novel/screenplay/knitted model of St Paul’s Cathedral. But the truth is, unless you invest the time and effort, reading the book won’t get it done.
Which are YOUR favourite writing books? When you write your guide to new authors, what’s going to be the biggest tip?