Behind the curtain in Oz….

Some of my favourite books about writing

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?

11 responses to “Behind the curtain in Oz….

  1. Great blog, Damien! Stephen King’s book, “On Writing,” is one of my all time favorites.

    Other faves:
    Natalie Goldberg – Writing Down the Bones AND Wild Mind
    Blake Snyder – Save the Cat
    Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird
    David Morrell – Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing
    Jesse Lee Kercheval – Building Fiction (this is the one that helped me understand internal vs. external conflict really well)

    Last but not least, I go to Christopher Vogler’s “Writer’s Journey” and to Tami Cowden’s book on Heroes & Heroines all the time!

    Can you tell I’ve got a Writer’s Bookshelf????

  2. Thanks Jenny! I’ve had “Save the Cat” on every birthday and Christmas list for the last five years. No one takes the hint. I shall buy it for myself, I think!

  3. Just read this over the summer – and LOVED it. I’m too terrified to read his actual fiction, but I grossly admire who he is as a writer.

    AND I love getting to peek behind anyone’s curtain.

    Currently reading Orson Scott Card’s ELEMENTS OF FICTION WRITING, and it’s been another fantastic look at how he builds his characters.

    • Jen,

      Not that I’m trying to convert anyone, but try reading “Through the eyes of the dragon”. It’s a Stephen King book, but one he wrote for his kids, something he started telling them as a bedtime story, I think, and he later wrote down. It’s a YA story that has tension and adventure, but no real gore – not what you’d expect from a Stephen King book, unless you’re a hardcore fan. I think his reputation for bloodlust is a little unfair, myself. He’s all about story, it’s just his come from a dark place….

      Must find that Orson Scott Card book – I’ve been trying to find “Ender’s Game” in the library after reading “Ender in Exile” . Marvellous stuff!

  4. I haven’t read the book yet but I keep hearing so much about it I need to. I am a big fan of his and his wife. They’re both great authors.

  5. I’ve heard that King’s book on writing is very good…I haven’t read it, but I ordered a copy of it for a customer in our bookstore. I also like Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones.” I have a lot of other writing books at home, but find that actually writing is more productive for me than reading books about writing!

    I read a lot of King when I was in my late teens (before he branched off into sci-fi)…”It” is still one of the scariest books I’ve ever read…I think I’m past horror now. The only modern fiction I read now is usually for our Book Club. I tend to prefer non-fiction.


  6. On Writing is one of my favourite writing books. I just started to reread it after a friend started quoting it to me, showing me how easily I forget nearly everything I read.

    I also love Bird by Bird.

    But the book I learned the most from is Self Editing for Fiction Writers. I don’t even write fiction. Humour and memoir. But it is worth the price.

  7. Hi Damian. I’m not a big fan of Stephen King books because they scare the crap out of me, but I am a big fan of Stephen King. He is so genuine. I love it that he is able to take his life experiences and rise above them, glean from them, and use them to put “cowbell” into his writing.

    I have been an expository writer for 25 years and a novelist for only a portion of those, but when the day comes that I would give advice to new writers, I will tell them this. I applied once to a masters program in creative writing and was rejected because the director of the department was heading out for sabbatical that semester. No new students. It was the best thing that ever happened for my writing. It forced me to go out and live rather than read and write about living. There are too many people writing stories about “real” people who have never crawled out of their books to live like those “real” people. Thanks for your post.

    • Thanks for that Piper – now I’m going to have to go off and look up the “cowbell” bit again – I know it was doing the rounds of Kristen’s course a few weeks ago!

  8. I love On Writing and have listened to King read the CD version 3 times in the past 8 years or so. Brilliant stuff. Great advice. His passage on how writing is time travel has never left me. Great post.

  9. Just write! That’s the hardest thing to do at times. Just getting started can be a victory.

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