I’m no Stephen King, nor do I want to be, but his “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” is worth reading. It’s a generous work, published the year after King was nearly killed walking down a Maine country road, hit by a drunk driver who was busy talking to his dog in the backseat of his van.
I’ll try to be generous too. Years of writing bookstore newsletters, book reviews, reading students’ papers, reading, reading, reading must have taught me something about stringing together words, which I love dearly.
I’ve been asked to do a post about writing and what I’ve learned over the years, so here goes.
Jump right in. I’m way too impatient to read anything that starts with “I’ve been thinking about what I want to tell you and there are some important things to say, which I’m now going to tell you about,” forever blah.
What’s on your mind? “I never wore a strapless evening gown,” or “Medical marijuana is what I’ve been waiting for all my life” would be acceptable openers. There, you get it.
In journalism, we call the first line the lead or lede. Use the same “jump right in” rule for fiction or nonfiction.
My favorite lead ever came in a U.S. history’s student’s paper on the First Amendment: “The principals were laid two hundred years ago when our nation began.” Sorry, I couldn’t help it.
Then there’s all that stuff in between the lead (or lede) and the ending. King says go for character development. I like authentic-sounding dialogue for fiction, authentic-sounding quotes in journalism. As in history, which I taught for many years, I want the character, historical figure, or political hack to sound like a real person. (Brook once told me to write like I talk, but I was way more wordy then.)
Recently, a children’s author/friend whom I respect told me that you’ll never get a book published these days — if that’s your goal ha ha — unless your characters are about to fall off a cliff at any moment. Ick. I want some introspection and inner dialogue.
I also want the setting to seem like a real place. No ephemeral, non-recognizable locations for me. But that’s your choice.
Snappy endings. “Hot damn” or “OH MY God” is what I want the reader to say after closing a book or finishing the story. As in teaching, I’d prefer that a student, reader, listener has to do a tiny bit of thinking. “Aha that’s what she meant!” The synapses, neurotransmitters and so forth ought to be buzzing when you look up from the page.
My fervent hope is that readers will want to know more, read more, think more — be ready to plunge into new ideas — all the while saying to themselves, “this is cool stuff.”