I’ve been “reading” the audiobook of Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s great—full of amusing anecdotes and some wonderful writing tips. I mean, if you’re going to get writing tips from famous authors, Stephen King is as good a place as any to start. I must confess though, it’s the first time I’ve ever read anything by King. This hasn’t really been a conscious decision, in the same way that never reading anything by Danielle Steel has been—I’ve just read other stuff is all, plus I’ve always been a little suspicious of writers that sell books in huge volumes (although that hasn’t stopped me from reading most of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels).
There are three things King says in particular that have stuck with me. Firstly, he compares writing to building a house. He says that paragraphs are bricks and that if you put your paragraphs together in the right way, you can build any kind of house you like. All you need is a toolbox filled with the tools of writing—vocabulary, grammar, description, narrative, dialogue etc. I like this idea, perhaps because my father was a builder, and he passed on to me a love of tools. I have a garage full of ’em. But I also like it because it simplifies the craft. Instead of being some arcane art, full of bubbling cauldrons, blood sacrifices and the casting of spells, writing is just a trade, like building or plumbing or drain laying. Just bring your toolbox and your knowledge of how to use the tools within it.
Secondly, he compares writing to excavating fossils. He says that stories are found objects, buried like fossils in the ground and that once the story has been found, it is the writer’s job to carefully excavate that story and reveal it to the world. He advises against actively plotting stories and says that the plot will reveal itself—organically and quite probably in ways the writer never expected—through careful excavation. I like this idea too. I think there’s a lot of truth in it.
Thirdly, he says that writers are arranged in a pyramid of four layers. At the bottom, in large numbers, we have the bad writers. Above that, still in large numbers, we have the competent writers. Above that, in much smaller numbers, we have the really good writers. At the top of the pyramid we have the great writers—King names Shakespeare, Faulkner and Eudora Welty among these—a select few writers who are intellectual freaks of nature, geniuses of the profession.
King goes on to say that it is impossible to turn a bad writer into a competent one. As a teacher of high school English, I’m not sure I agree with this entirely, but there is considerable truth in it. If a student turns up in my class at Year 9, without having a grasp of the fundamentals of written English—sentence structures, grammar, punctuation, paragraphing and the like—three or four years in my classroom isn’t going to make them a competent writer. Perhaps that just means I’m a bad English teacher (it’s certainly not the first time this thought has crossed my mind), but let me break the numbers down. Four years at forty weeks per year (max) at four lessons per week at fifty-five minutes per lesson equals a grand total of five hundred and eighty-six point six hours in class. Only a fraction of this will be spent doing any schoolwork, and only a fraction of that schoolwork will be writing. Much of these five hundred and eighty-six point six hours will be spent coming to class late, leaving class early, gossiping, arguing, conversing, searching for a pen, searching for a book, going to the toilet, asking stupid questions (although there are no stupid questions), flirting, swearing, worrying, daydreaming, sleeping, cracking jokes, laughing, chewing gum, making paper projectiles, throwing paper projectiles, texting, listening to music, watching videos on YouTube, playing computer games, and half a hundred other things that kids get up to in the classroom that bear little resemblance to what they’re actually supposed to be doing. Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours to become really good at something. It’s little wonder that the bad writers who enter high school tend to exit high school as bad writers still.
And do those bad writers then spend the next ten years of their lives working to improve their writing? Of course not. They just go on to become builders and plumbers and truck drivers and doctors and nurses and parents who can think of a thousand and one things they’d rather be doing than writing.
King also says that it is impossible for a good writer to become great. I see no reason to disbelieve this. I too, think great writers are freaks of nature. You are either born with that talent, or you are not. So that leaves only room for the competent writers to become really good writers. I agree with him here too. If you are a competent writer, becoming a really good writer is entirely possible, likely even, if you have the desire. It will take time, effort, and lots of practise, but that’s okay. Good things take time.
I hold no illusions of greatness. I don’t think I’ve spent enough time working on the craft of writing to be really good. But I’m fairly certain I’m competent, and I’ve got the desire to move up the pyramid.