When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story…When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.
Stephen King, On Writing
I’m reading a couple of writing craft books at the moment after the members of my writing group decided to exchange some of our favourites. I’ve read Stephen King’s book before but probably not since it first came out, which was long before I started taking writing seriously. And when I did start taking writing seriously, I ditched the craft books as soon as I’d read Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer. When she pointed out just “how many rooms there are in the house of art”, it not only struck a chord that made me shiver with happy recognition (someone else feels like that!) but, more than that, I fell in love with the idea that it was to literature itself I should turn to learn my craft. It just made so much sense. Why should I read lists of rules and dos and don’ts when I could pick up a novel and enjoy it not just for its story or its artistry but for the technical assistance it could provide? It seemed to me a bit like when I was at school and struggling with the (to me) abstract applications of algebra. I was astounded and not a little thrilled when I discovered, in A-level Biology, that I was capable of using and understanding the algebraic concept behind the chi-square test to look at the distribution of marine life on a seashore at low tide. Relating it to something I was actually doing and, crucially, was interested in was key.
And so, for many years, I read not only for pleasure but also to learn. Stream of consciousness? Why, Virginia Woolf, of course. Use of close first person narrator? The Catcher in the Rye. What about close third person? Did you need an excuse to read Harry Potter? OK, Multiple narrators? Try The Poisonwood Bible. How to write a scene with a large number of characters all trying to speak at once? What about the ballroom scene in Anna Karenina? Etc. All very enjoyable, of course, and lovely to have an excuse, if I needed one, to revisit some old favourites. However as time went on and I wrote more and more, I came to have a closer understanding of my own technical weaknesses (mostly, I believed, pace-related, if you’re interested) and began to think a little theoretical help might not be such a bad idea. Yes, there was still a part of me that harumphed about how the writers of one or two hundred years ago managed very nicely, thank you very much, without a craft book ever crossing their table but there was a more insistent part whispering how they didn’t have washing machines or computers or penicillin either and probably wouldn’t have said no to them. Why not take your help where you can get it?
That brings me back to the Stephen King quote at the start of this piece. I don’t remember it from my first reading of the book but it struck me like the lightning bolt I hope never to experience in reality. Of course, I thought. Of course! I’ve been a story teller all my life, often on paper but always in my head. And I think it’s the in-my-head part that’s where I’m sometimes coming unstuck now. A story that stays in your own head or migrates no further than a piece of paper that’s for your own reading needs to please only you, the writer. All the extraneous bits: the interlopers who don’t advance the plot, the descriptive passages that slow the pace but are just oh-too-lovely to lose, the filler adverbs, the dialogue that tells the reader stuff they already know or don’t need to know, none of that matters. However start showing your work to others, whether that’s on a course, in a writers’ group or, big gulp, to an agent, and it matters like nothing else matters. Then – then! – you realise that there is lots still to learn because this is a life-long apprenticeship and that if you’ve seen one (what now seems like it ought to have been a self-evident) truth in one craft book, goodness knows what there is to find in others.