Friday Reviews: On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen KingOn Writing

Stephen King

Near the end of the 1990’s, Stephen King decided to write a book about writing. Reluctant to be one of those writers who talks out his ass about what he does, King opted to keep the book short. That did not make it any easier. He put the book aside for a while and came back to it in 1999, during which the fateful encounter with a Dodge minivan nearly killed him.

It was this book King returned to when he was finally able to sit at his computer once more, and the results of that accident make up a major portion of the last third of this book. The first third is… Well, it’s not quite an autobiography, but it does show the evolution of a writer. He traces his origins growing up with his older (and admittedly smarter) brother and their single mom. It wasn’t an easy life, but Mrs. King, abandoned by her husband when King was just a toddler, imbued her boys with a strong Yankee work ethic and her mischievous sense of humor. That allowed King to edit the school newspaper, work as a sports reporter in high school for a local paper, and to work his way through college, where he met the future Tabitha King.

The middle section King devotes to the writer’s toolbox: Vocabulary, grammar, dialog, description, and theme (among others). He extols the virtues of The Elements of Style, of Elmore Leonard’s rule to “omit needless words,” of reading constantly and writing constantly. Writing, he says, is not easy, but it’s possible if you want to do the work.

The most important lesson he imparts is one I’ve seen too many writers I’ve known personally fail to understand: Art is a support system for life, not the other way around. There are a few really successful writers I’ve known over the years who did not heed that advice, and they’re absolutely miserable for it. The ones who do heed that advice may or may not be happy, but the craft is not destroying them inside

End Of The Trail

Little Miami Bike TrailA week and a half ago, I reached a park in Yellow Springs, Ohio while riding the Little Miami Bike Trail. This is the furthest I’ve gone in my annual trek up the trail.

It’s also the first year where I was able to connect all the sections from Newport, KY, across from downtown Cincinnati, to the trail proper. Because of an old fishing lane on the Beechmont Levee and a connection between the trail around Lunken Airport and a nearby park, I was able to ride from Lunken up State Route 32 to the southern end of the trail and about eight miles into it.

This was the first year I went past the Xenia Trail Hub. Xenia is a former railroad town between Dayton and Cincinnati famous more for a 1974 tornado outbreak than anything else. But Xenia is a decent sized city serving as a bedroom community for Dayton, a quiet little city. The trail gets interesting as it goes into Yellow Springs, a college town suburb of Dayton. It goes past Antioch College – literally across the street from it – and into downtown Yellow Springs where there are a bunch of bars setup to accommodate bicyclists. The trailhead in Yellow Springs is a park at the end of a spur that cuts through a cornfield.

I had a harder time of it this year. Part of it is that I was more out of shape than I was last year. Also, I think the battered Huffy, which I picked up at a thrift shop for $50 a few years ago, is not really well-suited for what threaten to become century rides in the coming years. I sense a graduation present on my horizon: A new bike. Maybe not brand new, but better suited for a more serious cyclist.


A Year Of Senior Moments

Three Stooges Graduated


Tonight, I begin 7 weeks of Purchasing, an accelerated course in corporate buying and inventory management. It’s one of two accelerated courses I’m taking this semester. There’s a third class, Regional Theater, that gives me a single fine arts credit. I show up for a class in September, one in December, and have three date nights at the theater in between.

Because the other two classes don’t overlap, this will be an easy semester for me. It’s the beginning of my final year of college. In the spring, I’ll receive the bachelors degree I should have gotten back when Reagan was packing his things.

Nita is also finishing her degree in web design. So by this time next year, we’ll both be college graduates. It’s weird going to school in middle age at a time when most people are thinking more about retirement. In some ways, I was when I started this journey. I realized that, in my old job, I had reached the upper limit of my earning potential for my field. I also was starting to see fewer and fewer years where I could earn a living. I needed to have a more lucrative and more valuable skillset if I had any hope of not having to beg AJ to let his mother and I to live with him in exchange for our Social Security checks. (Will that even be around then?)

It’s paid off already. The company I work for now pays me 13% more than Medishack did. Just what I learned in the last two months can eventually earn me even bigger increases if I choose to go elsewhere. Even with student loans coming due soon, it should fund my writing habit quite nicely.

But for me, the payoff is even bigger. The program I enrolled in couples my technical associates with a business bachelors. And friends and neighbors, the business degree is something I never realized I needed. It’s made me aware of marketing, of finance, or running a small business, which is what writing – independent or traditional – is. I understand the businesses I work for now, and I understand what I need to make my writing profitable.

And besides, this is something I put off. I messed up my financial aid out of high school. I dropped out in the nineties for reasons I’m not even sure about anymore. So this last time, which started in 2009, had to be it. I was 42 when I started a remedial algebra class.

I’ve thought about getting a masters. I may revisit the idea since it would permit me to teach classes at some of the local colleges. But six years is enough for someone my age. I have other things I want to do. Like writing. Holland Bay would have been finished years ago if I had not gone back to school. There were other reasons, but focusing on my education really did take away a lot of the momentum I had in 2008. Now, that all that time spent studying will open up again soon. I may revisit the idea. I did tell a few people that, if it meant a title with a huge salary, I’d get the degree someone paid for. In that case, it would have to be worth it to me and to an employer. If writing were successful enough, I’d probably find a program to allow me to teach. But for the foreseeable future, I’m done with college come this spring. It’s off the bucket list and paying dividends as it is.

Friday Reviews: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha

Miguel de Cervantes

It may be the most influential novel ever written. The tale of the mad Spaniard and his naive squire shows up in everything from Sherlock Holmes to Blackadder to Doctor Who and every buddy cop movie you’ve ever seen.

Retired gentleman Alonso Quixana has a love of books about chivalry, so much so that he digs out his grandfather’s suit of armor, fashions a crude visor for its helmet, and recruits local farmer Sancho Panza as his squire. He’s no longer Alonso Quixana. He is Don Quixote, soon dubbed the Knight of the Rueful Countenance. Quixote sees not what’s actually before him but anything that his mind can spin into an adventure worthy of a knight-errant. Think of those famous windmills he tilted at. Quixote’s antics wreak havoc on some, amuse others, and frequently result in insult or injury to Sancho, convinced that Quixote will conquer a land and make him governor of an island. By Part II, a history of his “adventures” has been published, and Quixote is treated, sometimes as a punchline to elaborate pranks, as a celebrity. All the while, his village priest, barber, and a local scholar scheme to lure Quixote back home to cure him of his madness.

The book is, first and foremost, a parody of the books about knights-errant popular in the early 1600’s. This was best paralleled in the Red Diamond novels, where a cab driver obsessed with PI fiction goes off the deep end and believes he’s the titular private eye and that all the fictional PI’s from Spenser to Kinsey Millhonne to even the Continental Op are his friends.

But Quixote and Sancho form an dual archetype that echoes throughout modern literature. Mark Twain cited him as an influence on Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. With the roles slightly changed, Quixote and Panza become Sherlock Holmes (intelligent, but neurotic as hell) and Watson (long suffering and the voice of reason). Carried further, Doctor Who features the mad (and whimsical) Doctor, whose madness is somewhat deliberate, with various companions playing ever-changing versions of Sancho (though usually much better looking.) That’s right. Sarah Jane Smith is based on a portly, middle-aged Spanish guy who rides a donkey.

What’s truly unusual is the prose. It’s rather straight forward and spare for a novel written in the early 1600’s. The only truly wordy parts are when Quixote opens his mouth. His overwrought speeches, which alternately amuse and infuriate the other characters, are an orgy of semicolons and run-ons.

But if Shakespeare is the most important dramatist in history, Cervantes has cemented himself as the most important novelist in modern history.


Less Talk. More Content.

jehovasThere’s an annoying trend of late that’s been exacerbated by the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Waaaay too many writers are burning up Facebook and Twitter time trying to justify why they are self-publishing. Or they’re decrying “the death of the novel.” (Always a trad published author, and too frequently a literary one.)

Lovely. Either someone spent money on you, or you’re doing it all yourself. Guess what.

I don’t care. The last thing I need are hoards of authors pounding on my door Saturday morning asking if I’ve accepted Kindle/The Big Five/whatever as my personal publishing lord and savior.

“Hey, yeah, can you give me a minute? I want to talk to the fascinating gentlemen behind you with the copies of Watchtower. Thanks.”

Want to get my attention?

What are you selling? No, I don’t care if Macmillan dropped $20K on you to put it in Barnes & Noble, nor do I care if you’re a plucky indie writer. You are desirous of me spending my money and probably 4-6 hours of my time on your work. OK. What’s in it for me? This is a business. What’s in it for me, the consumer? Tell me what you’re selling. Moreover, tell me what it was you spent months writing. Why’s that got you so stoked you pumped out 90,000 words of it? Enlighten me. Excite me.

And try not to mention Amazon in any context except, “Hey, look, they’re selling it for 40% off today.”

Car companies have gone out of business trying to tell us to buy cars because they’re made in America (or wherever you live.) Rover and Jaguar are owned by an Indian company. Chrysler is owned by Fiat. Half of GM has ceased to exist. So did “Buy British” or “Buy American” work for them? The Jetta in my driveway says no. Why? The car is solid, cheap on gas, and comfy as hell, a poor man’s Audi. Likewise, I really don’t care if your three-book deal is contingent upon me buying what you’re selling or that you haven’t sold more than 5 self-pubbed books this month. I have limited time and a tall TBR stack to squeeze books in. Your case will be made on what you wrote, not how you published it.

Remember, it’s the content, stupid.

Nick’s Not Going To Die. Here’s Why.

At the end of June, I announced I was going to kill off Nick Kepler unless I sold 50 copies of Second Hand Goods. The idea comes from an old National Lampoon cover that said “Buy this magazine, or we’ll kill this dog.”

Aside from no copies of Second Hand Goods selling, the most common reaction was, “Why would you kill him off?”

The answer: I was sick of the character. I attempted to revive the multi-book story arc I originally planned for him only to find I didn’t like the story very much anymore. Nick was supposed to help find out why his high school friend’s husband killed himself. It involved an old amusement park (a premise I still want to revisit), and, of course, Nick ends up sleeping with his client. Nick is always sleeping with at least one or two women in his books. I’ve always worked on the idea that, while a female character does not have to pass the Bechdel Test, it should be obvious that she could. Hard to do when storylines have mixed casts and your POV protags tend to be male. Impossible when your POV protag is male, and he gets naked with at least two of the major female characters. I looked at Holland Bay, where Detective Jessica Branson’s first scene has her looking in a mirror and calling herself a stupid slut (and bemoaning a wicked hangover). By the middle of the book, she refers to one of the major antagonists as her “Great White Whale,” barely manages to call out her male coworkers with something more than “Hey, you!” and is probably the one character the homicidal drug lord needs to fear most. (I have a lot of characters, protags and antags, hunting him like a whale.)

Then I looked at the science fiction novel. It’s an ensemble piece. There’s one protag who dominates one storyline, and another who, while not necessarily leading her part of the cast, is the voice of reason. Like Holland Bay, this one has big casts and a complex story (and unlike Holland Bay, a straightforward plot: Invaders come, renegades take advantage, explosions go all explodey.) Nick did not seem like a good use of my creative time.

So why did I want to kill him? He wasn’t earning. Oh, people look at Northcoast Shakedown and, occasionally, Bad Religion. But for all Nick’s personal struggles, those books are bigger stories, particularly Bad Religion. People seem to like Road Rules more. Road Rules has a bigger cast (despite it’s brevity) and usually leaves readers laughing. (The worst feedback I ever had was that it got too sarcastic. Hey, it’s a child of its author. Sarcasm is one of my best skills!) Again, Nick just didn’t do it for me anymore.

So I revisited Gypsy’s Kiss, about to go into revision. I didn’t like the original, so I pulled it back, changed the story up a little, and gave it a less cheesy ending. I’m also going to move the time up to 2005 (the current version starts a couple of months after Northcoast in 2002.) It’s still the end of Nick, but only as a PI. I won’t tell you how just yet. You’ll have to buy it when it comes out.

But I learned that killing a character out of spite is really just spiting the reader. Writers get enough flack for killing off characters when it serves the story. Which is the only reason anything should happen in a story.