Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’

I enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It starts with the memoir component, which is interesting; King has an engaging style, and is honest about the struggles he’s faced along the way. Stories of his mother struggling as a single mother, and his own battles with addition provide real context to what he’s achieved as a writer. 

The writing component was a little less engaging. It’s worth hearing that adverbs should be used sparingly and other similar lessons, but it doesn’t make for gripping reading. Still, there were interesting points. King’s idea of the first draft as when you throw everything in, and then cut by ten per cent on the second draft, is an interesting idea. It’s also interesting just to read a writer reflect on his own practices, and conceptualising writing as hard work – which it very much sounds like. 

This is worth a read if you’re quite interested in writing, or a huge King fan – otherwise less so. 

Quotes

Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. 

I am, when you stop to think about it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit. 

Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up. 

By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with hand-written notes a little more encouraging than the advice to stop using staples and start using paperclips. 

I don’t want to speak too disparagingly of my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world and opted for the Home Shopping Network instead) …

But if I happened to be tired, or if there were extra bills to pay and no money to pay them with, it seemed awful. I ‘d think This isn’t the way our lives are supposed to be goingThen I’d think Half the world has the same idea

The story remained on the back burner for awhile, simmering away in that place that’s not quite the conscious but not quite the subconscious, either. 

The most important is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. 

The idea that creative endeavour and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. 

Let me say it again; you must not come lightly to the blank page

… while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one. 

But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on. 

Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it. Once weaned from the ephemeral craving for TV, most people will find they enjoy the time they spend reading. 

In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech. 

 I almost always start with something that’s situational. I don’t say that’s right, only that it’s the way I’ve always worked … I’m not much of a believer in the so-called character study; I think that in the end, the story should always be the boss. Hey, if you want a character-study, buy a biography or get season tickets to your local college’s theater-lab productions. You’ll get all the character you can stand. 

Kurt Vonnegut, for example, rewrote each page of his novels until he got them exactly the way he wanted them. The result was days when he might only manage a page or two of finished copy (and the waste-basket would be full of crumpled, rejected page seventy-ones and seventy-twos), but when the manuscript was finished, the book was finished, by gum. 

The truth is that most writers are needy. Especially between the first draft and the second, when the study door swings open and the light of the world shines in. 

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. 

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. 

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Victoria and Abdul

Victoria and Abdul tells the story of Abdul, a young man bought on an errand to Queen Elizabeth’s court, who rises to become a key advisor, entangled in the intrigues of court. Or it’s the story of a charming friendship between a young man from India, and an old and embittered woman who happens to be the Queen of England. It’s hard to tell which movie Victoria and Abdul wants to be.

There are a number of things that fell short for me in watching Victoria and Abdul – but, to talk about them, I need to talk a little bit further about the plot. So in case you’re wanting to weigh up whether to see it or not, without hearing spoilers, I’ll say that it might be worth it if you’ve already read about the underlying history, or are a huge fan of the monarchy. Otherwise steer clear.

SPOILERS FROM HERE

The story starts with Abdul unexpectedly taken to England, to deliver a small coin to the Queen. When he’s there, he unexpectedly makes eye contact with the Queen – she notices how handsome he is. As a result, he and his fellow traveller are called upon to serve desserts to the Queen. There, he throws himself at her feet, and kisses the royal foot in an act of devotion. She appreciates the gesture, and brings him and his fellow traveller as footmen into the royal study. There, he’s left in isolation with her, and he takes the liberty of telling her about her carpets, and his own experience.

So far, so good. Abdul’s actions generate responses in the world around him: he is a protagonist with agency.

But after about the first third or half of the movie, Abdul ceases to be a protagonist. As the other members of the Royal household and staff feel threatened by his increasing prominence, they take action. In response, the Queen bestows greater favour on Abdul. This pattern repeats itself several times – something happens, the Queen bestows greater favour on Abdul. There’s very little agency or action by Abdul.

Another factor that left me wanting more was the film’s perspective on Abdul. At points, it’s clear that Abdul has lied, or burnished the edges of the truth, in order to present things more favourably to the queen, including his own past. At the same time, he’s presented by the movie as a devoted friend, by the other Indian at court as a courtier playing the same game as everyone else, and by the other courtiers as a rogue adventurer taking advantage of a vulnerable Queen. It’s never really addressed by the movie – not because it’s been clever about how it treats the material, but because it’s scanty. We don’t really know Abdul, because we only see him make one or two difficult choices – whether to accept the Queen’s offer to leave as she knows she’s dying, or to stay till her final days and risk (as happens) being thrown out.

A final missing piece in the movie was that it wasn’t clear what fascinated Abdul about the Queen. Is it her power? Does he view her as a symbol? Or is there a human connection? It’s never really clear. And so the depth, the richness of transitioning from seeing Elizabeth the symbol, monarch of an enormous empire, to a human being with foibles galore, is left unexplored. It’s a disappointing gap.

The film has several excellent comic pieces at points; but at others delivers quite cynical political speeches. Though each of those registers is done reasonably enough, the shift between them doesn’t feel well done, or earned – it just feels disjointed.

 

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

GF and I have been enjoying reading Miss Peregrine‘s Home for Peculiar Children together. These are some of my notes –
When Jacob was a young boy, his grandfather used to tell him stories of peculiar children, with fantastic abilities. Now he’s a teenager, and more than anything else he wants to leave the boredom of American suburbia, and go on adventures.
His hopes are realised in the worst way possible, when his grandfather is horribly killed. From there, though, it takes a while for the plot to take off – there are steps back and forth, hither and thither, until eventually Jacob makes it to the scene of the action (an island off the coast of England). Here, as Jacob stumbles through the moors, it can feel a little as though we’re wandering aimlessly; the middle portion of the story sags under the weight of exposition without the narrative development to hold it together.
In the end, though, the story takes off. Jacob finds the peculiar children, makes a huge choice about his own life, and fights a monstrous villain. The end? Well, I can’t tell you, because it ends on a cliff hanger and we haven’t read the next one.
Part of the charm of the book is the photographs, scattered throughout it. In an afterword, Ransom Riggs explains that they’re real photographs. Drawn from the collections of people who collect old photographs, often acquired with no explanation or context. It’s an interesting addition to a young reader fiction.
Worth reading if you’re feeling a gap in your life after the end of the Harry Potter series, although I wouldn’t say that it’s quite at the same level.

Annie Hall

Annie Hall has a strong critical reputation. It’s the piece where Woody Allen became more serious, it’s won multiple awards, and it’s a creature very much of its time. All those things are true, and it’s worth watching.

[SPOILER ALERT: I’ll be talking about the ending]

But as I was watching it, I couldn’t help think of Scrubs, and the way it insisted on playing on its character’s inner life – his inability to remain in the moment. Even though Annie Hall breaks the fourth wall a little, it’s mostly for the purposes of stepping inside Alvy Singer’s head. Similarly, throughout, the Scrubs series was a game about what was happening inside JD’s head.

Annie Hall tells the story of a young man, trying to remember what went wrong with his relationship. He flashes back to the start of the relationship, and as it progresses, he is constantly looking away, looking at us, talking to us and himself, trying to understand what went wrong. The resolution, really, is when the narrator and protagonist collide and become one, in a Los Angeles parking lot. He slams his car back and forth, out of control, and we realise he is still, at heart, the young boy who played dodgem cars on Cooney Island. In that moment, though, there’s something that takes him to the other side – where he can be happy, and peaceful, about the end of his relationship with Annie Hall.

It’s a funny movie, and worth watching as a reference point to compare to later Woody Allen pieces.

Oh – and of course, we end the movie seeing Woody Allen directing a play about his relationship, but one with a happy ending.

At the movies

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

I enjoyed Fantastic beasts. Visually, it’s stunning – beautiful shot after beautiful shot of weird, mysterious creatures. The kind of thing that makes you want to believe in magic again.

The story follows Newt Scamandar. Ostensibly, he’s in the United States to try and set free a mysterious, magical creature he’d found captured and trafficked. Ultimately, though, Newt’s real purpose is to be a walking plot trigger; everywhere he goes his suitcase spills out magical creatures, bringing together strange events and plot points. So that over the course of the movie, he:

  • Is arrested by a would-be auror,
  • Almost executed, and
  • Almost killed by an Obscurus.

Throughout, though, he isn’t really making choices; or, it’s hard to think of them. He just stumbles from one thing to the next. It would have felt a little more … convincing, I suppose, if he’d had some deep connection with the characters around him, some desire for them, or if he’d had some driving motivation.

For all that, though, it’s a fun piece. It’s an interesting example of how ‘media’ can be used as a chorus, to fill in the story. It opens with newspapers flickering past, telling us the back-story we need to know about an evil wizard, so that any subsequent appearances by him or his minions won’t be without context.

The original Harry Potter books and movies, from memory, had a strong focus on the spell-casting as an incantation; waving the wand and uttering the right words were the crucial aspects. In the movie, though, any kind of vocalisation is dispensed with; wands are like guns – you fire / wave them, and bolts of lightening / telekinesis / rays of light follow.

Bad Santa 

Bad Santa opens with two criminals in a bar, celebrating their successful heist. What are they going to do with the rewards? Well, Billy Bob Thornton wants to move to Florida and find … domestic tranquility – a home, a wife, a child.

Except it doesn’t work out that way. His move to Florida just leaves him a bum, kicked out of a bar and (successfully) stealing valet keys. So when his friend calls him for another heist, it’s the gift he needs.

On the way though, he stumbles on to what he actually needed all along. In taking advantage of a clueless boy, he becomes a father figure to him. He finds the relationship he always wanted with a woman who has a fetish for Santa, and together they live the idiot boy’s classy home, squatters while his father is in jail.

It’s a weird, parallel universe, and one that you imagine can’t survive. So it feels like a return to form when he goes in for the final heist with his accomplice, defrauding the mall he’s been a Santa in. But when his friend turns on him, it’s his new family (specifically, a confession letter he left with his idiot son that draws the cops) that saves him.

The film’s irreverent, and revels in a particular kind of humour. But if you squint hard enough, you can see something like a plot structure underneath it all, which probably contributes to how watchable it is. Worth if it if you think the trailer looks funny.