Happy new year! My first book of 2015 (plus the best writing device ever)

Happy new year, whoooo! As today’s the last day of my holiday vacation, I wanted to squeeze in a book and kick off 2015. I don’t know how many books you resolved to read this year, but the first one matters, doesn’t it?

On Writing by Stephen KingI chose Stephen King’s On Writing, a memoir and writing advice book that I’ve been wanting to read for a while and finally found discounted at Half-Price Books (I love that store). I enjoyed it so much that I finished it within 24 hours — not that it’s long (about 300 pages), but books that grab me like that are hard to come by.

A good chunk of On Writing is about Stephen King’s life growing up, which is far from boring. His whole purpose is to show how he as a writer was formed (writers aren’t “made”), and with 20/20 hindsight, he connects certain habits and events from his childhood and early adulthood with the shaping of the best-selling author he became. He was writing long before Carrie, in other words, and although he loved (and continues to love) movies, he learned to turn off the television early in life (it’s a killer to productivity).

The other parts of the book deal with his tips on writing and a good bit about his own process, which are probably the most valuable sections. Some of the final pages discuss his accident in 1999, when a man driving a blue van hit him while he was walking on a road in Maine, and how writing helped him through his painful recovery.

Probably my favorite section, which is even smaller, is a look at the editing process: King gives you several pages of a story (“1408,” as it happens) unedited and then provides a marked-up version and explains the revisions. One fundamental rule: Omit needless words. Another? Kill your adverbs (those pesky -ly words).

Some of the writing advice is common: Kill your darlings. Use strong verbs. Know your grammar. The rest is a hell of a lot of tough love. At some points I found King’s attitude a little snobby — he thinks we all should be writing unplotted novels, but we’re not all Stephen Kings, Stephen King — but other times he was humble and modest, and above all I think he’s probably right. Here’s a few of the passages that I dog-eared:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools your plan to work with.

So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind — they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best — always, always, always — when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like it best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle.

Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.

Some ideas that King thinks are overrated: writing workshops, characters based on real life (not that you can’t take inspiration from people you know), the phrase “write what you know” (thank you!), plot (he writes everything from situation and character, but I think that’s a very advanced technique), and theme (it comes sooner or later — don’t sweat if you don’t know it right away, as it follows with the story).

A couple tenets he repeats often: Be honest in your writing (even if it will make people uncomfortable). Put the story first. Include only the description details that come to mind. And use the vocabulary you mean to — don’t dress it up to make yourself sound smart.

It’s a honest book full of advice that can be hard to hear, but that’s tough love, baby.

One thing I’ll note for anyone who’s curious about routine: King says read a lot and write a lot. He admitted to reading around 60-70 books a year, but I think your own pace is just fine. How much should you write every day? As much as you can, but I’ve seen 1,000 words pop up more than once. I think what’s important isn’t the word count you achieve but that you stick with it every day so that you establish a routine — whether that’s with the writing (door closed, as King says) or the editing (door open). Same with reading: Turning off the television and reading regularly helps you get into the right mindset for writing. And resist to the temptation to show anyone your draft until it’s done — or don’t dare talk about it. That’s my advice — like with New Year’s resolutions, if you share that you’re writing a novel, that’s when it dies.

So get yourself a copy of King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft this year. And remember, you can read and talk about writing all you like, but the best way to learn it is to do it. For that I went on eBay and bought myself an AlphaSmart Neo. An author I follow recommended it for distraction-free writing, and it’s great. They don’t make them new anymore, but the company still supports it with documentation and so on. It’s basically a keyboard and a small screen, and it’s good for cranking out a draft of a chapter or whatever (so not for revising). You can’t connect to the Internet, and it’s light-weight (and inexpensive) enough that you won’t mind carting it around everywhere with you. It’s like the Hemingwrite, only more practical and much more reasonably priced (I paid $22, although most I’ve seen are around $40 — Hemingwrites will be $400-500). All you need is the Neo and a USB cord (the one that comes with your computer’s printer should work well).

I’ve used it and can vouch that yes, it’s damn good at helping you get the words out. It’s a lot better than staring at a blank white page and that goddamned blinking cursor (how it mocks you). You won’t be tempted to mess around with the font for half an hour. And uploading it to your computer (in any word processor — I use Scrivener) is easy once you find the right cable (B type, 2.0, I believe, but I bought two wrong USB cords before I figured that out).

You can’t store thousands and thousands of words, but you can save up to eight different files, and it has an autosave feature and a battery life like whoa (a year at least on three AAs). The keyboard is comfy, and you can adjust the font size and contrast (no backlight, though). Here’s a good Q&A guide.

Happy writing (and reading)! What book are your reading first in 2015?

Ask an author: 5 horror novels everyone should read

I Am Legend cover

Halloween may be over, but that doesn’t mean the scares have to end. One of my favorite authors, Dana Fredsti (writer of excellent zombie novels Plague Town and Plague Nation), shared with me a few of her favorite scary books — and answered a very important question about the genre itself. Because who would know horror better than a horror author?

How many of these have you read?


What are some of your personal favorite horror books that you wish everyone would read?

Haunting of Hill HouseThis is such a tough question for me because I love so many books for so many reasons, and I could spend hours and much of your blog space writing an endless list. I feel guilty when I leave anything off! But I’ll content myself with a sampling of some of my favorites and go with the ones that spring to mind first:

The Shining by Stephen King — One of the first books that scared me when I read it, and this was during the daytime. We’re talking skin-crawling, don’t-look-under-the-bed type shivers. I can’t say that about many books or movies, so no wonder The Shining popped into mind first!

Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson — One of the best haunted house stories ever written (and the film adaptation — the original; not more recent CGI crapfest — remains the scariest movie ever made without a hint of gore), and it stands the test of time.

DraculaWhere the Chill Waits by T. Chris Martindale — This book prompted me to write my first ever fan letter to the author. An excellent and creepy novel about the wendigo, a flesh-eating Ojibwa demon that either drives its victims insane and infects them with a craving for human flesh or just eats ’em.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson — The story of the sole survivor of a plague that turns its victims into vampires, this novel spawned three film adaptations (Last Man on Earth, Omega Man, and I Am Legend) and inspired George Romero’s classic movie Night of the Living Dead.

Dracula by Bram Stoker — It’s a classic for a reason. I read it once a year starting when I was 10 years old.

There. Start with those, and when you’re done, come back and I’ll have more for ya!

Why should people who enjoy a good scare or horror movie try picking up a horror book instead?

The human imagination can conjure up more horrific and subtle scares and images than any film can do for us. When you read a well-written horror novel or story, your mind does so much more work to scare you than any movie can do, especially in this age of CGI, when it’s so easy to tell something is fake. Reading sparks the imagination in a way that no film can ever hope to emulate.


Thanks, Dana! Be sure to check out her books, Plague Town and Plague Nation (they’re both so good!). She’s currently working on the third in her Ashley Parker series, Plague World.

Awesome book cover Friday: Pet Sematary

This week’s pick is an oldie but a goodie: Pet Sematary by Stephen King, published in 1983.

I love the film version of this one. First up is a British import of the book, which Hodder & Stoughton put out in 2007. The publishing house seems to have replaced it with a newer cover (second one down, dated 2011), which is also pretty neat.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King pink white

Pet Sematary by Stephen King cat

I also really like this other Hodder & Stoughton cover from 1983 although I wasn’t able to find a decent image of it. I’m sure you’ve seen this one and this one — also cool. Here’s a bigger collection of all or most of the designs that were made for the book.

Does anyone know a good online shop where you can purchase vintage books specifically by cover? Amazon isn’t all that dependable — I bought a particular version of Life of Pi and received a different cover than what I wanted. I think Etsy has worked for me in the past, but it doesn’t have the best selection. I’m sure eBay would work, but I don’t know how much is available there, either. Do you ever go hunting for vintage covers? Where do you look for consistent results? I’d like to do some research on this.

[Update: Biblio.com actually doesn’t seem too bad. You can search for rare books — including signed or first editions — or filter results by whether the seller provided a picture, by country, whether it comes with a dust jacket, etc.]

Also: Do you think Stephen King is a good writer? Of course he’s successful, but my boyfriend and I were discussing whether he’s a good writer. He’s obviously a commercial writer — someone who writes frequently and for the common reader, which is why his books are so widely accepted. Literary writers are a different breed. They write with a greater attention to language and conventions like theme — there’s a greater purpose to their writing than just sales and storytelling.

So … thoughts? Is Stephen King a good writer? What are your favorite books by him? And do you have to be a literary writer to be a good writer-writer?