Tag Archives: stephen king

Must-read Books for Writers


I invaded a conversation today about writing books that still hold up today, or our favorite ones we turn to over and over. Megan, Earl and Andy mentioned some great resources so I thought I’d share them with you.

The War of Art and On Writing have been mentioned over and over by most of my favorite people. Wonderbook, also, made the top five and I’ll endorse it here for its fun and silly approach to writing. It’s super cute, imaginative, and an excellent starter; but probably wouldn’t be of use to people who have been at it for a few years. Same could be said of Bird by Bird.

I brought up another work that applies to any artistic practice — much like the War of Art. Many Solstices ago, my dad gave me Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo. It’s aimed at musicians, as you can guess by the title, but the primary focus was on how to approach a practice. It emphasized elements of craft — study, practice, repetition, etc, and also encouraged the reader to take advantage of freedom of experimentation. It teaches the right attitude toward mistakes and failures. This is an essential practice to any pursuit that doesn’t have an ultimate goal beyond some vague concept of excellence.

I also recommended Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please because of what she has to say about being a working writer. She writes about how to stay productive, how to strike a work/life balance, and other insights on actually working in the industry. It’s largely aimed at women, but I think it’s for everyone who wants to be a working writer.

That said…

Don’t limit what you consume (watch, read, seek, discuss) to your genre/topic.

The more broadly you read, the more broadly you live, and the more stuff you’ll have to write about.

Whether you’re writing a pile of dick jokes or the next Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you and I are taking on the exploration of what it is to be, to experience, to live.

The news has value. Academic papers on social sciences, music, cooking, metallurgy, and physics have value. Going to a concert can be just as valuable as Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Studying the greats of your genre is a good place to start, but you will have more to say in your own way if you also study Malcolm X, Terence McKenna, and Hannah Arendt.

Or whoever else influences your ideology. Because that’s what books do.

And read people who absolutely 100% DON’T agree with you. Familiarize yourself with the difference between presentation and perception.

We’re tapping into something greater than ourselves, drawing connections and finding patterns that have the potential to help other people achieve some kind of anchor or clarity. Yes, heroic stories can have great worlds and cool systems, but the heart of the matter will always be the essence of what it means to be a hero.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my straight-edge, anti-drug self needs to come down from Graham Hancock’s Supernatural.


You Decide What’s Good Art

From a very early age we’re taught what qualifies as “good” art. There are lots of lists that make it easy to adopt this opinion. There are NYT Bestseller lists, Oprah book club lists, and the top 100 examples of Great American Literature. Even on plaques at museums you’ll see instructions for what you’re supposed to think is beautiful, and what you’re supposed to feel when looking at a painting.

I want you to know, today and for the rest of your life, that you’re allowed to disagree. Keep reading and learning until you find what works for YOU.

I’m not a big fan of Joseph Campbell anymore. I also don’t much care for Tolkien, Lovecraft, or Stephen King (with the exception of Wizards and Glass.) I don’t worship Steve Jobs, either.  These are all popular names who have made widely celebrated contributions to their fields. It doesn’t mean I’m obligated to like them. It doesn’t mean we all have to emulate them.

That’s not the same as saying the suck and should never write again. There’s lots of room on the shelf for all of us, and tearing each other down benefits no one.

There is a plethora of advice out there about what constitutes good writing and bad writing. There are ‘good’ writers that will bore you, and ‘bad’ writers who reach into your soul and squeeze. It’s important to trust your gut on this. If someone suggests you read a wildly successful series, but you hate it, try to understand why. What are they doing well?  What’s boring you? What is it missing? The same goes for the ‘bad’ book. What revelations are you getting from it? How does the author convey them? Were they ahead of their time, or did they write in such a way that they alienated most other readers?

If you think you can do better, you should definitely give it a shot.

Read broadly and incorporate what calls to you. Don’t feel hemmed in by what your writing is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be GOOD. What constitutes ‘good’ is all up to you.

In a world of shit, my heroes are the people who choose to be just a little less shitty. Sir Galahad is dead. Good. Fuck him.”
Richard Kadrey

A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.
— Steve Jobs

The best evil is close to home

I’ve seen several memes floating about regarding character death.  All of them begin with a picture of J.K. Rowling saying “It’s hard killing off so many characters.”  On the lower half was a photo of another writer and their response.

George R.R. Martin:  “You’re adorable.”
Joss Whedon: “You’re new here, aren’t you.”
Stephen King:  “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of my characters’ screaming.”

This is a joke (as most internet memes are) and the responses are of course fictitious.  What I’m driving at here is that stories are driven by conflict.  Great achievement must come at great sacrifice — such as a dead protagonist.  Sacrifice comes through conflict, and conflict cannot exist without evil. 

Evil doesn’t always result in death. The worst evil is slow and subtle, and destroys your soul long before your body.

I advise every writer who reads this to dig inside themselves and find a shard of evil.  I don’t mean maniacal overlord evil, I mean preacher evil.  I mean schoolyard bully evil.  I mean passive-aggressive-boss evil.  Something that not only exists and walks in this world; but something that knows, deep down, the pain it inflicts is just and fair.

Writing and reading is a form of escape.  We live vicariously through the people and worlds we create.  It’s important every now and then to open the trap door, walk down into the basement, and say hello to the creature you’ve kept locked in the psychic cage.  Some of them are abstract — from children, to purring liars, to twitching monstrosities that drool acid and hiss obscene desires directly into your brain.  Imagine the same spirit in a housewife.  In a friend.  In a colleague.  They all believe they’re right.  Let them show you why.

Maybe the hero will believe them, and then make the wrong choice.

Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”
– H.L. Mencken

Hell is paved with good Samaritans.”
– William M. Holden

The Zen of Nightmares – How to Use a Dream Diary

I see this and panic a little.

I just had the worst dream.

I was trying out a new gym. When I returned to the locker room I found that my katana had been destroyed. That’s right, the one in the banner above.

I looked around the locker room, and all these thin blond sorority girls applied deodorant, dressed or did their hair. The smiled at each other, but never at me. I knew in my bones that they had done this. I looked down at the remnants in my hands. The blade had been snapped off a few inches from the cross guard. One strip of wood dangled off the tang, two of the pins were gone, and the wood on both sides bristled with jagged splinters where the end cap would have been.

I ran around the locker room looking for the blade. Three or four shards of it were being carried away on the backs of brown mice and black rats. I chased them, but they scurried down a hole too small for me to follow.

I wandered the streets with my shattered hilt. I saw the mice carrying the shards into a hole in a warehouse wall. I found the door and went inside. There were two men seated in the front waiting room, wearing baseball caps and looking at the floor so I couldn’t see their faces. I asked for the pieces back. The two men said they didn’t know what I was talking about, and then three lamia appeared from a back room. They were disembodied floating women’s heads, each with a spine still attached. They wailed and screamed, trying to bite me. I ran outside and slammed the door.

I had to get the pieces back. I went back inside. The two men were still there in their baseball caps, drinking beer and staring at the floor. This time, the blade had been reassembled, but it was weak and flexible like a tai chi sword. I burst into tears. I couldn’t see how a flexing blade could ever re-attach to the shattered parts I held. The blade, of its own volition, wriggled away like a snake. I went back outside.

I took a breath and stopped crying. I went inside a third time. The whole room had re-arranged, and the two men were working at two tables. Their baseball caps were gone and I could see their faces. One was blond and wore glasses. I asked them if they could fix my sword, and held out the pieces for them to see. They looked up at me and apologized. They only made latex boffer weapons here. The blade was gone.

I woke up on the verge of tears. I rolled out of bed, scooted over to my weapons rack and had to touch it to realize that my katana was still there, and undamaged.

What This Has To Do With Writing:

Nightmares make better story-seeds than dreams, and not always because of the conflict and content. My sword broke. So what? I could have just gotten a new one, right? Wrong. The anguish was never about the sword, it was about what the sword was/meant/represented. Once you write out your dreams, look at why they triggered an emotional response.

The dream seemed to point out my attachment to material things. Or how I’m clinging to something that’s broken. Or a warning that physical strength is fleeting.

Meaning without a story is preachy. Stories without meaning are hollow.

Tension and choice are the story. Any problem you create with technology or magic can be solved by technology or magic — that’s not compelling. The deep human meaning of these things is what makes them relatable. It’s not what you lost, but the idea of loss itself.

Part of a warrior’s path is the capacity to confront things that scare you — whether you’ve planned or not. We do it so others don’t have to. Your path is toward your fear.

When you want the hero (and the audience) to suffer, think about the underlying meaning of the event. If it’s contrived, it’ll fall flat. If you find yourself crying as you write, you’re on the right track. Are you translating those feelings to your stories in an authentic way?

Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.
― Stephen King

People with intelligence will… try to push through whatever they want with their clever reasoning. This is injury from intelligence. Nothing you do will have effect if you do not use truth.
― Yamamoto Tsunetomo