Whip out your favorite critiquing pen. Mine is a Mont Blanc fountain pen. My pen was gifted to me by my grandmother for my college graduation, and it once found its way into the hands of some uninformed fool who struggled with the screw top and launched it nib-first onto a table. The case cracked and the gold bent. Luckily the good folks at the Mont Blanc store took pity on me and fixed it instead of charging me some four-hundred dollars for a replacement nib. I've written many things with this pen, and as such it has developed character, history, and class. It's the sort of pen I wish I could whip out when critiquing in the forums. It's the sort of pen I wish I could whip out instead of typing up the following text. This paragraph has no purpose other than to begin the next. I wrote it because in my plotless writing nirvana it's what fell out of my head and I thought it would be a waste to take it out. And, if you read to the end of this post, and were I to follow all of the rules, it must be excised. What then would its purpose be if not to begin by saying I have a purpose and that purpose is to intentionally begin this post without a purpose?
Imagine you've been hearing about a book from various sources, either as a guideline, holy writ, or as a gateway to nirvana. This e-book is going to be good, you just know it. Forget the author, forget the title, you just want to savor its sweet litany. So you crack it open. Title page. Simple Yet Satisfying. Virtual-flip. Hmm. Blank page. Okay, print holdover, I can deal. Fuzzy graphic, followed by a blank page. Um, okay, I guess. It's not the text, so we'll dismiss these little formatting nuances, right? I mean, god forbid it was self-published or something because someone might rip this author a new critiqual-hole before they made it to the official Page One. Page five, that's got to be where it all settles down. Page five is - another title page. Publisher's page, more blank pages, a few random quotes, and then, there we are, the Foreword on Page Twelve. One third of the first twelve pages are blank, but since this was formatted for print most folks will excuse that, won't they?
If I self-published a book, an e-book mind you, with four blank pages out of the first twelve, would the e-reading public let that slide? It's virtual, some may say, so it's no big deal - just skip it. But were this self-published, I doubt that could slide. Moving on. Page Twelve, or Page One of the Foreword - wait, where are the paragraph indentations? Extra space between paragraphs instead of indents? Standard or no, this looks ugly.
Read, read, content isn't too bad. It's interesting, save for the missing visual cues of paragraph indentations. But what's this: Indentations on the second line of example text? Read, read a bit more, and - another example of botched indentation. And so on, and so forth, weird indentations and blank pages. Oh, hey, homework. I can do that. Except, it's very much past an unpublished due date and doesn't even count for extra credit. Shouldn't this type of text be redacted, or at least amended? It's digital for crying out loud.
Imagine I am talking about the King James Bible (I'm not, just hypothetically), whose word is the literal Gospel for some, and just might save their soul (unless they're die-hard Norse, because they'd be long dead along with the rest of the world, except for Danka and Julio, migrant workers tending the forbidden fruit orchard, who survived and became Adam and Eve). If they purchased a copy of this holy codex and it was formatted poorly, how would they react? Some might reign jihad down on the heads of those responsible, as well as those noisy kids down the street.
If I handed someone a self-published e-book formatted that way, what would they say? I mean besides frothing at the mouth. Chances are some would be tempted to tell me to get a copy of Stephen King's "On Writing", because lately that decade old book has been a convenient critiquing cudgel. Of course no one would use it to beat up authors who don't write stream-of-conscious style, or commit unrelated mistakes like messed up formatting. Either way, don't get riled up at the former suggestion - that is a summation of one of King's writing lesson. Write your first draft in a go and, if we're following all of the lessons, squeeze the vice a little (or a lot) while you do it. At least at first, and, probably, when it matters most. But not now. I mean - don't do that at all! Forget I even wrote that. Just go straight to discovery, don't follow the path. Anyway, Stephen King's "On Writing", at least my copy, is complete with formatting errors. Granted that's not King's fault, but the subtext of those errors speaks volumes towards arguments for how some see its function: That it be a yardstick with which to measure writing skill. And somebody botched the formatting. When I pay $10 for an e-book, particularly one about writing, especially a writing book from a top tier author, I expect the e-book to be correctly formatted for the device.
I thought Stephen King had a lot of very interesting points to make in "On Writing". I don't recall whether he mentioned how much he lucked out with the first couple books, although he did mention his shock at the paperback rights. I don't fault him for such success. Good for him! He spent a lot of his life preparing himself for the industry. He deserves his success. I'm happy for his success. God willing I'll find some of that success one day too. He had a few very interesting points, and a fair amount of vaguely interesting points. So, to be absolutely clear, apart from one or two items that need to be updated, and the abysmal e-publishing job, I'm not writing to criticize Stephen King's book. I'm questioning whether the writing lessons steeped in and culminating with his specific style are uniformly applicable to a general audience in the way that some people may suggest. Maybe, or maybe not - and he writes as much himself.
The book includes vignettes on his life, his take on what approaches to writing work for him, and lessons learned. But it's disingenuous to suggest we can all follow those lessons while ignoring that the lessons were not birthed from rainbows and sunshine. I don't care for solutions without understanding how they were achieved, and the how of Stephen King's lessons were personal and individual. Whether or not you think of creativity as a spigot which can be opened and shut on a whim does not mean its sweet nectar flows the same way for all of us. One example that is often cited is plotting. Writing without plotting doesn't work for me. I tried, it didn't work, and that's why most people don't read what I wrote in the early to mid nineteen nineties. Or some of my flash fiction for that matter. Case in point: I wrote this and the previous two paragraphs a la "On Writing" style (but I admit I plotted it a bit - is that fair? Can I plot to not plot save for the plot?) and it was vitriolic. Primal juvenile blustering. Maybe that's what came out of my mouth (or hands as it were), but it was not what I wanted to write and certainly not how I wanted to write it. In the end I wound up tossing most of what I wrote, not because I didn't like what or how it was conveyed (primal juvenile bluster can be cathartic, dontcha know), but because that wasn't the reason I started writing it in the first place. I didn't start writing this to unearth a point, I started writing to reach one: I like writing fiction, I like how I write fiction, and writing fiction like someone else doesn't work for me.
And, whoever is responsible for formatting "On Writing" for the iPad should be forced to watch the Twilight Saga in 3D IMAX for forty-eight hours straight.
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