Notes from Stephen King’s On Writing

image from
Simon and Schuster

If you write, read this book. Seriously, if you write anything at all — memoir, romance, horror, essays or nonfiction or whatever — read this book. Advice and wisdom on strategies, plotting, grammar, and dealing with rejection — this book has it all. And no matter your opinion on Stephen King, I can’t say enough about the practicality and inspiring aspects of On Writing, other than just to read the damned book.

Key points from On Writing:

Finish a novel in 3 months – just one season – or it will feel like dispatches from a foreign  consulate.

Write 2000 words a day.  Every day. Even on Christmas and your birthday, just keep writing.

Grammar is as grammar does, check the guides, but don’t be afraid to strike out on your own.

Remove excess words, which is ironic advice from someone who writes 200,000 word novels.

Beware the adverb, or your prose will slip silently beneath the murky waters of insipidness.

Active voice is your man.  Passive voice and clichés are something good writers should avoid like the plague.  And sentence fragments too.  Unless you’re using them for emphasis.

Use words that matter.  Avoid vague descriptions of stuff.

Bottom line: keep on writing, even when it feels like you’re shovelling shit from one pile to another. And especially then. Just keep moving forward.

Goodreads Review — Just an Ordinary Day by Shirley Jackson

Just an Ordinary Day by Shirley Jackson

Just an Ordinary Day by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


With a preface written by Shirley Jackson herself, as well as her hilarious epilogue on ‘Fame’, Just an Ordinary Day is a collection of previously unpublished or uncollected stories, many of which were recently found in a box in a barn in Vermont, having been forgotten for decades.

Edited by two of Jackson’s own children, Laurence (‘Laurie’ of Savages) Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman Dewitt (‘Sally’ of the same), with an introduction by Laurence Jackson Hyman, ‘Just an Ordinary Day’ brings together an incredibly diverse array of short stories. From psychological terror to heart-warming family pieces, this collection shows the range and depth of Jackson’s skill as she masterfully blends humour and macabre.

As with Let Me Tell You (2015), Just an Ordinary Day (1996, 2015) brings an amazing collection of short stories to old fans and new readers; and combines the best of Jackson’s short stories with themes of identity, relationships, social conformity, set with heavy (and at times, near equal;) doses of humour and terror.

You can see my reviews at Goodreads.com & be sure to visit my Goodreads Author Page

ESSAY – Balls, Revisited. Again.

Image of a messy sink,
courtesy of the author;)

Sometimes the stuff of life is so stupid and ridiculous that all you can say is fucking balls, and get on with it.

Recently, I got an invite to read a couple of my stories at a major literary festival as part of a contest I did well in. (I know, big deal, eh?) The phone call during which I was notified was epic in the way only parents of young children can understand, with screaming, yodeling, and dogs barking in the background, and me putting kids into time outs and hiding on my front porch just to be able to hear the contest organizer tell me that my stories were selected.

And the after a stunned silence on my end, the contest organizer asked if I was available to read on that weekend.

My response – sure, my husband’s off work, so he can stay with the kids while I do it.

And that’s the clincher – the kick in the pants as it were – I needed somebody to watch the kids.

Childcare comes first.

Before anything to do with a literary festival or contest winning – I had to figure out what I was going to do with the kids. Hubby’s watching them, because he’s available, and it’s easier if I do a solo road trip by myself than dragging the whole fam along. Now, the awesome ladies behind Twisted Sister would have either taken my kids, helped pawn them off on unsuspecting strangers, sold them on kijiji, or accompanied me on a road trip.

But they’re busy too – with family stuff.

Hubby’s pissed because he’d like to go, our childcare is kaput through a scenario only Rube Goldberg can understand, so somebody’s gotta step up, and it’s him.

But if Hubby was working, I wouldn’t be able to go. Who the hell would watch the kids?

Take a moment to consider this. My stories did well, so I was invited to go to this festival, but I couldn’t because if I didn’t have childcare. I honestly don’t see many men in this position, and it really pisses me off.

Balls. (To be understood as a swear word of your choice, akin to fucking hell or sucks.)

There was a photo of a pregnant sports doctor floating around the interwebs, she was tending to an NFLer while wearing her three-year-old strapped to her back.

And that’s the reality of many women’s lives – one little childcare hiccup, and they’re schlepping a kid through a long workday and dealing with the demands of the job and family simultaneously.

Social media was abuzz with praise for this multitasking mama, and the move was seen as positive for working women everywhere – a sort of you can do it lady, have your kids and a career too.

Which is fine, but – I’ve never seen an NFLer hauling his kids to a game because his childcare arrangements fell through. Just sayin’

It seems to be a woman’s deal. We give birth to them, so somehow we’re stuck with them (legal obligations to provide care aside) we seem to be the primary caregivers and main organizers of such things as childcare.

So when things fall apart – we pick up the slack.

I get this – been in university courses where the prof has to bring her kid along to a seminar and hands them a colouring book and then carries on with the lecture; and I’ve taught university courses where a candidate shamefacedly brings their child to my class and we both scramble to find some age appropriate toys together. I’ve also brought my own kid to the course as guest speakers.

Now, I’m good at multitasking but bringing my – ahem – adorably rambunctious (*snort*) offspring to a literary festival would be like introducing a troop of methamphetamine-crazed chimpanzees to a piano recital. You might say we put the Hyperactive in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Heck, most days, my kids drive me crazy, why on earth would I unleash this kind of nonsense on a bunch of random strangers?  And having me read, while kid one is beating up kid two in the audience, and kid three is screaming that her brother looked at her funny and kid four is demanding that I sing wheels on the bus – RIGHT NOW –

Uh, I’ll pass. Let’s just say bringing the kids is a no-go.

Which leads me back to the whole premise of this essay. Balls. Or, women and fiction in a contemporary era, where you’re supposed to be strong, and nurturing, and get shit done and have a family and a career and all that.

And something small (but not so small) like childcare gets in the way.

So many things of writing are universal to both men and women (or however you identify gender-wise) – and everybody faces some serious challenges. Everyone needs balls to write – because everybody struggles at one time or another to just shut the door (or quiet the demons in your head) and get on with it. Everyone needs balls to withstand whatever criticism may come your way, and thus damaging your tiny fragile ego, so you either suck it up and go with whatever recommendations are made, or you need balls of ginormous proportions to say no fucking way, I’m doing this thing on my own.

But women (especially women who are parents of children) need a different sort of balls, a sort of super-sized ultramatic deluxe model to stick it out and see things through. (Single and stay-at-home dads out there, I know you exist, and maybe have the same kind of problems, and might be able to relate, or maybe not due to shared custody agreements or their partner’s support – either way, let me know.)

And maybe that’s why so many women I meet who write show me a little story or a novel draft, and smile and say, I know it’s not very good, I just need a little more time…

Time.

Just think about it.

If you have children to take care of, and laundry to do, and meals to cook — who the hell has time to polish and revise a draft umpteen million times and then send if off someplace, and then receive a lovely little rejection letter saying, sorry, but no thanks, it just needs more time…

Unfortunately, time is not what these ladies have. They might have great ideas, and heart, and soul, and sparkling brilliance – but, let’s be honest, they just need a little more time to pull it together; to polish that draft. And keep going.

(Small child interruption – tiny fists are pounding at the door, demanding apple juice. And crackers. Now. I told them to go talk to their father, he can deal with it.)

Maybe that’s why there’s so many ‘mommy bloggers’ out there – Honest Toddler, Scary Mommy and Kim Bongioro of Let Me Start By Saying among the best of them. Because it’s easy enough to write a funny or witty or damned freaking honest blog post while you’re cooking dinner (or nursing the baby) but bigger stuff – like fiction – becomes too hard to manage.

A while ago I was fortunate to meet Canadian writer Jean Rae Baxter, a writer of some pretty dark and twisted stories (A Twist of Malice is my favorite), who didn’t start writing professionally until she retired from her career as a high school teacher. She spent decades teaching others how to write, but had no time to focus on the craft herself.

I asked her about this – why did she start writing so late in life?

She said she was busy, with her career and family.

Balls.

(Ed. Note – These essays were written around 2015-16 and throughout them I’m talking about women in heteronormative relationships with children as a primary caregiving responsibility; obviously exceptions apply, but drop into any #momswhowrite group and you’ll see similar discussion, even now. Balls.)

And be sure to check out the very fantastic Facebook group Moms Who Write and my other essay about women and writing, very creatively called Balls, also up on this site.