Way back in issue #206, I reviewed Stephen King’s book On Writing. It was perhaps the best crash course on writing I’ve ever read, and the single most influential book on my journey as a writer. It’s also the one that I’ve always encouraged the writers I edit for to study. It’s not a road map to success, but it is a compass to navigate by.
When one of the writers I admired most, J. Michael Straczynski (henceforth JMS), announced he was releasing a book about writing, I was both excited to read it, and curious to know how it would compare.
Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer has both very similar and very different approaches to the subject. They both use personal anecdotes to help illustrate their points, and to give you an idea of the journeys they took to get where they are. They both clearly love what they do, and want you to as well.
But King’s focus is mostly on novels, while JMS leans towards the world of screenwriting for movies and television (though most of what he says still applies to novels). The first half of King’s book is a kind of biography, though one very focused on the parts of his life that had to do with writing, while JMS avoids this for the most part because he covers it in better detail in his previous book, Becoming Superman.
The two books do not take the same approach on what they choose to teach. To oversimplify, I’d say that On Writing feels like a workshop, while Becoming a Writer feels like a seminar.
King’s book deals more with technique and offers examples and even some exercises to try out, while JMS is a bit broader in his approach, and talks not just about writing, but the industry you’re trying to get into.
Even the subtitles of each book are telling. The subtitle of King’s book is A Memoir of the Craft, while JMS’s is The Artistry, Joy, and Career of Storytelling. King’s book is focused on the craft of writing, while JMS talks more about the experience of storywriting, and selling your work. Again, this is an oversimplification. There is overlap between the two, but in reading each, you will see the gaps left in the other.
Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer, as the title foreshadows, is divided into two parts. The first half is about how one learns the craft, and the second focuses on what to do once you actually start to sell stuff. It tries to cut away the misinformation that continues to float around about the world of writing to this day, and has good advice regarding pitfalls to avoid.
As JMS puts it in his introduction: “Writers need to hear different things at various stages of their careers, so the first part of this book is skewed towards beginning writers who need to know what not to do as much as what they should be doing…”
The strength of this book is the same as King’s book and another writing-related book I’ve covered recently, Dreyer’s English, and that’s the personal and relatable tone. It’s those personal anecdotes that are still related to the information being presented that not only make these works enjoyable to read, but ensures the points they want to convey stick with you.
Both King and JMS’s books try to carry a certain pragmatism as well. A line that’s been recycled by various authors over the decades goes something like this: Writers don’t like writing—they like having written.
I’d argue a corollary to this is that some people don’t really want to be writers, they want to have written something. It’s important to determine who you are. Are you a writer, or do you just want to have written something?
But what if you have something like writer’s block, you might ask? Well, JMS doesn’t believe it exists, and it’s easy to see his reasoning why: “There’s no cure for something as ambiguous as ‘writer’s block’ because there is no clearly defined cause, and thus no apparent remedy.”
There is a lot of truth to this, and so instead, he approaches the problem by addressing the underlying insecurities behind it. Defining a problem makes it something you can take on, while the nebulous “writer’s block” feels like a boogie man, because that’s exactly it is.
Both King and JMS’s books are useful for different reasons. They provide different perspectives but are in no way contradictory to one another. In fact, I’d say they are very complimentary books to read if you have literary aspirations. You wouldn’t go amiss having both on your shelf. Just don’t let them collect dust there, okay?