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It’s hard to pin down what makes great writing, but you know it when you see it.

On my nightstand right now, I have the requisite 50 Shades Darker (Volume II), and another book that’s attractive:  Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Fifty Shades Darker and King On Writing

So far I’ve read only the first installment of 50 Shades, a featherweight book-group pick. And I thought I would move right on to #2. But at every stolen moment, it’s King’s book I want to read. It’s an odd choice for me: I’m not a horror-genre fan. As a kid, I had enough fear on my own, and I’ve never craved chills for entertainment. Just a glimpse of the TV previews for Children of the Corn and Pet Sematary were enough to send me running.

Still, there’s nothing like the curatorial gifts of an independent bookstore to give you that much-needed shift in perspective. I saw the King book at Eagle Harbor Books and was psyched to read it. I was curious to learn more about the mind and methods of the man who had written a bajillion best-sellers.

King appreciates spending time with other authors, such as the novelist Amy Tan, and talking about the actual work of writing. “The day job.” One night,

I asked Amy if there was any one question she was never asked during the Q-and-A that follows almost every writer’s talk—that question you never get to answer when you’re standing in front of a group of author-struck fans and pretending you don’t put your pants on one leg at a time like everyone else. Amy paused, thinking it over very carefully, and then said: ‘No one ever asks about the language.’

Tan’s comment helped King make the decision to write his B.S.-free book about writing. In it, King comes off as real, and I love his absolute candor:

If I was going to be presumptuous enough to tell people how to write, I felt there had to be a better reason than my popular success. Put another way, I didn’t want to write a book, even a short one like this, that would leave me feeling like either a literary gasbag or a transcendental asshole. There are enough of those books—and those writers—on the market already, thanks.

The one writing guide King says is worth reading is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I’ve got my careworn copy, rubber-stamped “Property of Lawrence Public Schools,” with my name penciled on the title page. The original text of Elements dates back to 1919, when Strunk was White’s professor, and it’s got legs.  E.B. White distills Strunk’s vision:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Summarizing this, White says: “There you have a short, valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity—sixty-three words that could change the world.”

Both writing guides speak to the mysterious synchronicity that somehow makes “style” happen. White asks:

Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?

To get the picture, he says, play with sentences and see what sticks. For the headline of this post, I tested “Sex, Gore and Grammar,” vs. “Gore, Grammar and 50 Shades,” and so on. For me, it’s a matter of what looks and sounds best, knowing there is no “right.”

King’s memoir also addresses random mental connections that spark new material. For instance, one summer King worked as a high-school janitor. One day, he was supposed to scrub the shower in the girls’ locker room, and he noticed the metal boxes on the bathroom walls. He says, “I started seeing the opening scene of a story: girls showering in a locker room where there were no…pink plastic curtains, or privacy.” Separately, he remembered an article he once read about telekinetic phenomena in teenage girls. “Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea.”  Carrie became his breakthrough. But it came after hard work and lean years.

Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

Back to my night stand, where King’s memoir and 50 Shades play favorites. I’m starting to read 50 Shades Darker now, so I’m shifting from the wisdom of King’s master class to the risky business of Grey’s domain.

In 50 Shades, we’ve got a hot plot, action in the Red Room, a page-turning pace. Does anyone care if it’s well-written? No. But even for Stephen King, star of popular fiction, craft is paramount.

Grey’s language is hackneyed beyond belief. Heroine Anastasia Steele often refers to her alter ego, her latent “inner goddess.” At the end of Book I, Ana breaks up with Christian. Early in Book II, they reunite (‘cause it feels so good), and Ana says, “My inner goddess stirs from her five-day sulk.” (p. 15) As the couple renegotiates the extent of its adventures, Ana says, “My inner goddess is down on bended knee with her hands clasped in supplication, begging me.” (p. 34) Ana asks herself if returning to the Red Room is what she really wants. “Of course you do! My inner goddess screams.” (p. 87) Comedy.

Good grammar and the principles of prose aren’t exactly sexy, but as readers, they serve us well. In the Elements of Style, White says, “The setting of a word is just as restrictive as the setting of a jewel.” Restrictions in Grey happen in the—ahem—character development.

To improve as a writer, King says, you’ve got to read constantly. He reads 70 to 80 books a year, mostly fiction, because he loves it, and because “every book you pick up has its own lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” I’m no literary gasbag, but if Grey’s E.L. James drew writing cues from E.B. White, I wouldn’t mind.

There is no Island of Bestsellers, but 50 Shades stakes a claim on the beach. Like most of us, I could never squeeze in 70 books a year. But a writer does need to stay current, read for the fun of it, and learn. Now, please pass the sunscreen.

Who are some of your favorite writers? Whose writing style is irresistable?