On Writing: Advice from master storyteller Stephen King
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It doesn’t matter if you’ve devoured dozens of Stephen King's books or wouldn’t know Cujo and Carrie from a bar of soap, writers at every stage of their career can learn a thing or two from his memoir On Writing.
On Writing is a book people were telling me to read for years. At first I was ambivalent. Part one is centred on King's writing life. It charts his success from the school newsletter to earning enough money from a novel to change his life completely. Interesting enough, but I wasn't fully invested until part two where the book becomes a practical guide to writing.
Much of the advice is grounded in commonsense use of language, but it's applicable to every writing practice. Even those who have been writing professionally for years will find revision of basic writing techniques helpful.
In this post I wanted to share the tidbits which I found most helpful.
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
Being a perfectionist and a people-pleaser, I am often inclined to write just a little and show someone in the hope they’ll encourage me to keep going (or tell me it’s rubbish and to put my efforts elsewhere). But King’s advice on this has convinced me to change things up, to keep that first draft close until the story is done and on the page in some form.
Despite his success as a writer, King explains he is not immune to doubt. It’s really just part of forging this creative path and, understanding that, we as writers must learn to live with that uncomfortable, weighty sensation. As King says: writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.
As writers, King says we need to keep up the pressure while getting through the first draft. To let people in would lower that, exposing our fledgling work to the doubt, the praise, or even the well-meaning questions from someone from the Outside World.
But when you’re ready to revise, to open that door again, how do you know who to trust? King says we don’t have to, and shouldn’t, trust everyone. Really, we should write with an ideal reader in mind and let in a core group of people who can offer feedback as we revise.
You can’t let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter the most. And you should.
Another key piece of advice was taking the whole process seriously. Treat it as a job. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.
On living that writer’s life, King also lays down my favourite law: If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
He says we should read widely and voraciously because all books have something to teach us. The bad ones, he says, may even have more to teach us than the good ones. But falling into writing you love is important too. As King says: you cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.
Reading is the creative centre of a writer’s life.
Read outside your genre comfort zones and constantly redefine your own work as you do. This, says King, will also make the practice of writing a little more intuitive.
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing: one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place … where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.
That self-consciousness and fear of judgement, can lead to writing that is, at best, mediocre. King believes fear is at the root of all bad writing and urges us to avoid the temptation to write in passive voice or to reach for the thesaurus for unnecessary flourish.
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.
The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.
I’m sure I’m not the only writer who sometimes falls into the trap of over-description. To show off my skill by telling you something in excruciating detail (which I’ll hopefully cut out in revision).
Description begins in the writer’s imagination but it should finish in the reader’s. Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand of everything else.
There can also be a temptation to set out writing a draft with big, world-changing themes in mind But King’s advice is to just start regardless, to muddle through the forrest of the first draft and then return to tidy everything up. Just tell the story first.
Yes, he says, every book worth reading is about something. But you don’t need to know what that is when you start with that blank page.
When you write a book you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Once your basic story is on paper, think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions.
My book is full of tabs and sentences underlined in pencil, and I’ve found a few new techniques I want to put to the test. Whatever you think of King’s work, he is undoubtedly a master storyteller and I know there will be something in this book which any writer will find useful. Which piece of advice has resonated most with you? Leave a comment and let me know.