I’ve recently finished Stephen King’s On Writing. I loved it. I originally downloaded it on my Kindle, but after finishing it I immediately ordered it online so I could have a hard copy to scribble over and highlight. I would like to share a few of those highlights with you.
Firstly, a reality check: When King advises aspiring writers to commit to writing a thousand words every single day, let’s not forget that he has the good fortune to be a fulltime, famous writer with no financial constraints. That’s not the reality for the vast majority of us. A few slightly-out-of-touch-with-reality moments aside, nearly everything else he advises in his book is realistic, probably achievable, and inspiring.
Here is one of my favourite sections. He’s just been talking about writing courses and writers’ groups and writers’ retreats and all those things we are told we must buy into in order to get anywhere as a writer.
In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and my actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters. [Don’t you just love that?] And the larger the work looms in my day–the more it seems like I hafta instead of just I wanna–the more problematic it can become. One serious problem with writers’ workshops is that I hafta becomes the rule. . .When, on the other hand, making sure the kid gets to his basketball camp on time is every bit as important as your work in progress, there’s a lot less pressure to produce.
This as a great reassurance to me on three counts:
One, as a mother with a part-time job who is trying to study as well as write her first novel in her spare time, it helped me to take some of the pressure off myself. My daughter’s gymnastics competition this weekend is as important as my writing. That is how it should be. Two, it made me realise that going on writing courses and signing up to workshops is not crucial to becoming a good writer. Writing as much and as often as you can, and living your life in all its messiness and unpredictability, is. Three, it confirmed for me that as soon as I start dragging myself to my office with grim, joyless determination, I become like a man with performance anxiety: my pen shrivels up. I should write because I want to, not because I have to. As Mr King says:
Writing is at its best – always, always, always – when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. (pg. 174)
Here’s another of my favourite quotes that regular visitors to my blog will no doubt recognise:
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. (pg. 164)
King goes on to say (and this is another out-of-touch-with-reality moment) that he reads between 70 and 80 books a year. Ummm, well done there Steve, but just shut up, OK? Shut up. (I bet he cheats. I bet he reads the latest Readers’ Digest ten times – don’t we all when we’re in the doctor’s waiting room – and counts that as ten.) I love to read but by the time I fall into bed at night I can keep my eyes open for ten minutes; 15 max. That said, I am guilty of watching too much crap TV. So I could read more. Point taken.
And yes, writing every day is an excellent goal. I try, I really do, and his comments about losing momentum if you don’t write on a regular basis only serve to confirm what I wrote about in my recent post A Novel Loss Of Momentum:
If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for writers that is the smooch of death. (pg. 174)
King suggests that the first draft of a book should take no longer than three months. He would no doubt throw his hands up in horror (baaaaahahaha) if I told him mine had taken three years or so (and counting). Oh, how I envy his endless stretches of time, his silent afternoon hours, his wife waiting on him hand and foot, his . . . (Actually, I don’t miss the wife. By the sound of it she has an incredibly annoying laugh. Read the book and you’ll understand.) I write as often and as much as I can, and all I can do is hope that is enough.
A word on theme. Remember high school English exams, when you had to read a passage of literature and comment on the theme and its significance? I don’t go in for that sort of “forced importance”, and neither does King:
Writing and literature classes can be annoyingly preoccupied by (and pretentious about) theme, approaching it as the most sacred of cows, but (don’t be shocked) it’s really no big deal. (pg. 238)
Often theme will grow naturally out of our own thoughts an interests, and will arise from our experiences and adventures as human beings. In my novel, for example, I guess you could say the “themes” are the importance of bravery in facing our demons, and the risks we have to take to find true love and connection. I didn’t set out with these themes in mind; I didn’t even think about theme. These ideas are simply a part of my experience, and as such it is inevitable that they have woven their way into my story. Theme is like that: you don’t have to force it. But after your first draft, you do need to ask yourself why you’ve spent all those hours in front of your computer. What have you been trying to say? “The answer doesn’t always come right away,” suggests King, “but there usually is one, and it’s usually not too hard to find, either.” (pg. 246)
He advises against being overly conscious of theme as you write your first draft. Just get the words down and tell the story. He goes on:
Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. But once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob our work (and eventually your readers) of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own. (pg. 248)
King ends the book like this:
Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
Drink and be filled up. (pg. 327)