• Thoughts about Stephen King's On Writing ...

    When I first read On Writing back in 2000, I was living in my truck on Venice Beach. Those were vastly different times as opposed to where I am now, thankfully. I read the book with a very different mindset as well. Even then, I always knew that I would spend my life writing one way or another. If I ever made money from it -- then all the better, but I didn't see that happening and most days it's just a mirage in the desert. More on this mirage later.

    I picked the book up, not to ingest a sort of primer for my brain, which I probably should have, but because I was addicted to reading biographies during that period and I read this with the mindset of reading about the life and times of Stephen King. I honestly wasn't ready for some of the information in the book the first time around and thus missed the boat back in two thousand. Reading it again has given me a little more hope and possibly even triggered my default settings on a few things.

    I once heard American Poet Gregory Corso speak about Jack Kerouac and his early days when they first met. He stated that before Kerouac had even written `On the Road' or anything that followed, Jack had already written over a million words. Now that's not just a direct quote from Corso, but it's pretty astonishing considering the fact that these days a standard novel could be around 100,000 words or less. That would mean that Kerouac wrote the equivalent of ten modern novels. In terms of King, it's most likely only three or four, but anyway you slice it, it's a lot of writing.

    When I consider these words in context of some of the things stated by Stevie in his book, I wonder not only where Kerouac's missing novels are, I also wonder where his missing books are, as he says he writes close to 100,000 words a month. I know he's published a lot, but I'm sure he has a library of manuscripts that for whatever reason he'll never let see the light of day. Heck, I've got a few myself, but I'm not Stephen King. Not by a longshot.

    A very wise friend of mine recently suggested that I needed to take a remedial writing class and read Stephen King's book On Writing after she read the first draft of my most recent novel Greyhound. I guess I broke King's 24th commandment about letting an unfriendly draft out of the office. While I'm glad that I got feedback on something that I puked out, I learned a lesson about patience and reading what you've written at least once before releasing it on the world.

    Most of those demons found their way in the manuscript during the nightmare of transcribing them from the handwritten yellow pad to the eye-burning computer. A task I never look forward to. If I could have someone like Anton Schindler work as my secretary and transcribe my writing, I would be much happier and my migraines might be half of what they are on their worst days. But alas, I'm no Beethoven and thus must trudge.

    Like King says, if you're going to let someone read it early in the game, make sure it's someone you trust and I would add - someone that knows you as a writer and what you've done. Too many times, new eyes get wrapped up in the grammatical, which is often inescapable. This is the type of experience a writer would also have with an agent and is probably bad for both parties. Don't expect any grand acceptance letters with material in that state.

    After reading On Writing again, I found the information more meaningful and much more directed at someone like me. I was able to internalize and counsel myself with King's very direct advice. I would state that a struggling writer might get the best use of this book -- after they've written a book or two, or as in my case, a mere half million words. It's hard to be honest with yourself until you've been either beaten over the head with your own mistakes or you've beaten yourself over the head with endless editing.

    As for the mirage of making money ... Stephen says that you should never write for money, but I think that's something someone with money would say. Whaddya think? The rest of us breathe for money let alone write for it. When Steve was locking himself in his laundry room in his rented trailer and stinking of rotten seafood from the night shift, I can assure you he was hoping, just like the rest of us that he would get paid and that he would also sell more than one book. Visualizing the end of the rainbow is just as important as chasing it. If you're dreaming of getting checks in the mail, it's not necessarily a bad thing. But if they have your own name and address in the top left corner, then you probably weren't specific enough when you sent your dream out into the Universe, haha.

    I can understand why some people got so incensed with some of his statements. Especially numbers 33 and 34 regarding bad writers. (See below) Strangely, though ... I agree. As a rule, I don't read anything when I write. I know that might be unorthodox to some, especially Mr. King, but that's the way I roll, to use the parlance of our time. When I do read, I often come away with the feeling that most of what I've read is useless and badly conceived detritus. Some of it I adore, like Haruki Murakami. I wait impatiently for his next book every time. I'm now holding the opinion that he could very well be the greatest living writer of our time. But that's just me.

    But most of the stuff I read I don't like. I think the publishing industry has a policy of attrition, regarding our wallets. They'll just print whatever they think will sell, which usually doesn't and reject the rest, which also probably would sell and is far more interesting. It's also no wonder that more and more the self-publishing market is breaking out some real gems and providing a more varied market for good novels.

    I think it's also safe to say that a lot of people wonder how some books get published or how a bad film gets made, quite frequently. Publishers are working overtime right now trying to re-invent the industry and cull more readers. One thing I heard was that they want to publish fewer writers, thus narrowing the field of focus hoping to sell more of the books they do publish. Sound scary yet? It's in the works or something like it. Don't be surprised if we're one day surrounded by Harlequin Murder Mysteries and Young Adult Fantasy all by the same 10 to 15 authors. The publishing Industry believes that's the only formula worth looking at for some unknown reason.

    I think I wanted to say more, or rather something in a different tone, but after finishing On Writing over two weeks ago, most of what I thought I wanted to say, I procrastinated on due to my other writing concerns. Obviously, I broke another writing commandment which wasn't in the book, but one that we all know ... strike while the iron is hot - or suffer the consequences.

    ... ...

    The rules according to Mr. King:

    1. If you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There is no shortcut.
    2. Reading is the creative center of a writer's life.
    3. The TV is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.
    4. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate is four to six hours - every day.
    5. Once I start on a project, I don't stop and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to.
    6. Strunk and White is to a Writer what the Bible is to a Preacher.
    7. Life isn't a support system for art, it's the other way around.
    8. The idea that the creative endeavor and mind altering substances are entwined is one of the great myths of our time.
    9. You must not come lightly to the blank page.
    10. The first draft of a book should take no more than three months, the length of a season.
    11. The adverb is not your friend.
    12. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero bull from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible.
    13. I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That's 180,000 words over a three month span, a goodish length for a book.
    14. Only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before getting 2,000 words.
    15. When you write, you want to get rid of the world. It's wise to eliminate every possible distraction.
    16. Paragraphs are almost as important for how the look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.
    17. The paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing.
    18. Grammar is not just a pain in the rump; it's the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.
    19. Write about anything you want as long as you tell the truth.
    20. You need a room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You'll also need a concrete goal as well.
    21. You should anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn't get in the way of your story.
    22. Writing fiction is a lonely job
    23. The first draft should be written with no help from anyone.
    24. Never let an unfriendly draft cross the threshold of your office or out of your desk drawer.
    25. The most common tool of any writer is vocabulary.
    26. Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox and don't make any conscious effort to improve it.
    27. Do not dress up vocabulary, looking for long words because you're a little ashamed of your short ones.
    28. Invest in a copy of Warriner's English Grammar and composition.
    29. Don't be a Muggle. Avoid the passive tense!
    30. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs
    31. Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.
    32. The object of writing isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.
    33. I can't lie and say that there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.
    34. While it is possible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one.
    35. The secret of my success is that I stayed physically healthy (well, almost) and I stayed married.
    36. You're job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be everyday from Nine `til Noon.
    37. Novels consist of three parts: narration, description and dialogue.
    38. Plot is a good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice.
    39. The situation comes first. The characters come next. Once I have these things fixed in my mind I begin to narrate.
    40. Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story.
    41. With characters, it boils down to two things: paying attention to how real the people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.
    42. Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity.
    43. Symbolism is a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work.
    44. Revising is three drafts, or two drafts and a polish.
    45. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.
    46. You should put your first draft away for six weeks before starting the second draft, because it's always easier to kill someone else's darlings than your own.
    47. When you give out six or eight copies of a book, you'll get back six or eight highly subjective opinions about what's good and what's bad in it.
    48. Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds.
    49. Your early readers will also gauge whether or not your story is paced correctly and if you've handled the back story correctly.
    50. The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) every one has back story and (b) most of it isn't very interesting.
    51. Routine interruption and distraction don't much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it some ways. It is the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster's shell that makes the pearl.
    52. You don't need writing classes and seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing.
    53. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself. These lessons almost always occur with the door closed.
    54. You should have an agent. If your work is salable then you will have only a moderate amount of trouble finding one. You'll probably be able to find one even if you work isn't salable, as long as it shows promise.
    55. The scariest moment is always just before you start.
    56. Writing is magic. 


    1. A remedial writing class and reread "On Writing"? Ouch. But at least she was honest, and perhaps "Greyhound" is salvageable but in need of some polishing.(I can't say for sure as I haven't read it.) I used to think that I knew most of what I needed to know to be a good writer. Then on a suggestion I started reading Faulkner and realized I have a lot more to learn about writing. A great story idea with "flat as year old soda pop" prose is either not going to go over very well or just sound like everybody else out there and never really stand out. Faulkner's stories don't interest me as much as his prose...some of it is just a downright work of art. The first paragraph of of the second chapter in "The Sound and the Fury" is a perfect example (even missing the punctuation it really should have). Reading Faulkner has really changed my approach to my own writing and how I view narration.

    2. Anonymous7:39 AM

      I think the most important thing of all is to understand yourself. You'll never completely understand yourself, but it's a good start. And for me, Characters are always always FIRST...never the situation like for King. And I don't think most writers have more than three good books in them. And in this case, King is definitely the exception. And he says his wife is a good non nonsense self reliant woman. Of course, she's self reliant. She'd married to a multimillionaire. How far would she have gotten on her writing???

    3. Anonymous12:47 PM

      I'm more like king. Character should serve the story, not the opposite. I differ from king from the fact I need a plot before writing. And even if I don't write the plot, I already have the story unfolded in my head.