I have tried my hand at writing fiction, so perhaps you’ll allow me a self-indulgent review: Stephen King’s book On Writing.
He defines stories as “vividly imagined waking dreams,” a form of telepathy between writer and reader over time and space. He also notes that “most books about writing [fiction] are filled with bullshit… shorter the book, the less the bullshit.”
The first seventy pages (of a two-hundred page book) talk about his life, mostly childhood and early influences. He started submitting short stories to magazines in his teens, when a few hand-written words on a form-letter rejection were cause for celebration. King thinks this is still the way to get started, especially to get an agent: get your stories published by little outlets (that may only pay in copies of their magazine); that’s how you build your credentials. (I should point out that the book has a copyright of 2000, so King’s advice pre-dates the recent boom in self-publishing, especially of ebooks.)
It’s a nice introduction to King’s style, but I must admit that, anxious to get to his writing advice, I skimmed much of it.
I’m going to include a lot of King’s specific advice; because I’m sure you’re more interested in his opinions than in mine. King offers advice about the mechanics of writing:
- Use The Elements of Style.
- Avoid the passive voice – King thinks people write in passive because they are fearful or think it sounds impressive, but it’s weak.
- Purge adverbs! “The adverb is not your friend” and “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
- Vocabulary – “don’t make any conscious effort to improve it… use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.”
- “The best form of dialogue attribution is ‘said’ as in ‘he said, she said.'”
- Paragraphs should be neat and utilitarian.
- When he presents a “rule” he also discusses exceptions and authors who successfully violate the rule.
I think the core of the book is about how to be a writer of stories. Some of his comments sound discouraging: “If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well,” and “if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you.” (If you’re a great writer, no one knows how you got there.) But King also mentions the joy and “buzz” of writing several times and says practice can make a competent writer into a good writer.
King’s “Great Commandment” is to “read a lot and write a lot,” four to six hours a day. “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life” and “the more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself.”
He also advises writers to be brave. “Fear is at the root of most bad writing… Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”
King says that “stories make themselves.” He finds stories like fossils in the ground, part of an pre-existing world. Find a story and give it a place to grow.
Stories and novels consist of three parts: narration (to move the story), description (to create reality for the reader), and dialogue (to bring characters to life). Plot is not one of these parts.
I admit to some confusion over the difference between “plot” and “story”, but for King plotting ruins spontaneity. Outlines and character notes are “tyranny” and a strong enough situation renders plot moot.
For his own work, King bases each book on a situation where a group of characters (flat and featureless as he begins) are in some predicament and they try to work themselves free.
King’s writing method is interesting. He says:
- Set up a simple, humble work space without distraction and close the door.
- Write every day – if you don’t, characters become stale and you’ll lose hold of plot and pace.
- Be honest about how your characters speak and behave, even if they are ignorant, bigoted, or otherwise silly or disreputable.
- Back-story helps define characters and motivation, so get it in quickly but remember that most of it isn’t interesting. Flashbacks strike him as boring and corny. It’s easy to fall in love with your back-story and research (which is a form of back-story), so pay close attention to any back-story that bores your beta readers.
- A typical novel’s first draft should take no more than three months, written at 2000 words a day and only under “dire circumstances” do less. (He allows a beginner to only do 1000 words a day.)
- After the first draft is done, put it in a drawer for six weeks and work on something else. Then take it out, read it, and do a second draft. As you read your first draft, look for the theme and pacing so you can add things that enhance those features and delete things that detract.
- Don’t share your draft until you feel it is reasonably reader-friendly. King discusses the roles of his Ideal Reader and beta readers.
- After a third draft or polish, King sends his manuscript off (in his case, to agent and publisher), but notes that by the time the “damn smelly old thing” is in print, he’s been over it a dozen times or more.
- I appreciate that he mentions one of my favorite things several times: Afternoon naps.
There’s more: writing classes and seminars, how to find and evaluate an agent, use of description and narrative, a first and second draft of a piece of his own writing, and a long list of books he’s read. For a short book, it’s packed with information.
For me, the most unexpected part of the book was near the end. King includes an account of his near fatal accident in 1999. If you want to know what it’s like to be struck by a van while you’re out for a walk, this is the section to read. On Writing was the book he was working on, and five weeks after the accident that nearly killed him, he began writing again.
Whether you’re interested in Stephen King or in writing fiction, On Writing has something you’ll enjoy. For writers, take heart: “The scariest moment is just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”
More on writing tips here.