Courtesy of NPR.org
One of my lifelong dreams is to write and publish a book.
As a purveyor of the written word, I relish opportunities to create a polished piece of prose that can influence others or contribute to the body of knowledge in the world.
This penchant for penmanship led me to read Stephen King’s excellent non-fiction title On Writing.
Part autobiography and part self-help book for aspiring authors, the book provided me with lots of food for thought. In it, I discovered useful insights into how King pursued his craft, as well as tips on how I can become an accomplished writer.
While the volume was admittedly more useful for writers of fiction than nonfiction, it still provided revelation on the tricks needed to engage and excite using the written word.
The Life of a Bestselling Author
Done in his breezy and highly readable narrative, On Writing (published in 2000) provided a quick tour of King’s life and the incidents which made him who he is today.
Born to a poor family and raised largely by his mum (his dad ran away when he was two) in Portland, Maine in 1947, King rose over the years to become one of the bestselling authors in the world.
His monumental achievement? 50 novels, five collections of short stories, one non-fiction book, nine screenplays and several movie acting roles to his name.
Much of the credit went to his wife Tabitha. A writer herself, she provided a pillar of strength for the writer during his early difficult years washing sheets at the laundry by day and writing by night.
The greatest breakthrough came when King wrote Carrie – a story modeled after girls he met in school who were considered social outcasts. The cheque of US$400,000 for that initial story set the tone for a lifetime of writing success. It also propelled King to be one of the world’s most prolific and profitable writer.
Write with Your Door Closed – and then Open
The centre section of the book covered the techniques and methods of writing – what King considered his toolbox for writing.
Topics like vocabulary, grammar, style, the use of adverbs (King hates them as they tend to distract from the main thrust of the story), paragraphing and dialogue.
In his words,
“Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. If not so, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?” – Stephen King
In King’s world, the first draft of your book should be written with the door closed, and the subsequent drafts with the door open.
As an author, you should strive to get the first draft out in an environment that is minimally disruptive – no television, radios, computers, mobiles, and if possible family members.
You should also think about your ideal reader, in other words, who you are writing for. King’s muse has always been his wife Tabitha, and he wrote countless books with her in mind.
Embrace the Power of Serendipity
Certain parts of the book were a little serendipitous in nature.
For example, King suggested that the process of discovering a good story was to dig it up slowly when stumbling upon it “like a fossil on the ground”.
I love this analogy. I suppose it would work well if you adopt a naturally curious outlook in life, and are bursting with ideas on how to weave these perspectives into a compelling yarn.
Read and Write A Lot
What’s the great commandment to becoming a good writer?
King exhorts you to read a lot and to write a lot.
Doing it from four to six hours a day, every day (except for his birthday, fourth of July and Christmas), King was and still is a voracious reader and writer.
To help potential fiction writers to read the right stuff, King shared his own reading list of close to 100 books which he read in the last three to four years.
Developing a Good Plot
Other aspects of writing covered by the master author include the role of plots.
King doesn’t believe in having one most of the time, preferring instead to throw his characters into a scene and “let them work themselves out of it”.
The use of themes and the role of research as finishing touches – the icing on the cake – were similarly discussed. Ditto for the administrative aspects of writing – like finding a publisher and getting an agent.
A Painful Accident
Towards the tail end of the book, King touched on a particularly painful (and fateful) time of his life when he was knocked down by a blue van and broke his leg in many places while taking his usual afternoon walk.
Describing the scene in acute detail, King shared that it was his writing that got him back to where he was today. The process of rehabilitation reinforced the importance of his wife throughout 26 years of his writing life.
Killing Your Darlings
King ended the volume by providing a real-life example of how he edited his first draft.
Here, he took advice from William Strunk Jr – “Omit needless words” – and ceaselessly used the formula of 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.
Another immortal word of advice was provided by King’s mentor Elmore Leonard which is to kill one’s literary darlings:
“kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings”- Elmore Leonard
The example given was quite heartening to folks like me – even the great Stephen King had to repeatedly edit his stuff and “kill his darlings”!
An Inspiring Guide for Writers
On Writing is more inspirational than instructional.
It worked well as a persuasive piece to nudge (or kick) you to begin putting fingers to keyboard (or pen to paper), rather than to guide you on the intricacies of style and penmanship.
While some of King’s musings appear to work better for naturally gifted writers – not everybody is blessed with his talent in uncovering raw gems of story ideas for instance – the book is still a good read for anybody who loves to read and write.
Like me. And you.