I’ve just finished reading Stephen King’s, On Writing: a memoir of the craft. It is part memoir and part guide book for the aspiring writer. I have observed in the past that while, one hopes, there may be significant differences between what goes into a work of fiction and a carefully researched piece of social research, when one sits down in front of a blank screen to communicate ideas the challenges can be remarkably similar. King’s book is full of useful advice. While some of it obvious, it is no less valuable for that, and it is considerably more engaging than staid self-help guides one might read.
Almost all writing, fiction and non-fiction, is a creative process and as such there can be a tendency to imbue it with certain mystical qualities. How many times have you heard someone say they have to be in the mood to write. This is something I have observed in students, and of which I have also, on occasion, been guilty. King’s book seeks to demystify the process by encouraging us to treat writing like any other form of work, something which should be done on a regular (daily) basis but which doesn’t need to take over our lives. Sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike is likely to be much less productive than setting aside several hours each day to sit down and write. As King advises:
Don’t wait for the muse… he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here , but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. (p.157)
One can help this process by creating the right environment. King is not overly prescriptive about this, some people will work best in the library (although King advises against this), others will take themselves off to a motel, a quiet cottage in the woods or at least a shed in the garden. J.K. Rowling famously wrote the first of the Harry Potter novels in a café in Edinburgh. King tells us that he wrote his first two published novels, Carrie and Salem’s Lot, ‘in the laundry room of a doublewide trailer, pounding away on my wife’s portable Olivetti typewriter and balancing a child’s desk on my thighs.’ He adds that while the space can be humble, (‘you don’t need an Early American rolltop desk in which to house your writing implements’), it should have one thing, ‘a door which you are willing to shut.’
The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and you intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. (p.155)
He does suggest that, ‘for any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it is wise to eliminate every possible distraction.’ There should be ‘no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with’. On writing was published in 2000, but one might now add, disconnect the internet or at least switch off social media. Although King does admit that he works to loud rock music like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses and Metallica! Once the door is closed, King suggests a daily target and that the door stays closed until that goal in met. As with physical exercise, to avoid discouragement he suggests setting a low target to begin with. His recommendation to begin by aiming for 1000 words a day is fairly standard in guides to writing.
Sticking with the writing as work analogy, King also recommends that all writers should build up a toolbox to enable them to do their work. He narrates a story from his childhood in which he accompanied his uncle, a carpenter, to carry out a job on the other side of town. As this turns out to be a relatively simple job requiring little more than a screwdriver and a handful of screws, King is puzzled as to why his uncle chose to carry a heavy toolbox across town. Of course as any craftsman knows, when embarking on a job, one never knows what tools one might need, and his uncle naturally responds:
“I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.” (p.114)
The writer’s toolbox, King suggests, is not a physical thing, it has nothing to do with pencils, pens and notebooks, and may therefore be less physically demanding to carry, but it should be no less complete and failure to have a well-stocked toolbox is likely to be discouraging. It is comprised of those intellectual tools which will make the process of writing easier. Like the carpenter’s toolbox, the writer’s toolbox should have several levels and the tools within it should be well maintained, ‘if some are rusty (as they may be if you haven’t done this seriously in awhile), clean them off.’ The most commonly used tools, King suggests, should be kept at the top. The first two levels should be comprised of vocabulary and grammar, with additional levels, drawers and boxes containing information on style, paragraphs and sentence structure.
King also has much to say about the process of drafting and redrafting. Perhaps the most significant and succinct piece of advice was offered to King by the editor of a provincial newspaper early in his career, ‘write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open’. The first draft is for you, but once you’re reasonably happy, or as happy as you can be, then let others read your work, and redraft it accordingly. As with many guides, he recommends putting a piece of work aside between drafts. On returning to it you will often (hopefully) find that it is better than you remembered. He also passes on a useful formula, provided by his High School English teacher, for dealing with what is, in my experience, one of the most common preoccupations of students – word count. The formula, which King still claims to apply, is ‘2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.’
What the formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten per cent of it while retaining the basic story and flavour, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing – literary Viagra. You’ll feel it and your… reader will, too. (p.223)
There is much else of interest in King’s memoir/guide, but for those who are not interested in how King became a writer, or how he got back to writing after a one-sided encounter with a truck in 1999, I would strongly recommend the chapters on the writer’s toolbox (pp.111 -137) and the section on paragraphs (pp.129-135) in particular, and the sections on reading (pp.145-154), the writing room (pp.155-162), revising (pp.208-220) and the ideal reader (pp.220-227).
If all of that sounds a bit much, remember the following
If you want to be a good writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%.
Stephen King, On writing: a memoir of the craft, New York: Scribner 2000. The book was serialised in The Observer in 2000, there are also, inevitably, a huge number of interviews with King on the subject including this and this from The Atlantic and this from Open Culture.