You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself (p. 236).
This is not a book review of Stephen King’s On Writing, although I will say that I enjoyed the book and found it entertaining as well as informative. While I read, I took notes, which I then typed up –it’s my learning process. The book is a treasure trove of information, tips and advice to writers. Here are a few of the gems I picked up:
On Writing Practice
I’ve read it countless times before, but hearing it from Stephen King seemed to really hammer the idea home –in order to have a writing practice you need a space dedicated to writing; you need to schedule time to write; you need to set a goal for your writing time. I’ve known it all along –heard it from other writers and many bloggers – but I think I finally ‘get’ it.
The problem is I can’t sit in a room and write with the door closed, as Stephen King does when writing a first draft. I can’t do that with a three year-old. If she wants me or needs me, then I can’t ignore her for my writing. Perhaps this will keep me from succeeding, but she is my priority at this point in my life. I might as well be honest and up front about it if I want to attempt to have a successful writing practice. (I can, however, let Daddy read her a bedtime story and get in some uninterrupted writing time.)
On Getting Ideas
There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun (p. 37).
King creates stories from situations and doesn’t do much in the way of plotting. He compares writing a novel to uncovering a fossil –starting with a premise and slowly and gradually uncovering the story and developing the characters as he writes. The analogy works well and as my writing process is similar to King’s it made a lot of sense to me, but he also explains that not everyone can write that way –it’s just how it works for him.
On a Writer’s Toolkit
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write (p. 147).
King’s advice – Use the first word that comes to your mind if it is appropriate and colorful.
Memorize Strunk and White’s Elements of Style
Show don’t tell.
There’s no need to go into great detail about a character’s appearance. Give enough detail to bring your reader into the story without overwhelming them with too much.
Description begins in the writer’s imagination but ends in the reader’s (p. 174).
Rewrite formula—2nd draft=1st draft – 10%
King sends his manuscript to his ‘Ideal Reader’(for King, it’s his wife Tabitha) and 4-8 other people.
His ‘readers’ look for factual errors and give subjective evaluations (i.e. what worked and didn’t work for them).
When revising your 1st draft –
- Review elements from your ‘toolkit’ (i.e. vocabulary and grammar).
- Knock out pronouns.
- Eliminate pointless talk.
- Add clarifying phrases.
- Remove over-explanations.
- Delete adverbs (adverbs are abhorred and should be eliminated at all cost –not just in dialogue tags but everywhere. If you have to leave a few in, that’s okay, but only if you just have to).
- Look for meaning so that in the second draft you can add scenes and incidents to reinforce the meaning and delete meandering material.
Ask yourself –
- Is it coherent?
- If so, what will ‘turn coherence into a song?’ (i.e. what will make the story better.)
- What are the recurring elements?
- Do they entwine and make a theme?
- Is there resonance? In other words, is there something that will linger for a little while in the reader’s mind and heart?
- Is there resolution?
King gives a great sample self-critique of his own work in On Writing.
Looking for an agent? King suggests doing research and consulting the Writer’s Market. (Personally, I think that the blogosphere has much better advice for writer’s seeking publication than King gave in On Writing, but what he did share was useful.)
Ask agents for a list of publishers to whom they have sold books or a list of magazines to whom they have sold short stories.
Be wary if an agent charges a fee to read your work.
Reading this book has reinvigorating my writing process. I hope you found a tip or two to help you along in your writing journey as well!