Notes ‘On Writing’

 

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).

Vocabulary

King’s advice – Use the first word that comes to your mind if it is appropriate and colorful.

Grammar

Memorize Strunk and White’s Elements of Style

Narration

Show don’t tell.

Description

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).

Dialogue

Be honest.

On Revision

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.

On Agents

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!

Writing and Blogging: Equal Standards?

My writing group, First Writes, has fluctuated in numbers since we first formed in September of 2009. We’ve had as many as ten and as few as three at our meetings. Other obligations like Bible studies and choir sometimes take precedence. One of the original members, Ed, is a retired math teacher who enjoys writing essays about God and faith. He also enjoys working with the youth of our church and takes breaks from First Writes to minister to them.

 

We miss Ed when he’s not there. His insights on writing are unique and very well thought out. He’s a very precise person and looks at a manuscript like he looks at a geometry equation, examining all the angles. His fresh, detailed perspective is greatly missed by us all.

 

Before Ed took a break from First Writes the first time, he surprised us all with a wonderful gift – Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark (2006).

 

After a funny and eloquent speech that I wish we had in writing, Ed presented each member with a copy. Inside the book, he included the following sentence typed on a strip of white paper: May God’s love for us, and the love He wants us to give to others, be our inspiration; our power; and our greatest writing tool.

 

I was touched by his gift and his words. Both have been beneficial to my writing practice. Tonight as I was reading, I came across a chapter that caught my attention because the author seems to take a negative view on blogging as a form of writing.

 

In Writing Tools, under Useful Habits, Tool 41 is Turn procrastination into rehearsal. In this chapter, Clark explores the idea of changing how writers view procrastination: it doesn’t have to be a bad thing, according to Clark. He renames it rehearsal because procrastination gives writers the time to map out stories or other writing ideas in their head.

 

In other words, when I’m ‘procrastinating’ by doing the dishes or vacuuming, I’m also rehearsing by doing story sketches and working out plot.  Running is not a form of procrastination for me, but it is a form of rehearsal.  When I’m running stories practically write themselves in my head. I only wish I could record my thoughts!

 

Then Clark suggests another way to beat procrastination: lower your standards. He quotes the poet William Stafford from Writing the Australian Crawl to demonstrate that high standards can inhibit writing. As further proof that low standards free a writer to write, he says,

Relaxed standards are persuading a generation of online writers that they are members in good standing of the Writing Club. It would not be hard to make a case that the standards of most bloggers are too low, that these digital innovators would make themselves more readable and persuasive by raising their standards –but only at the end of the process (Writing Tools, 202).

Writing Tools was published in 2006. Is Clarke’s view of blogging accurate for that year? Is his view applicable to today’s blogs?

 

In some cases, Clark is right. Not every blog is well-written, but a lot of them are, which makes me question whether the writing I do on my blog is of lower quality than what I write for publication.

 

I will admit that I do not edit my blog posts as much as I edit a manuscript I’m submitting for publication, but I maintain the same standards for blog posts that I do for any piece of writing. I put considerable thought and effort into each post while keeping in mind my audience and what I want to show and tell them. I would never say my blogging standards are low and from many of the blogs I regularly visit, I would have to say that all bloggers maintain high standards.

 

So what does Clark mean when he says, “but only at the end of the process”?

 

I see blogging as a ‘process’ of writing, a motivational tool that keeps me writing in spite of procrastination or writer’s block. But it doesn’t keep me writing because there are no standards or expectations as Clark suggests. In fact, blogging keeps me writing because my readers are expecting quality content. Is Clark proposing I just throw anything at my blog to see if it sticks and then when I’m finished blogging go back and try to clean it up and make a pretty picture?

 

Then again, when I’m finished with the Bible Bloggers series I plan to edit and revise each entry in the hopes of putting together a book. So in a way, I’m doing just as Clark says.

 

What do you think? Have opinions on blogging and bloggers changed since 2006? Or is blog writing stigmatized as beneath ‘regular’ writing? Now can Tweets be considered a form of low-standard writing?