You must not come lightly to the blank page.
Stephen King‘s book about writing – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – is part autobiography and part advice manual. It’s a great read for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of writing and looking for some practical, down-to-earth suggestions.
The first section is the autobiography – what got King into writing the books he does, his long love of horror films and horror novels, his first attempts at submitting stories to magazines in his teens, gathering a large collection of rejection slips on a nail in his bedroom, through submitting stories successfully, and finally to having Carrie accepted by Doubleday for an advance that would mean he could leave his job and write full-time. I think it was probably harder than it sounds, although that might be wishful thinking for someone starting out over a decade later than he did!
The second section is where we get some interesting ideas about how to be a good writer.
* Write everyday – if you don’t have this desire, then maybe writing isn’t for you after all. But, acknowledging that it’s hard with family and full-time work, he suggests starting with small goals, maybe a hundred words a day, and gradually building up writing habits.
* Use active verbs – instead of the weaker ‘The meeting will be held at seven o’clock’ write ‘The meeting’s at 7’
* When editing, delete adverbs. They often don’t add anything, I agree, and King’s argument is that they’re trying to strengthen the surrounding prose – which should be telling you the emotion as the action occurs, but isn’t, so you’re filling the gap with the adverb. Cut words that don’t add to the sense of story, character or place. He’s not arguing for sparse, empty sentences but instead for making every word do a particular job for you. If it isn’t, it needs to go, no matter how impressive you might find it.
* Aim for “something that will linger for a little while in the Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.” – that something that will make them think a little longer, want to wait a while before they pick up the next one because they don’t want to dilute what they’ve just read.
* Set yourself a writing goal and stick with it – he does 2000 but having done the maths, even 300 words a day is over 100,000 by the end of a year.
In real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character the protagonist the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby. If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much fiction.
* Shut drafts in a drawer for six weeks minimum before going back to them, then read them in one sitting and see what you think. Only then should you show it to someone else – and choose those second readers carefully.
I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was well-balanced, an interesting mix of the inspirational and the practical – I’d love to read something by him about editing a whole draft though; he gives sample edited pages and the final version, but the whole idea of pace and breadth of a novel is a bit intimidating at the moment.
His writing is, unsurprisingly, sparse and clean, but still retains that flavour of anecdote and down-to-earth that I like about his fiction, its reality. He does sometimes make a point of acknowledging that people, for whatever reason, dislike his novels – dislike of the commercial, suggestion that he’s not literary enough, downright jealousy – but he does so with a verbal shrug of the man who’s sold millions and, really, doesn’t need your validation any more to know he’s good. And his advice is superb. Definitely recommended.
[This book] is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.