As part of my effort to move on from my last two books and become a better writer in general, I’ve been doing some of the reading I probably should have done a long time ago. Stephen King’s On Writing has been on my list for a while now, so I picked it up at the library a few weeks ago, along with Bird by Bird.
I love Stephen King. I read The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, and The Talisman when I was in junior high and early high school, and I’ve read Cujo, Hearts in Atlantis, The Shining, and a few others randomly over the years. My parents have every Stephen King book and they keep most of their collection in Montana, so when we’re up there I sometimes pick one at random and read what I can while I’m there. On Writing should have been a no-brainer (I’ve known about it for a while, probably since a few years after it came out in 2000). I’m sorry that I waited so long to read it.
The Financial Times usually features an author interview in the weekend Arts section, and one of the questions asks, “What book do you wish you’d written?” The Stand is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’ve often wished I could write something like that (a big, dramatic post-apocalyptic novel a la The Passage or The Hunger Games, which I just read in two days and will post on later), but I’ve always had this notion that Stephen King’s mind must be a really scary place to hang out, and I wouldn’t want to have to dwell there in order to write something like The Stand. Stephen King is kind of an odd duck (he cameos in a lot of his films, and he’s sort of crazy looking - no offense, Mr. King), and yet reading On Writing, I was struck by how absolutely normal he seems. I was sure he must have had some terrible, tragic childhood, but aside from growing up relatively poor with his brother and single mom, his childhood sounds pretty damn normal. He started writing when he was quite young, publishing his first story in college. That story was called “Graveyard Shift.”
While Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was very much a how-to of writing, On Writing is part memoir, part autobiography, part inspiration, and finally, a little bit of how-to. When King started writing, the industry was vastly different. Even when he wrote On Writing, getting an agent wasn’t the same ridiculous process it is today. You could send out a dozen query letters back then, without even finishing your manuscript according to King (I’m not sure if that was true twelve years ago or not), and expect to get an agent. As I mentioned in my review of The Help, it’s not at all unusual for an author to send out fifty to 100 queries before landing an agent today (and that's a bestseller, for God's sake). So while that part of On Writing wasn’t really relevant, I enjoyed reading about King’s writing process. He’s also really funny, so it was a quick and entertaining read.
A few bits really stuck out at me based on where I’m at in my “career” right now. For example, King tried to sell a story without success, only to sell it ten years down the road. “One thing I’ve noticed,” he writes, “is that when you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, ‘Not for us.’” I’m hoping that someday my two drawer books (well, four, but I know the first two don’t deserve to see the light of day) will get their chance.
Another thing that struck me was King’s advice to write your first draft “with the door closed.” In other words, don’t show your first draft to anyone until it’s complete. This is the first time I’ve done that, and I find it to be working quite well. I was also happy to hear that King doesn’t like writing classes, because neither do I. “Daily critiques force you to write with the door constantly open,” he says. “The pressure to explain is always on and a lot of your creative energy, it seems to me, is therefore going in the wrong direction.”
King’s wife Tabitha is his best friend and Ideal Reader (IR). My IR is my sister, Sarah, and not showing my novel to her this time has been tough. According to King, an IR should provide positive but honest feedback, and Sarah does a good job of that. But taking time out to show pages to your IR can also kill your enthusiasm for a project. “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job…There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” Showing my works-in-progress to Sarah is a constant temptation (Am I going in the right direction? Is it working so far?) but it can also cause me to question myself, and for now, I just want to get the thing down on paper.
There are a lot of agents and editors who advise new writers to join writing groups for critiques, rather than sending your novel to friends and family members. But I agree with King on this subject. On the one hand, the people close to you are probably not going to be your harshest critics. And on the other, it puts them in an unfair position if they hate what you wrote. But, King says, “…I don’t think an unbiased opinion is exactly what I’m looking for. And I believe that most people smart enough to read a novel are also tactful enough to find a gentler mode of expression than ‘This sucks.’” Stephen King also employs a sort of points system for opinions: if one person likes something and someone else doesn’t, it’s a wash (in the author’s favor). But if more than one person makes the same comment, you have a problem that needs addressing. Good advice, methinks.
John and Sarah are my support system through this crazy process. As King writes of Tabitha: “Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is enough.” I’m very fortunate to have both of them rooting for me in the wings. I don’t think I could keep on slogging through this without their encouragement and support. John isn’t a big fiction reader, so his support is more theoretical, but he also “supports” me in a very important sense by giving me the freedom to pursue my writing. Sarah reads and loves the same books I do, which makes her an Ideal Reader in the sense that we have the same taste, but she also just “gets me” because she’s my twin and best friend.
Mostly, On Writing has helped me to trust my own “process” (I may not be a professional, but I think I do have one). I know what works for me, and it may not be neat and tidy, but if it gets me through 200 pages in a month, I must be doing something right. I also loved King’s commentary about novels that create worlds readers are reluctant to leave. He cites Tolkien as an example. “A thousand pages of hobbits hasn’t been enough for three generations of post-World War II fantasy fans…Hence Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, Robert Jordan, the questing rabbits of Watership Down, and half a hundred others.” (Those are some of my favorite writers and novels, so I know King is writing about me here, even if he doesn’t). It is my dream to be able to create the kinds of worlds my favorite authors do. I know I’m nowhere near as good as they are, but it’s a goal. And now that I’ve finally given in to my love of fantasy, I feel like the possibility is there at least. Maybe I’ve finally found my niche. We shall see.
Finally, I leave all aspiring authors out there with this:
“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
P.S. I think I have tickets to see Stephen King speak next month. Fingers crossed!