I finally broke down and read Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Yes, broke down. Sometimes I get weirdly stubborn about certain things, and reading this book was one of them. This is one of those books that many writers read and quote frequently (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I once said, “I don’t need to read it because everyone else has read it and quotes it all the time.” Not that I read a lot of books on writing as it is.
I’ve recently decided to amp up my reading in an effort to improve my writing. Lately, I’ve been reading three or four books at a time: some fiction, some non-fiction. In between reading grammar books I decided to start looking through books on writing fiction and I figured I might as well start with Stephen King’s, because if you’re going to start out with one, it might as well be his.
Now that I’ve finished reading it, I’ve decided to share my thoughts and talk about what I got out of it (other than an idea for a blog post). I would like to say that this is not intended to be a review of the book. What follows applies to me personally and I’m not intending this post to be used to persuade people to read the book or not to read the book. Why? Because this is just me throwing down my thoughts. I’m not organizing those thoughts into reasons why this is or isn’t a good instruction manual on writing. Also, I finished the book a week and a half ago. I borrowed it from the library, and have since returned it. Since I don’t have it in front of me, a good portion of what I’m saying is from memory. So, some of what I’m saying might be a bit Beckified. (Technical term.)
Okay, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s get to the point. First, the book is an interesting read because it is largely autobiographical. If you’re a King fan, you get to learn a lot of facts about him that you may not have known before. He talks a lot about what he went through while writing some of his books, and that’s just fun if you’ve read them.
One of the first things that grabbed my attention was that he stated that he wasn’t sure if he should write a book on writing fiction, because he doesn’t know what his process is. I was like, “Yes! I don’t either! Not a clue!” I just do it. When my readers tell me they really like how I did this or that I’m like, “Yeah, thanks.” But how did I do it? I have no idea. So to hear a published author say the same thing was really refreshing.
Something else that really grabbed me was what he said about plotting. He believes that a writer doesn’t need to pull out hairs over this. If you get your characters right, and are honest about them, the plot with follow. (This is just a brief summary. I’m missing some important elements. If you want to learn more, read the book.) I thought this was great. I’ve been getting so nervous reading conversations about plotting on Twitter. I keep thinking, “I don’t know how to plot. It just comes together. It just happens.” So, again: refreshing.
He also mentioned the magic place, the one that I’ve often mentioned. He talked about how the writer doesn’t create the characters, they excavate them from archaeological sites. Yep. That’s what I’ve always thought. Seriously. Okay, well actually, I thought I was picking up things from other dimensions, but I suppose the concept is the same. Often, when I tell people that there is a “right way” for the story to be told, and I am just waiting for my characters to tell me what that is, I am given a weird look. It’s cool. I’m used to it. I always knew I wasn’t the only writer who felt this way. But Stephen King feels this way. Insanity does love company.
And of course, he goes on and on about writing and reading. Writing and reading and writing and reading. Those are the two things one must do in large amounts in order to become a better writer. To me, this is great news. Writing and reading? I can do that. I do it every day. Sometimes I go through phases where I don’t read quite as much as I should, but still, I read a lot. And writing? I do so much writing that sometimes I have to force breaks on myself so I don’t get burned out. So, I’m good. But then there’s another part of me that’s like, “Writing and reading? That’s it?” That’s too easy. What’s the catch? Surely there’s some weird, complex calculus problem I’m required to climb to the top of a mountain and solve while standing on one foot and singing an ancient battle hymn. Right?
I really hope not. Please let it just be writing and reading.
Those are just a few of the important messages I took from On Writing. I enjoyed reading it and am glad I got over whatever stubbornness that was keeping me from doing so. I’ve now moved on to Anne Lamont’s “Bird by Bird.” I’m also reading “Waking the Tiger” by Peter Levine, a non-fiction book on healing trauma. I just finished a memoir by Ryan Smithson called “Ghosts of War.” So, I guess I’ve got the reading part of writing and reading covered. I’m also still trying to read my first draft of “Caribou Canyon” now “City of Secrets.” Does that count as both writing and reading? And of course I’m still working on edit 10 of New Year’s Revolution. So, I’ve definitely got my hands full.