I just finished On Writing – A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King.
At first glance, Stephen King is not the kind of author you associate with a how-to book about the craft of writing. Not that I have anything against Stephen King. It’s just that he seems so, well, out there, cranking out page-turners at a rate that makes most of turn green with envy. He seems like the kind of author who’s made it, thank you very much, without having to stoop so low as to help others. Kind of like you wouldn’t have expected Steve Jobs to go into consulting about the art of computer design. Masters don’t consult. That’s just the way it is.
I only picked up On Writing because I was repeatedly told by fellow writers that I should. And I didn’t regret it.
Because, my friends, thanks to Stephen King I now have a feasible plan for my writing career. He tells me that if I want to make writing my vocation, I have to write at least 1000 words a day. Every. Single. Day. As simple as that.
It’s not as if I didn’t know that I need to write a lot. But there is a world of difference between “a lot” and “1000 words.” The former usually comes in a sentence such as “I’ll start writing a lot once I’ve bought all the groceries and folded the laundry and checked the emails and wasted three hours on Facebook.” The latter stands all on its own, as in “I’m gonna write 1000 fucking words today.”
I immediately knew I’d like what Stephen King had to say when he told me this: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I mean, who doesn’t like to hear the command “read a lot” (other than my husband of course)? It’s like a free pass to have an affair, or some other guilty pleasure. My guilty pleasure has always been to read, and now thanks to Mr. King I’m going to take the guilty part right out of it. He says he doesn’t read because he feels like he has to, but out of pure pleasure.
Improving your craft as a writer is just a side effect you almost can’t help. A bonus.
Woo hoo giant stack of books next to my bed, here I come!
What I love about On Writing is that these are not just empty words. Ever practical, King gives you a three-page reading list at the very end, a list that includes such a variety of authors as Joseph Conrad, Nelson DeMille, William Faulkner, Alex Garland, J.K. Rowling, and Charles Dickens. Many of these are already my favorites (which is what makes it a brilliant reading list) but there is still a lot of territory to be conquered. I have plans to get started on it as soon as I hit publish on this post (sorry giant stack of books next to my bed).
Here is another snippet that has endeared Stephen King to me: “I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer.” Has he read my mind? I couldn’t have said it any better. Pronouns are the devil. You write them down carelessly and confidently, and then during the nitty-gritty revision process, after you’ve been proved wrong by your sharp-eyed editor for the bazillionth time, you have no idea anymore whether you don’t sound like a Kindergartener with only rudimentary English skills.
What a relief to know that one of the great masters struggles with something as small and pesky as pronouns just as much as I do.
If you’re now thinking “Well, I sort of like Stephen King but don’t think this book would be interesting because I’m not a writer,” don’t quite discount it yet. The first half of it is pure memoir, about how he survived a hard-scrabble childhood and came to be (at long last) a writer, a story any fan of his will thoroughly enjoy. The second part is dedicated to what he calls the “toolbox” you need as an author, which of course is the part I found particularly useful. And I also loved the bonus material at the end, which includes the aforementioned reading list but also a real-life sample of a first draft versus edited copy. This is as close as you can get to see the process at work. Like watching Van Gogh paint. You get to read a passage written in its raw form, you get to see all the mark-ups and edits in the second draft, and then you get Stephen King’s explanations for why they were made.
This, to me as a writer, is pure gold.
Even though On Writing is mostly about the craft of writing novels, not non-fiction, I’ve gotten plenty of good tips out of it, ranging from very specific commands (Kill all the adverbs!) to pure poetry (“Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.“) and a few practical guidelines along the way (Write what you like, and write what you know). In fact, the latter holds no matter what genre you write in. You have to be honest in your story-telling, whether you give advice to readers of parenting magazines, or whether you chronicle your mountain climbing adventures.
So here is my goal this summer (kids at home and hungry five times a day notwithstanding): One Thousand Words Each Day. The good news is, I get to count blog posts such as this one (even though they don’t get me closer to finishing book #2). Did you count? How am I doing so far?
Let’s talk again on August 8 when the kids go back to school. From the beginning of summer that will be 77 days, or 77,000 words.
In short, the length of a book.