I resisted reading King’s On Writing for a while. A friend doing a clearout passed it on. A colleague who’s committed to writing well reviewed it. And then my brother gave it to me as a late birthday present. “It’s good,” he said.
So I read it, in a day.
Here are ten things from the book that are worth repeating:
1. If you write bestsellers, “no one ever asks about the language” (Amy Tan) – but you must be doing something right.
I’ve not read any of King’s fiction; horror isn’t my thing. But I share his love of a good story, and after reading his “memoir of the craft,” I know he knows how to tell one. He begins with his own story, the one around the ones he writes. And he soon had me hooked.
2. Writing means rewriting – “to write is human, to edit is divine.”
It is always nice when writers appreciate copyeditors and King does. He recalls learning from the sports reporter who handed back his first copy and “only took out the bad parts, most of it is pretty good…”
King stresses that “when you rewrite, you are taking out everything that is not the story.” Or, in the words of my A-level history teacher in the margins of my essays, “why are you telling me this?”
3. If you don’t take your writing seriously, who will?
“You must not come lightly to the blank page.” If you want to do a good job, you need to have your toolbox in order and the knowledge to use everything in it. This includes finding out enough about the basics of grammar and style, and taking time to correct mistakes. King doesn’t have time for complex plot mapping or gimmicky tricks. His gut feeling is that writing workshops and courses distract from the core business of getting your words on the page. He wants you to get on with it.
4.“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
King is far from the first to say this, but reading is essential to writing. It was easy to identify with his own description of always reading, on the treadmill, on transport, everywhere. Seeing how others do it will help you do it. But then you do have to put the hours in.
5. Stick to a system.
2k per day, every day, in the mornings until it’s done, is King’s system. Alone and without distraction, behind a “door you are willing to shut.” Everyone will have their own routine, and not everyone is a morning person. Like sleep, however, regular habits help create the space to dream things up, and to write them down.
6. The story comes first: “stories are found things, like fossils in the ground.”
Like translation, there are a thousand and one metaphors for writing. This is King’s. The story is there, buried, waiting to be unearthed with care, without shattering them. I warmed to his explanation that he doesn’t know what will happen next either: if it’s too obvious to him, why would a reader care? His drive to write more is the desire to find out. The “fossil” could be a situation — “what if…?” Finish that sentence and you’ve started your story.
7. Create critical distance
At this point, King lays down the law. Don’t let anyone at all see your first draft till it’s done. And then only show one person – but don’t let them talk to you about it till you are ready. At best, let it sit for at least six weeks, start the next thing, move on. And reread in one sitting if possible. While rereading, King says, “I’m looking for what I meant” – the big themes. Then a handful of friends get to look at it, and the editing is in full swing. Five friends might have six opinions. So to decide who is right, consider what your ideal reader would think.
8. Cut, cut, cut: 2nd draft = 1st draft -10%
I warmed to this formula too, as everything I edit comes out shorter. You need to do your research, to have a back story in mind, but don’t put too much of that detail in. King shows how he does this with before and after versions of a long extract from one of his own drafts. Again, the story drives him. “As a reader, I’m a lot more interested in what’s going to happen than what already did.”
9. You can help readers find you.
King was very successful very quickly but he quoted an author who had to work harder to find an agent. “You can’t make them like your story, but you can at least make it easy for them to try to like it.” This author had their pick of agents from one carefully worded letter of enquiry. You can show what you’ve achieved but be approachable.
10. Remember why you’re doing it.
“Writing is about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
King is honest about the times in his life when he was not living to write, but writing to live. Do you recognise this feeling? I do. I won’t rush out and read Carrie (though that’s the one I’d go for, after hearing about the characters that inspired her). But I will keep his top ten pinned up somewhere. And if you’ve also been meaning to read On Writing, go for it. My brother was right: it’s good!