I decided that if there is a halfway decent story inside me, and even so much as a feather’s chance in hell it will ever see daylight, I’d better do some research on how best I might make that happen. Naturally, start with what you already have available, so…
My Mom sent me a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing a while ago. I had barely started it, put it down for one distraction or another, and didn’t pick it back up again. I admit I was a bit skeptical about my ability to enjoy what amounts to a how-to-manual on something like writing, but I figured I’d have to slog my way through it to find any golden nuggets of useful information.
To my delight Stephen King is every bit as fun to read in nonfiction! You would expect his remembrances of growing up with a writer’s spirit to come alive in the mind’s eye, but not necessarily anything else. He admits that beyond the basics, writing nonfiction was agony for him to put his thoughts to the page, but you wouldn’t know it to read it. No question, On Writing is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to write fiction of any kind. My copy now stands with many, many passages highlighted, pages marked, notes written – I inhaled this book!
Of course he covers things like grammar, punctuation, and sentence and paragraph structure, but those sections are short and to the point. He talks about plot and theme, when and how to use them, and when and why he doesn’t. He peppers the dry stuff with humor and real examples, most of which are taken from the works of other authors (some famous, some obscure) to better make his points.
He also talks about the value of writing the initial story completely for yourself “behind the closed door” so the whole story can come out. No editing in your head or as you go, just write. This copy is not meant to be read by anyone else so write as though it never will be.
On the honesty imperative, your story and its characters must be as real for the reader as they are to you. Otherwise the story will be stale, flat, unrealistic, plainly poo. For example, if a character in your story is a bigot, do not edit for political correctness! It’s possible you may get some backlash (King himself still receives mail with things like accusations some of his characters’ views must be his views, nevermind they are fictional), but I think if you’ve managed to piss somebody off, your character was probably quite real enough. You won’t please all your readers, can’t please everybody anyway, likely can’t please most, so don’t even try at the cost of your story. It’s your story!
He explains why it’s so important to make yourself let the first draft rest for long enough it almost seems foreign to you, ideally after you’ve already absorbed yourself into the next project, then reading the whole thing in one go, if possible, before attempting to edit for what is story, what doesn’t belong, and what needs clarification.
When it comes to editing the rough draft, King says most writers are “either taker-outers or putter-inners” (admits his own desire to add rather than cut), why it’s so important to take out so much of what tends to show up in the first draft, and how to identify what needs to stay or go. He even offers a couple of pages from his book 1408 for comparison, first in rough draft and then edited for second draft.
Though the idea of having people close to you read and critique your work is typically frowned upon, he explains why he feels the first half a dozen copies should go to people who will give a subjective but honest critique of your work. “Besides,” he says, “if you really did write a stinker…wouldn’t you rather hear the news from a friend while the entire edition consists of a half-dozen Xerox copies?”
Amazingly, King provides a setup and encourages readers to write their own short story and send it to him! Of course this book was originally published fifteen years ago, written mostly sixteen-eighteen years ago, but if the tone of his writing is true, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still reading and commenting on people’s work in response to this challenge.
All in all, I have to say I’m very glad a copy of this book was given to me. I don’t know when or if I would’ve gotten around to obtaining a copy on my own. I highly recommend it to any writer for all the valuable information contained as well as the pure enjoyment of reading the thoughts and experiences of such a successful, down-to-earth writer. Stephen King just made the top of my if-I-could-have-dinner-with-anyone list.