After I finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing earlier this week, I felt like I’d emerged from a master class for writers. It’s a revealing book, with a lot to say, especially for writers in the early stages of their experience. Why revealing? King invites us into some of his memories, both funny and sobering, resulting in a solid piece of work that’s empowering and kick-butt at the same time.
When you ask writers which books about writing they’d recommend, this one is almost always on the list, along with William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. I’m yet to read the latter, but I finally took the advice of others and read the King’s entertaining and informative book, with its less is more undertone.
Here are the quotes that made me think:
1. Vocabulary: “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up your vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.” Makes sense to me – it drives me nuts when people use words to make themselves sound better, rather than make their prose sing.
2. Passive verbs: “The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England …” Stuff that – too much passive voice sends me to sleep.
3. Fear: “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” Fear is also at the root of not writing when self-doubt takes hold.
4. Adverbs: “The adverb is not your friend”. The more I read and edit, the more I see how often adverbs are redundant, or signs that the writer isn’t confident that their message is getting across. I try be sparing with adverbs, but as King went on to say “to write adverbs is human”. I find that I use adverbs more in casual writing, such as on social media and even here, on this blog. But when it comes to my WIP, I’m more sparing. What are your thoughts on the “avoid adverbs rule”?
5. Hard work: “… but if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well.” In King’s view, the Muse is always around, but expects you to do the grunt work so he can bring out the magic at the right time. When I decided to focus on writing, the creative outlet that was always a one-day dream, I had no idea it would be so hard. I do now.
6. Reading: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” This is one of the no-brainers in the book – to me, anyway. It’s one of the often-quoted lines from this book and while it’s to the point, I like this one better: “Reading is the creative centre of a writer’s life.” Books are a university for the writer’s mind – you learn about style, about good and bad prose, about narration, dialogue and plot, and character development.
7. Plotting: “You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer, anyway – is nowhere.” Oh, I bet this one stirred up some controversy among the Plotters V Pantsers. I’m with King, but only because my writing process develops organically from an idea or a situation, and the characters often surprise me. Detailed outlining and character description at the outset of writing a novel traps me in a no-writing stasis (King calls it a “tiresome tyranny”). I’ve found I relish the freedom of letting my plot develop from my story rather than the reverse.
8. Description: “If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.” Ah, this is where the show don’t tell comes in (not that you should never tell). I’m currently working through my WIP to see how I can tighten up my description with more sensory detail. Sometimes I can be a bit of an Impressionist in my descriptions!
9. Theme: “Good fiction always begins with story and progresses with theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.” Theme enriches story.
10. Writer’s Block: “I liked my story. I liked my characters. And still there came a point when I couldn’t write any longer because I didn’t know what to write. Like Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s epic, I had come to a place where the straight way was lost. I wasn’t the first writer to discover this awful place, and I’m a long way from being the last; this is the land of writer’s block.” After the kick-butt of #5 (Hard work), it’s somewhat encouraging to know that even writers like King have experienced the darkness of not knowing what to write. Of a blank page and a blinking cursor. Just write? It doesn’t work that way for everyone. I like what Brigid Lowry has to say about that.
Narrowing this list down to 10 was hard – King has much more to say that’s of value to writers. If, like me, you’re late to the party, or you’re just stretching your writer’s wings, I’d recommend On Writing as a starting point.
And if you’re keen to read more real-life stories on being a writer (rather than how to write), I’d recommend Writing the Dream, in which 25 writers share their journeys.
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favour you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” – Dorothy Parker