July 25, 2011

Stephen King's On Writing

I am not a fan of Stephen King. I like some of his short stories, but I've never managed to get through an entire Stephen King novel. I find them long and boring and failing to deliver on the premise described inside the book jacket or back cover. However, as I'm trying to learn more about writing, I found that several authors reference his book, On Writing. Finally, I decided to read it for myself.

It is probably my favorite Stephen King book now. Part how-to and part autobiography, On Writing gave me a lot of good advice, and timely since I'm starting to edit the first draft of my novel. I don't agree with everything he suggests, and I found some advice somewhat hypocritical since I don't think he follows it himself, but the book was very useful to me. Without giving away the entire contents of the book, I came away with three major areas to work on:

1. Write more
2. Let the situation and characters dictate the plot
3. Kill your darlings

The best way to write better, King advises, is to read and write a lot. I've always read a lot, and I still read whenever I have the chance. With my Kindle app, I can now read all the time without having to carry a book around. However, I don't write as much as I should. I write mostly on the weekends and sometimes at night. King recommends a more rigorous writing schedule. He writes a minimum of 2,000 words a day. Legend has it that John Grisham wrote for two hours every morning before work. I clearly need to carve out more time to write.

Stephen King likens writing a novel to unearthing a fossil. The story is there, buried under the dirt, and the writer's job is to find it. The way to discover your story, King says, is not to think of the plot beforehand or write outlines. He starts with a situation and a small number of characters in the situation, and from there, he lets them lead him forward. I mentioned in a previous post (also inspired by On Writing) that I wanted to try this for my next book. I am a planner by nature, so I don't know how well it will work. We'll see.

The third bit of advice that struck me was King's phrase of "killing your darlings." By that, he means that nothing you write is sacred. No matter how much you like a character or scene, if it hinders the story, you need to remove it. I'm going to keep the phrase in mind as I go through my editing process.

There's lots of other good advice in the book. I recommend any writers who are interested in improving their skills to read it. Also, it made me want to read The Stand. Maybe I'll finally be able to finish a Stephen King novel.

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