Major leagues, in terms of novelist royalty. Stephen King has been outside my consideration for way too long. Like, I knew he existed, and wrote quite a lot, but I think neither of my parents were a fan of creepy stuff, so consequently, I never really saw a pile of Stephen King fiction on a table or bookshelf. But by golly, the man’s written a tonne. He has published sixty-ish books, and several of those have been adapted for the screen. It’s difficult to find a list of books on writing that don’t feature On Writing: A memoir of the craft. So I gave it a chance, as part of my compulsory education as a budding writer who was determined to give this a solid go.
A memoir and philosophy of writing
As of writing this blog, I’ve yet to get my hands on any of his novels, but I can see why they got so popular. I think by reading this before I’d read the novels, I’ve spoiled some of the twists, but that’s not the end of the world.
I think the thing I most appreciated about this interesting approach to writing about writing was that it was largely not instructional. It was a philosophy, woven into a narrative that covered King’s early life, challenging family circumstances, and eventually meteoric rise to fame and the new challenges (read heavy drug use) that came with that. I was impressed by the feeling that it was honestly written – as honestly as possible, given all writing is about making things up. Despite the fact that I’m not a reader of memoirs, and that I’m also not a reader of a lot of americana, I was transfixed by his story. There were poignant moments woven into the account of writing, and joy, and frustration, and a great deal of self-awareness. It was very blunt, and dealt with living poor, navigating the moving from working class occupation and frustrations, to his accident and the trouble that has led to for his writing routine. It was frank. Nothing glossed, nothing diminished, but also no excessive amplification of the hardships of an artist’s life ™.
I listened to the book on Audible, and I listened consistently, rather than bittily, as I do when I am less inspired by a story. Apologies, Mr King, for the adverbs. I know you loathe them so. It was hella compelling, which actually surprised me. I don’t expect books that tell me how to approach big challenges to inspire me like this one did.
The key things he said about how to write included establishing a writing routine, giving a story a chance, and organising a room of one’s own that can be your writing space.
Some of these things are pretty easy, like writing every day. And when I say easy, I don’t mean fun, I just mean that it isn’t unrealistic to write a little every single day. Some of them, well, one day I’ll hopefully have the luxury of a home office that has a comfortable chair and well-appointed desk, and most importantly for him, a door that I can close to signal to the world that I’m writing. The room of my own, just for writing, is definitely on my bucket list house spaces.
He advocates watching less and less TV if possible. At the same time, he enjoys movies, so I feel like it’s not the medium but the habit he objects to. So far, this has made me feel somewhat guilty about series binges, and honestly, I think I have watched less telly and consequently written more. So, point to King on that one. On the flip side, he advocates reading more. A lot more. Which I think is necessary and important as a writer, to read widely and to read as often as possible. I have been reading more, using my lunch breaks to get in a few pages, rather than just scrolling instagram. Reading more fills you up, giving you energy to tackle the challenges of pouring your soul into the page on a daily basis.
Mr King says to start with a situation, favouring (from my understanding of his method) not plotting the story, but seeing where the characters take him. This sort of pantsing is hard for me because I like to have an idea of the structure before I begin, but equally, I recognise that overplanning can kill a story. I feel like you can try to have it both ways – the creativity of just going for it, and, when creativity seems to elude you, just hacking away at the story a little, writing situations for your characters to deal with in the future.
I don’t know if anyone who is working full time and has a reasonable social life can fit four hours of writing into their day every day, like he suggests. I think this highlights the sacrifice necessary to be a writer, in a lot of cases. I’ve actually asked Alex a couple of times in the past few weeks if he feels neglected because I’m spending lots of my evenings hammering out the words, rather than just chilling with him. He says no, but I’ll keep checking in to make sure. I think that one day, when I get published and can afford to write as a full-time job, I would like to try the approach he advocates, of 2000 new words per day in the morning (usually), and then time to revise in the afternoon. There is definitely a shift between the early writing part of the memoir and the later writing part, because he makes it clear that he takes evenings off to be with his family and read a book. Now, when I finish my work for the day, that’s when I get a chance to get my laptop out and write. It’s tricky.
The writing tips and guidance he offers is quite inspiring. It definitely got me to go ‘screw it, I should just write and submit and see what happens’. And I’ll damn well frame my first rejection slip.
I’ve stumbled onto a place on Youtube that’s called Authortube, and one of the channels I’ve found is run by the delightful Kate Cavanaugh. She conducted a writing experiment in which she wrote like Stephen King for a day – and here’s the resulting video:
I am totally enamoured of her, and I can’t wait to read her books when she publishes.