What I Learned from Stephen King

Standard

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

I’ve never read Stephen King. I don’t like scary stories—books, movies, campfire tales. But I’d heard so many good things about King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that, as a writer, I had to pick it up. And…

Wow. I liked his writing. I may have even learned a bit of craft simply by reading his prose. But more than craft, what hit me hard was his advice on process (which, let’s face it, you kind of have to have before craft really matters—I mean, if you don’t write, craft is kind of meaningless, yes?).

Here’s what resonated most for me, at this point in writing space and time:

  • Set a daily writing goal – King writes 2000 words per day and completes it regardless of the time it takes. Alternatively, you could set a time-based goal regardless of word count. Setting goals is nothing new, but it’s nice to get affirmation that the pros do it too. (Or, wait—maybe that’s what makes them pros??)
  • Write first – “Mornings belong to whatever is new—the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait.” Again, prioritizing is nothing new, but how many of us do it well?
  • Write every day – Another piece of well-worn advice, but the rationale was enlightening. “Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.” Aha!
  • Get your novel done in three months – At 2000 words/day for 90 days, King’s right—three months yields quite a decent length novel. But again the rationale is key: If you take longer than three months, you get tired of it yourself. See “Write every day” above. Aha!
  • Eliminate distractions – Close the door, close the blinds, and (I’m sure he’d add) turn off email/social media. We’ve all heard this advice, but have you heard a rationale other than “in order to focus”? How about this one: Get rid of the mundane world so that you can create your own. Aha!
  • Rest between drafts – Let your first draft rest (King suggests a minimum of 6 weeks, at least in the context of novels—your boss probably won’t wait for that report past Friday) before looking at it fresh; it should appear alien to you upon rereading. Have you ever thought “Did I really write that? I don’t remember writing that.” No, the writing brownies did not sneak in overnight to write for you. The mind can play wonderful tricks to help you see things anew, allowing you to become a more effective editor.
  • Write the first draft with the door closed and the second (or maybe third) with the door open – Close the figurative door as well as the literal. Listen to yourself and your characters to get the story on the page. Don’t get distracted by others’ opinions or questions about what you’ve written. Responding to someone asking about the symbolism of the apple or to someone telling you how wonderful you are is likely to send you off on the wrong path (focusing on explaining symbols or being wonderful) rather than getting the story on the page. When you’ve revised enough to be comfortable that the story is “done” (i.e., not chock full of holes), go ahead and get the feedback—see what a few select audience members think. I used to have an affirmation “I listen to my own voice.” That’s why!

Thank you, Professor King, for the lessons on process. I will be back when I am ready to learn more about craft. And before then I may even pick up one of your novels.

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