A few weeks ago, I posted an article on Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and focused on the tools of writing that every writer needs to have in his toolbox. This week, I am concentrating on the third part of his book that discusses the actual act of writing and what I deem to be his “commandments.” Here they are:
Commandment 1: Read and write – a lot! King, every writing Instructor, and every writer all have the same advice — and we should heed them. If you are a writer or an aspiring one, you have to love to read and love to write. Don’t do either because you feel you have to do it — do both because you need to. Bad writing teaches you what not to do, and great writing teach you what you should be doing. Paraphrasing King, if you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time to write.
Commandment 2: Write every day – Develop a schedule and write every day. He suggests writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day. If you’re a night owl, write at night; if you’re an early riser, write in the mornings. If you have day job, then be like Anthony Trollope and write for 2-3 hours before leaving for work. If you’re a poet-mom, like Sylvia Plath, wake up before the children rise, and write in the wee hours of the morning. Whatever schedule you pick, it should last for 2-3 hours at a time, uninterrupted, and you should have a realistic goal of 1000 words a day — every day.
Commandment 3: Find your space – Find your space and shut the door.Truman Capote wrote in motel rooms. Ernest Hemingway rented a studio. Kathryn Stockett, who wrote The Help, rented a motel room every weekend in order to revise her book — which had been rejected again and again. Your writing space doesn’t have to be big — it can be small and the size of a closet, but it has to have a door because you have to shut it — shut out the world and shut yourself in. It should be just you and your writing without any interruptions or distractions like cell phones, phones, television sets, video games, or internet access. You, a room, and a door.
Commandment 4: Write the truth – While most people say, Write what you know– I say, Write what you love, but King says, Write the truth. Don’t write to impressagents, publishers, other writers or even your friends. According to King, “When the reader hears strong echoes of his of her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story” (160).Write about your experiences with work, love, rage, etc., and write it honestly. Don’t sugar-coat it or sensationalize it.
Commandment 5: Don’t plot – Most writers plot or map out their writing. King argues that life is plotless, and so should your story. Let your story find itself — let it unfold before you without you navigating it. Stories that are created from plot-structuring “feel artificial and labored” (164). Instead, allow the necessary elements of narrative, descriptions, and dialogue to bring your story to life.
Commandment 6: Practice – Practice makes a writer a better, more seasoned writer. Practice these most important elements of any story.
Characters: Practice making real and believable characters with both good and bad traits — make the reader hate and sympathize with them at the same time. King suggests that you let the characters take you for a ride — let them reveal themselves to you when they want to — when they’re ready to. Have them grow and drive the action of the story.
Descriptions: Practice describing, not faces and clothing — but setting and texture — and whatever you do, don’t over describe anything. Let your first instincts drive you to use description, and then use details sparingly and clearly. Describe things as you see them, and the reader will see it in the same manner.
Dialogue: Practice showing — not telling — through the use of real dialogue. Show us the IQ level of your character via his dialect, his vocabulary, and his use of colloquialisms. Use a clear writing style with simple vocabulary. If it sounds real, then it rings true to the reader.
Commandment 7: The story – According to King, “Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme” — not the other way around. After you’re done with the first draft of your manuscript, lean back and look at it. Know exactly what your book is about — what it is you’re trying to do with it — say through it. Understand what your story really means — and if you don’t yet, that’s where the revision comes in.
Commandment 8: Revision – The revision process for King is a four step process:
a) When you’re done with the first draft, which you put down on paper without editing or reading, just writing unleashed, put it in a drawer and leave it for a minimum of 6 weeks — yes, that’s his advice.
b) After six weeks, go back into your room, take out a notepad and pen, and start reading. Make notations on the ms, note discrepancies in characters or gaping holes in logic, plot, etc. Don’t be hard on yourself for your errors — they’re fixable.
c) Open the door of your writing room and give a copy to your choice for the Ideal Reader — the first read always goes to this person — this is the person whose responses you’re thinking of when writing the first draft; he/she will always give you the most honest opinion — whether you want to hear it or not. For King, the Ideal Reader is his wife, Tabetha.
d) After the Ideal Reader give you his/her comments, then send your ms to a few trusted friends who will give you subjective responses — but if they critique the same points, then you know what kind of work you must do. King sends his work to 6-8 of his friends for their critiques. If you’re not into this, then a writer’s group should be just fine.
Commandment 9: Research – There are writers who conduct a series of research and spend pages of their story revealing this new-found knowledge, but King insists that you shouldn’t have to. If you’re writing about something you don’t know, then research it, but the research should be at the back of the story. The story always comes first and should never be placed second to the research.
Commandment 10: Writing Courses/Seminars/Workshops – King, like Elizabeth Gilbert and so many other successful writers, doesn’t believe that you should attend any of these classes for writing for the following reasons: a) Life is your classroom; your experiences are strewn in your stories; b) Aside from the fact that they cost a lot of money, there is a sense of having to be there as opposed to wanting to be there; c)When you write at these retreats, you’re told to write something — you’re not moved to write; d)You don’t need badges or degrees to tell you that tell you you are a writer — if you write, you’re a writer. Done!; e)You can’t write with the door shut, which was King’s third rule for writers — you need that room and that closed door; and f) While there may be some redeeming qualities — like being among other writers shunned by normal people who tell them to get a real job — the critiques given to writers are usually quite vague and not helpful at all. So you’re wasting time and money. Use that money to get yourself a room with a door — and nothing more than you and your writing.