King’s short book, On Writing, figures in many writers’ lists of the best books on writing. And deservedly so. It has motivated me to get my writing shoes on, and get writing.
I listened to it read by King himself on my iPod, while running—on pedestrian country footpaths, and, so far, with more luck than King whose lower leg broke in nine places, spine chipped in eight places, right knee split, right hip fractured, ribs broke, and scalp lacerated during a dreadful car accident while on a muse-wooing walk.
And in “the apocalyptic pain” after this, he continued writing, and writing proved a way back to life for him.
Here are Stephen King’s answers to universal writerly questions.
How much should a writer read?
King does not bother about being cool in this book on writing. So he will tell you prescriptive things that cool writers wouldn’t.
Read a lot. How much is a lot? I have kept lists of the books I’ve read each year since I was 12—and the most I’ve ever completed in a year was 62 (not counting academic books, which one reads rapidly, selectively). And probably another 25 or so on tape, on a good year for audiobooks. Of course, I am a promiscuous speed-reader, and buy many books (non-fiction or spiritual) with the intention of ripping the heart and marrow out of them, rather than reading every page.
Well, Stephen King reads or listens to 70-80 books a year, including about a dozen audiobooks.
King: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. It’s as simple as that.”
“Reading is the creative centre of a writer’s life.”
“The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing. Constant reading will pull you into a place where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.”
How much should a writer write?
How many words a day? Another uncool question. Well, King aims at 2000 words every morning, with revisions and reading in the evening. Some days he’s done by 11.30 a.m., some days by 1.30 p.m., and sometimes, rarely, it takes till tea.
“For me, not writing is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.”
He keeps fit with long walks–well, until recently.
His teacher asks him about an early attempt at Sci-fi, “What I don’t understand, Stevie, is why you’d write junk like this? You are talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?
“I had no answer to give. I have spent a good many years since—too many—being ashamed about what I write. I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his God-given talent. If you write (or paint or sculpt) someone will try to make you feel lousy about it.”
“When you write, you’re telling yourself the story. When you re-write, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
“Stopping a piece of work just because it is hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes, you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feel like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
He does three drafts, the first getting it all down fast; the last one closer to polishing.
He uses this rigorous and enormously difficult formula:
Second Draft= First Draft -10%.
Other Writing Tips
“The biggest aid to regular writing is working in a serene atmosphere. It’s difficult for even the most naturally productive writer to work in an environment where alarms and excursions are the rule rather than the exception.”
Write with a locked door, no TV, games or internet. “Eliminate every possible distraction.”
Secrets of his success: “I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married. The converse is true: My writing and the pleasure I take in it have contributed to the stability of my health and home life.”
“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
“Skills in description, dialogue and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity.”
Do you do it for the money, honey? he’s often asked. Answer, “No. Don’t now, and never did. I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
And he discovers, after his debilitating accident, “Writing is not life, but sometimes, it can be a way back to life.”
Ah, and let me quote his beautiful last paragraphs,
“On some days, the writing is a pretty grim slog. On others, I feel that buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and put them in a line. It’s like lifting off in an airplane: you are on the ground, on the ground, on the ground… and then you’re up, riding on a magical cushion and prince of all you survey. That makes me happy because it’s what I was made to do.
“After my accident, writing has continued to do what it has always doe: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place.”
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting laid or making friends. It’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over.”
“Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
“This book is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you are brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”
Drink and be filled up.”