Stephen King Teaches Us How To Write Well
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Writing is a very personal (and messy) activity. Effective writers do not necessarily follow the same writing process. Besides, writing can be difficult and painful. According to a well-known quote by Hemingway, There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
Having said that, I firmly believe that a beginning writer can benefit from some guidelines and tips, before developing his own writing method, style, and voice. I like to teach my language students the basic steps of a methodology called process writing, which puts the drafting at the center, rather than the final product. The more drafts a writer produces the better. Of course, you need to know that beyond a certain point, your writing can begin to deteriorate, so it takes practice to develop the gut feeling of when to stop working on a certain piece. A good editor can help you with that. If you want to know more about process writing, please refer to a previous post I wrote on the topic: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1ot
In his best selling manual ON WRITING, author Stephen King draws on his long and productive experience as a successful fiction writer to give us some help on how to write well. Besides being very interesting, as the author mixes anecdotes of his personal life and backstage accounts of how some of his most famous books came to life, this manual also works as a very useful introductory guide on how to write effectively. I’ve selected five of his best tips to share with you and took the liberty to add my personal comments to his suggestions. But you must read his book for a more comprehensive idea of the subject. His pieces of advice are mainly about FICTION, but I believe many of his points apply to good writing in general:
1. Read a lot and write a lot. Stephen King recommends you spend at least 4 to 6 hours a day either reading or writing. He says he aims for writing 2,000 words a day. But this varies from author to author. I heard Lionel Shriver, another famous writer, say that she sticks to 1,000 words a day. Malcolm Gladwell, in his brilliant book Outliers, claims that to achieve world-class mastery in any field, one needs to dedicate some 10,000 hours to it. He uses The Beatles, the lawyer Joseph Flom, Bill Gates and other successful people as examples. This is a hard call, but I thought I should be honest with you and warn you about the work ahead if you wish to become a star.
2. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered. Philip Roth, considered by many the greatest American living author, stirred controversy, shock and strong criticism within the Jewish community when he published his first books. By the end of the 60s, he wrote an outrageously funny novel about a man obsessed with masturbation, which definitely put him on the black list of polite, civilized people with good taste. You can’t write to please. You write to express your truth, to reveal the hypocrisy of your community, to probe into the souls of real human beings. This is likely to cause you trouble. Salmon Rushdie spent decades in hiding, threatened to be killed, after allegedly insulting the members of the Muslim faith. This is a very high price to pay. Wearing the pleasant social masks most people don’t hesitate to put on and being a genuine and respected writer are incompatible. Are you prepared to deal with it?
3. Most of us do our best in a place of our own. I beg to disagree. Most of my writing is done in public cafés and bistros. The presence of pulsating, vibrant life around me gets my creative juices going and helps me put my ideas down on paper. However, I agree that you need to isolate yourself mentally, if not physically, to be able to produce effective writing. If you can’t do that in public, find a nice office, or a room, furnish it with everything you need to write well and close that door. You should be able to concentrate and avoid interruptions wherever you are.
4. A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question. It looks like Stephen King tends to start his stories from a situation he imagined. He often conjures What-if scenarios to come up with something compelling and unusual. What-if can boost a whole lot of interesting ideas in the brainstorming phase of writing. Not every writer does that, though. An alternative is to start from a different, unique character from whom the story will stem and possibly take unpredictable turns. Most Hollywood scriptwriters use yet another method: they start by outlining and putting a firm structure in place. They think in terms of plot, with defined turning points, clearly delineated phases the hero goes through, character arcs and an edifying end. If you are interested in finding out more about how to write scripts following the Hollywood model, I would recommend Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythical Structure for Writers, based on the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell, presented in the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
5. Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s. Don’t over describe. Detailed descriptions are boring for most contemporary readers. All the author needs to do is to apply some quick brush strokes highlighting the main elements of a setting or the physical traits of a character. The reader will be happy to use his imagination to fill in the blanks. Pick important details that help the reader construct the whole on his own. Don’t spoon-feed the reader.
All these tips can be of help to the budding writer, but, as I explained at the beginning of this post, writing is a very idiosyncratic activity and it will take you some time to find and develop your own tools. In addition to that, remember, you need to put in at least 10,000 hours of hard work if you wish to break through the clutter and become a star, according to Malcolm Gladwell. No time to waste then, start today!