Every November I write a 50,000 word novel under a month-long deadline.
It could be worse. Jack Kerouac churned out On the Road in three weeks, on a 120 foot long piece of paper that he’d taped together beforehand, no less. John Boyne wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in 2.5 days.
They didn’t use no ghost writers, either (I’m looking at you, James Patterson).
In the National Novel Writing Month event, wannabee novelists all over the world try writing 50,000 words or more in a month, a journey on which I’ve been successful four times out of four tries. It’s a great time. It also hurts in every corner of my soul (but oh, it hurts so good). I highly recommend a look. Check it out.
But that’s not what I came here to talk about today.
For this event I decided I needed some encouragement and, I’ll admit, plenty of tips on writing, so I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing. Despite its rave reviews, I did not expect to be particularly engaged. I’ll admit I had a preconceived notion about what any book about writing would look like: a dry instruction manual with specific rules the high-and-mighty author insists should not be broken.
Boy, was I wrong. King himself admits, “This is a short book because most books about writing are full of bullshit,” and as a result On Writing is a masterpiece. I could not put it down, says the girl who only likes to read fictional novels. King’s writing is clear-cut, honest, and 0% bullshit. It’s like looking through a window to King’s life that’s so thoroughly Windexed that there don’t seem to be any windowpanes.
The first half of the book gives an account of King’s life as centered on writing. His first foray into publishing was his novelization of a popular movie, The Pit and the Pendulum, which he printed himself then sold to classmates at his middle school and was forced to refund by his principal within the same day. His triumph, King says, was that many of his classmates insisted on keeping their copy.
Starting in the writing business is a struggle. King describes the stacks of rejection papers from magazines he got as a teenager. The letters with personal comments motivated him to keep trying, and that he did, fortunately for us. But it’s sure a long, daunting battle to get to the publishing stages.
The second half of On Writing is the really helpful part. King doesn’t follow a specific structure, but instead follows his own instincts, which are good enough for me. He supplements his tips with examples and stories, which makes them not only readable but also much more absorbable.
So what does he teach you? You ask. What are Stephen King’s writing secrets? Well, I’m not telling. This is a book review, not Sparknotes. It’s for your own benefit, you know. If you’d read all the way through Great Expectations in tenth grade, you would’ve gotten farther than your dead-end job sorting recycling every day.
Just kidding (and no offense to the recycling sorters. You keep our environment strong). I’ll give a few prime tips. But if you’re at all interested in writing fiction, I really suggest you pick this book up. The guidelines will stick with you for much longer and pack more punch than my lowly blog will do.
A tip that sticks out is this: write first with the door closed, then with the door open. In other words, write all of the first draft for yourself. This keeps your writing honest. If it’s engaging to you, then more than likely it’ll be engaging to your readers. When you get to the second draft, open the door and keep your intended readers in mind. Will they like this scene or be bored by it? Is this character engaging to everyone? Etc.
Another great tip (and one that has been invaluable in my writing) is to cut your words. Write out a first draft, fine. In your second draft, cut 10%. This keeps the junk out and keeps your writing tight. Cut extra words (is “very” really necessary?), cut the clichés, cut whole passages if you have to.
Keep those in mind and your writing will already improve. But seriously, read this book. It’s a book about writing that serves as a prime example of writing in itself. After reading it I feel armed and ready with the tools I need to start a new novel next November.