3 Things Stephen King’s On Writing Taught Me

One of the problems beginning writers have is everything about creative writing seems so mysterious. There’s a blank page. You’re expected to put words on it so that your would-be reader has something to look at. That much is clear. That much we understand. A beginner may have a great premise—a scene they play on repeat in their head, an entire world they are filling with characters and adventures. Maybe they’ve even written it down.

But at some point, there seems to come the big question: what next?

How do you go from premise to story? How do you make a character relatable? How do you make sure that anyone will care? More to the point, how do you make sure that once the muse has arrived, she actually wants to stick around? How do you not start but finish a story?

Writing is hard. There are so many intricacies. Description. Dialogue. Narration. One scene alone does not make a story, and even the best premises can fall short when fleshed out.

Stephen King’s On Writing is one of those creative writing guides that tops nearly every reading list, but I only recently read the book. If you’re looking for a kick in the ass—someone who can pull back the curtain and reveal that it’s only old man Oz pulling the levers—then I recommend you stop putting King’s book off for another day. Crack open that spine and get ready for the world of creative writing to get a little less mysterious (but no less magical).

Here are just a few things the book has taught me.

Embrace the art of the shitty first draft.

Join The Shitty First Draft Club! Seriously, let’s make a pledge to each other that we will play make believe and accept that our first attempt won’t be the best one. Let’s give ourselves permission to make mistakes, dig plot holes, flatten characters (developmentally speaking, of course), and indulge in long-winded descriptions.

Because guess what? You have a shitty first draft, yes, but plenty of other writers have nothing at all. Who’s the real winner?

Set the draft aside, and weeks (possibly months) later, when you can look at it with fresh eyes, read it. Don’t edit. Just read with a notepad by your side. Give yourself feedback. Be kind to yourself but be honest too. On your notepad, write down gaps in the story, but don’t actually flesh those out yet. Just be a reader for a while longer. Relish in the fact that you’ve come this far. Sink your teeth into the sentences that you love, cringe a little at the things that don’t make sense, and then let it go.

The importance of shutting the door.

I do this thing. I have an idea, a flash in the pan. I’m excited. I write as much of it down as I can before I forget it. For days, I mull the idea over in my head. I go down dark, overgrown paths and clear them. I make connections. I research, but this takes me down other paths—paths other writers have already tended. Paths that intersect and diverge. I tell my boyfriend about my brilliant idea. How can he not be equally excited? It’s absolutely brilliant! But I do want him to be honest with me, I tell myself. Is there something there? I might ask him.

Listen, readers—don’t do any of this. No matter how supportive your partner or friend or mom is.

Forge your own path. Forget the research. We’re writers: we make up the damn facts. Do not talk about your idea. Do not pass go. If you do, here’s what will happen: you’ll lose all the excitement you felt. That person’s honesty, which is exactly what you asked for, will make you question yourself. They’ll inject the story with their own ideas.

This is the time during the writing process King says requires shutting the door. The physical door, yes. The one to your writing space. Your safe haven. But the figurative door too. This is the time for nurturing your story, making sure it has strong enough legs to support itself. Until you know this, keep the door shut.

At some point, you’ll have to ask yourself: why this story? But not now. Shut the door, and along with it, cut off self-doubt. This time is for you and no one else.

Don’t be afraid by not knowing what comes next and allow yourself to play make-believe.

The problem, for me at least, with heavy outlining is that you have to know all the pieces of the puzzle up front. Ignoring plot, the actual sequence of events that take place in the story, you have to understand your characters.

When they face “the bad guy,” you have to know if they will fight or run away. When the going gets tough, you have to know if they will crumble or stand tall. You have to know the little things too. When they leave the house in the morning, do they prefer to walk or drive? Do they throw their spare change in the panhandler’s cup or do they ignore him? Do they cheat? Do they lie? Do they steal? The little things create the sum of a person. A person who would fight instead of run, who would walk instead of drive, who would cheat rather than be loyal—these choices might define them in some way. They reflect the quirks of their personality. They make the character a person. They make them relatable. The plot doesn’t do any of those things.

So my problem with outlines? Most of us don’t know these things about our characters. Not at the start. We could sit down and outline and character sketch and research, but by then, can we still honestly say we feel the same excitement we felt when the muse first arrived?

If you feel this way too, there is a solution.

Just write. Don’t think about it. I bring up playing make-believe as a child because maybe that’s the easiest way to look at creative writing. When you’re a child playing make-believe, you don’t worry so much about looking silly or what you’re going to do next or whether something makes sense. You ruin you parent’s mortar and pestle by smashing berries into it for a magic potion. You cut holes into your underwear and pull it over your head to hide your real identity. You grab the broomstick, jump off the couch, and imagine you are flying for a brief moment before landing on the pillows spread across the living room floor. You give yourself permission to do these things. Why on earth did we stop?

If you can do these things (cut holes in your underwear, jump off the couch, etc—kidding!), then you can expect to have a finished draft, albeit not a very good one. But we are all members of The Shitty First Draft Club, remember? So, really, it’s all good.

No one’s perfect. Not even Stephen King. Read On Writing. Let him pull back the curtain. You won’t regret it.

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