Dear Stephen King, I don’t like most of what you do. I’d apologize for telling you that, but I know you give zero damns if I like your work or not, and you write like hell itself couldn’t stop you anyway. That’s something I do like. When you visited my hometown in Montana this month on your book tour, the …
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.
The new year is around the corner, and the holidays are coming to an end. If you’re anything like me, I’ll bet you have a few gift cards to spend. My post-holiday shopping list consists mainly of books, as well as some more warm clothes to get me through the rest of winter.
During my time interning for Dark Discoveries Magazine, I read a lot of dark, short stories. Aside from that experience, however, I haven’t read much in the horror genre. My father’s a pretty big Stephen King buff. When I visited him on Christmas, the shelves in his living room were filled with many of King’s books. I left with a stack of them, along with a few old collections of poetry.
1. The Shining by Stephen King
Even if you haven’t heard of Stephen King or read The Shining, the title should sound familiar, as Jack Nicholson starred in the 1980 film version. Or maybe a friend screamed “Here’s Johnny” while pretending to chase you with an ax, and that’s all you know about the film/book. You had no idea why they kept calling themselves Johnny, because your parents wouldn’t let you watch a movie about a man who gets more than a tad stir crazy and, well, I won’t give it away. But now you know. You’re welcome.
2. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining and was just released earlier this year in September. The book follows a now middle-aged Dan Torrance (the young boy protagonist in the first novel) as he attempts to save a young twelve-year-old girl in a fight between good and evil. Judging by what i’ve heard from others, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to read The Shining before starting Doctor Sleep. Even if you’ve watched the movie, give the book a read. Movies often leave parts of the novel out, and in the case of a psychological thriller like The Shining some things are difficult to transfer to the big screen.
3. Mañana Means Heaven by Tim Z. Hernandez
Tim Z. Hernandez is an award-winning poet and author. His writing is beautiful. You can read an excerpt of Mañana Means Heaven here to check it out for yourself. A big draw to Hernandez’s book for me is that it features a little writer some of you may have heard of: Jack Kerouac. If you’ve read On The Road, you may remember the “Mexican girl” that Kerouac has an affair with in California. Her part in the novel only spans fifteen pages, but Hernandez spent years searching for Bea Franco, the real-life “Mexican girl” from Kerouac’s novel. Mañana Means Heaven is the result of that search and Hernandez’s conversations with the elderly Franco.
As a modern day writer, I have a love/hate relationship with Netflix. On the one hand, movies are another form of storytelling. In fact, many movies are based on their own literary counterparts, and as such, watching movies is a bit like studying—if you’re a writer. Or so I tell myself.
Especially if you want your book to be adapted for the big-screen, a goal that is elusive but often sought after.
I once told a friend that this is the ultimate achievement for some writers—a film adaptation—which they told me was the sign of a sell-out. But I disagree. Whether you’re in it for the money (because, who are we kidding, writers deserve some, and an adaptation just might be the only way to it for some) or the ride, film adaptations are exciting. Of course, there’s the lights, cameras, and action, but there’s also the thrill of seeing a world you made up out of thin air being acted out right before you.
On the other hand, watching movies takes away from time spent writing. In other words, it’s distracting.
So writers, if you’re going to binge, help yourself feel less guilty by taking notes. What do these films do well? Read the stories. How do the adaptations differ? And then reflect on how to improve your own stories.
Below are twelve dramas currently on Netflix based on books, short stories, or novellas:
Based on the novella The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing
Based on the book Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec
Based on the book Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Based on the book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leberitt
Based on the book The Firm by John Grisham
Based on the short story “Keith” in The Hotel Eden by Ron Carlson
I don’t really keep a dream diary, but I know of a lot of people that do. Dreams can be weird sometimes. For example, last night I had a dream that I was fighting against an alien invasion at a base that was a super Home Depot and humanity lost, then I had to write an essay on why I loved my new alien overlord. But sometimes dreams aren’t so weird, or parts of weird dreams can be used as inspiration for writing. Below are some best-selling books inspired by dreams.
Robert Louis Stevenson woke from a strange dream of a doctor with split personalities and completed The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ten days after he awoke.
As writers, we’re told to gear up for rejection. We await the return of manuscripts, the curt emails, or the phone calls from our weary agent (if we’re lucky enough to have one).
And for authors entering genres with rules and tropes to live up to—like science fiction or horror, for instance—the entry gates can be especially difficult to get through.
For whatever reason, it seems that some of the greatest literary talents—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling, Ursula Le Guin, Sylvia Plath, J.K. Rowling, and many, many more—have had their work rejected (and sometimes a lot) before finding an editor and publishing house willing to give them a chance. But when each of them were given one, they went on to sell millions of books, win countless awards, and inspire thousands of readers.
Below are just a few writers whose rejections may inspire you to keep pushing, even if it means getting your manuscript a little dirty (see below).
Sometimes it’s hard to write. Most of the time, it’s hard to write. Or at least to just get started. For me, motivation comes from many places. I may spend a year revising a poem, but that initial draft generally comes in one fell swoop.
I’m on the bus or walking around the city and an image plants itself in my brain and refuses to let go. It can be anything. The woman tying one end of a tarp to a light pole and the other to a grocery cart so she can sleep at night without the rain soaking her. Something a friend says in passing. The man on the street corner passing out miniature versions of the old testament.
But Neil Gaiman once said “If you only write when inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist.” His words are blunt, but there’s a certain truth to that. With short stories or novels, one image isn’t enough—in the way it might be for a poem. Sure, one image might get the gears turning, but it’s not enough to sustain the piece or your own motivation for that matter.
During down time, I sometimes go on Goodreads. Not to stare at the pitiful amount of books I’ve read this year in between my full-time course load, but to read what other writers have to say about the act of writing. Some of these quotes are plain beautiful, while others are plain honest—making me realize that the only thing stopping me from becoming the writer I hope to be someday is myself. Here is a sampling of some of my favorite quotes about writing that I’ve come across over the years. I hope they provide you with as much motivation as they have for me.
“Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.” — Philip José Farmer
“If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.” — Natalie Goldberg
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” — Virginia Woolf
“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” — Madeleine L’Engle
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” — Sylvia Plath
“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” — Anais Nin
“Start writing no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” — Louis L’Amour
“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” — Anne Frank
“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.” — Joss Whedon
“Write about the emotions you fear the most.” — Laurie Halse Anderson
“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.” — Truman Capote
“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.” — Robert Cormier
“So okay—there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.” — Stephen King
“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” — Martin Luther
“Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” — Gloria Steinem
“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” — Beatrix Potter
“You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.” — Junot Diaz
“Half of what I write is garbage, but if I don’t write it down it decomposes in my head.” — Jarod Kintz
“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.” — William Faulkner
“I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.” — Joyce Carol Oates
Summer is coming, and that means, for all of us students, teachers, and other lucky SOB’s that get summer free, it’s time to make plans. I plan on writing this summer, and I hope you are too. Now, you can spend hundreds to thousands of dollars improving your writing by heading out to a writing retreat off in some scenic part of the country with professional/published instructors, or, if you’re poor like me, you can write at home and use the internet to find new methods for improving.
A great place to start is right here. We’ve got a ton of writing advice from all around the internet, and we constantly try to inspire you when it comes to your writing. This blog post is just a few past entries I feel will be particularly helpful this summer in getting your writing muscles in shape.
Reading is a great way of improving your writing, but you know, reading alone isn’t always fun. Why not throw a silent reading party with friends? I think this is a great way to socialize, read a good book, and discuss what literary elements you enjoyed and get feedback from others. Knowing what other readers like about books will help you incorporate those elements into whatever you are writing as well.
I heard a rumor that there is (was?) a big freeze going on across the country. Living in Long Beach, California, just three blocks from the beach, I headed out to check it out for myself…seventy degrees and beautiful!
I’m a jerk. Anyway, my family is from upstate New York, and I was there for ten days during the holidays. I managed to come home about four days before this “big freeze” began. My parents and brother were still there, so they were able to experience the negative twenties and many inches of snow. I’ve also received many a Snapchat from friends across the country showing me the view of the winter wonderland wherever they may be. As a book lover, I know how nice it is to snuggle up in bed with a good book and a cup of something hot and delicious to drink. I look forward to rainy California days for this very reason. Sometimes it’s hard to know which book to read, so here is a list of books to get you through this big freeze:
1. The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
This is another eerie story from Oates. It includes the Devil, Woodrow Wilson, and Mark Twain. A bride goes missing at the altar, and in a world with shape-shifters, vampires, and ghosts, the groom sets out to find her. It has 688 pages, so it will keep you in bed for a few days!
As a writer, it’s difficult not to compare yourself to other writers. I’ll be the first to admit that if one of my friends said they just landed a book deal, my congratulatory words would be followed by some inner dialogue best not shared with the rest of the world.
There are plenty of writers who have become successes in their twenties. Stephen King published Carrie when he was 26. F. Scott Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise when he was 23, and Jack London published The Cruise of the Dazzler when he was 26. At 22, it’s hard for me not to become depressed by these facts, but it’s important to realize that these authors aren’t the norm. And that their early success does not mean that their lives were void of struggle.
Before Carrie became a novel (or a movie, for that matter), King’s wife had to dig it out of the trash, where a drunken King had placed it. The author had developed a drinking problem while working different jobs, including selling short stories to magazines. The novel Carrie alone earned King $400,000 in paperback rights.
Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise was written in a desperate attempt to prove to his love, Zelda Sayre, and her family that he could support her financially. His engagement with Zelda was put on hold when his career as an ad copywriter failed. After his novel was published, Zelda’s family gave their blessing.