Stephen King is my writing coach—even though I’ve never seen or met him, or even read more than a couple of his books. Here’s why: it’s Christmas day, and I’m writing—both on my novel and this blog post—and I love King because he gives me permission for this singularly obsessive behavior and lifestyle.
In his autobiographical opus, On Writing, he tells an interviewer that he writes every day “except Christmas, Fourth of July and birthdays” and in this book he confesses, “Actually, I write on Christmas, the Fourth and my birthday too. I just didn’t want to sound like a workaholic dweeb.”
Thank God I’m not alone!
I’m on deadline for the final book of the most productive year I’ve ever had as a writer—I wrote THREE novels this year—and one of the disciplines I’ve imposed on myself to stay productive in the final stages of a rewrite/deadline is that I can’t read any new fiction.
I can only read writing books and, for variety, writing magazines. Humpf.
It’s a good kind of torture. I’m a gluttonous reader when left to my own devices, and this “rule” helps me stay focused for a couple of reasons:
1) I am dying to get back to “fun” reading, so I work harder on my deadline project;
2) I am so desperate for reading I’ll even read these ‘how to write’ books, and their suggestions end up helping.
I have quite a collection amassed by now, varying degrees of useful/motivating/inspiring which I will indicate with a 5-star rating:
- The Write to Write by Julia Cameron ***
- The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron *****
- Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron ***
- Room to Write by Bonnie Goldberg ***
- Don’t Murder your Mystery by Chris Roerden ***
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott ****
- Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder *****
- So You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland ****
- The Elements of Style by Wm. Strunk Jr. ***
- 250 Things You Should Know about Writing by Chuck Wendig ***
- Story Engineering by Larry Brooks ***
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg ****
- On Writing by Stephen King *****
I actually have more, but I’m afraid by telling you the titles I’ll feed the trap many writers fall into: that somehow, in reading about writing, talking about writing, blogging about writing, we are actually going to get to be better writers.
Not so— I agree with King on this—only in reading a lot and writing a lot will we get to be better writers. Out of the lineup I shared, the book I go back to over and over is King’s On Writing. And each time, as I become a more experienced and disciplined writer, I get new insight out of it.
The first time I read On Writing, I mulled over King’s f*cked-up childhood, as any good therapist will, and concluded it was why he was a horror writer. I liked his downhome “you can do it, just keep falling forward” tone.
The second time I read it, I was amazed at the fact that he could write such a wonderful, honest, humorous and helpful book practically on his deathbed after getting mangled in a hit-and-run. I was impressed with his discipline and work ethic.
The third time I read it, I mulled over his central premise: that ideas pre-exist in space/time and the writer only unearths them “like fossils.” It was a feeling I had as well, an intuition based on Jungian psychology, but I was struggling with corralling my plots and because they’re mysteries, making them behave. I have a different attribution—I think stories (and especially archetypal characters) exist in the collective unconscious. Writers are the telepaths and scribes of the dreaming world’s stories, not the inventors of them.
On the fourth reading, I was reminded about the Elements of Style and bought it. Discovered I didn’t really need it (with relief) but it was a good reminder of basics. I also went on an adverb and attribution hunt in my latest WIP, and was glad I did.
In this, my fifth reading, I finally really get what King says about the discipline of daily writing. I still admire and aspire to his daily goal of 2,000 words, and his refusal to outline—instead, to unearth each “fossil” via three main areas: situation, character and dialogue. I find his admission that he virtually never takes time off from writing validating. (It’s put paid to my worries I’m becoming over-obsessed, even bipolar about my writing, surging up and down in my emotions with my characters and their plights.)
King is unapologetically prolific and in that, I can very much relate. Even in my daily life, my stories go on behind the backs of my eyes. I can feel my busy brain working all the time, on multiple levels, and a longing to return to the page is always there, a sort of nagging hunger like an addict must feel. As a mental health professional, I’m investigating what’s happening to me—and part of me has been frightened by the transformation.
King says it’s okay, and even necessary.
As of my fifth reading of On Writing and nearing the end of my sixth novel, he’s become my official writing coach and hero. No, King’s not “normal”—but whoever in the world has followed a passion and been normal? I want to fulfill my potential as a writer, and I sense it’s only just begun to be tapped. I just want to write every damned day, even Christmas—because the stories I’m meant to write burn to be found and unearthed and shared, and I’m having so much fun I can hardly stand it.
Normal is overrated.
How about you? Who are your heroes and coaches?
Interesting post, Toby. Trust me, you’re fine. I write pretty much every day, too.
I’ve done a few writing courses online. They had text books associated with them and they all covered the basics, some better than others. I worry, though, that some people might fall into the trap of writing by formula. I’ve heard about King’s book, but I’ve not read it. It sounds like I would agree wholeheartedly with his approach.
One of the better books I’ve read, for generating ideas, was Orson Scott Card’s “How to write science fiction and fantasy”. He describes his approach, which certainly worked for him.
Probably the best I’ve encountered, though, a series of short courses (with book) jam-packed with practical ideas is Holly Lisle’s writing courses. When I get stuck, I go back and do some of her exercises. She doesn’t say ‘this is how you do it’. She says ‘these are ways you can get ideas’. Take the ones that work for you, leave the rest.
Yes, I’m familiar with Holly Lisle’s support stuff, I have her book Mugging the Muse. I subscribed to her newsletter for years. All the tools have had something to contribute to my development as a writer; but the King book has been the most insightful over time.
Thanks for the feedback!
I read a lot and I wrote a lot for 20 years. The fastest jumps in my writing skills came when I:
1) Joined a critique group;
2) Did a whole heap of writing workshops; and
3) Got an editor.
So I would go so far as to say reading a lot and writing a lot won’t do it alone (or at least, it’s the very slow road there) – it helps if you do some or all of the above AS WELL. I don’t think any of the above would help much though if you also weren’t reading and writing a lot.
I agree, working with a professional editor did more for me than an MFA would have. I did my writing workshops online in the form of “american idol-like” short piece writing contests for a year or so before I completed my first novel. So I agree…but King’s book is sort of organic, wtih layers to it, you know? Rather than super specific.
I have both King’s as well as Card’s books on writing, but my favorite go-to guide is James Scott Bell’s *Plot & Structure* (part of the *Write Great Fiction* series). I borrowed it from the library but found myself itching to highlight and underline important bits that I knew I’d want to come back to later, so Santa brought me a copy of this for Christmas… for which I am eternally grateful! 🙂
My second favorite resource is *Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!*, of which I also own a copy. Although it’s directed at screenwriters, it’s a great guide for novelists as well, & I refer to it often in my own writing.
I’m not very disciplined when it comes to actually getting my butt in the chair. I think it has to do with the fact that I always feel there is something “more important” that I need to get done before I’m “allowed” to concentrate on the story that is brewing in the back of my mind. That’s one thing I aim to change — big time! — in the coming year. I’ve been reassessing my priorities & writing daily has become numero uno! 🙂
Wonderful share and you’ll notice I have Save the Cat as well. I now do my plotting as a “beat sheet”–b/c of that book! Yes, fresh writing is the most important thing and deserves your best time of day.
I favorited this post. Thanks so much for sharing this list. I already have several of Julia Cameron’s books in my library and Writing Down the Bones.
It is a relief to know I’m not the only one perfectly content to sit at home jotting notes in a composition book or pounding away on a laptop on a holiday! After a busy day at work I often also write even though I’d like to be off the computer. It just brings me to such a better place to write something even just a little blog post.
Happy New Year Toby! I’m on book three now by the way.
Whee, thrilled you have stuck with Lei through her adventures! Keep writing my friend! aloha and happy new year to you too!
The surging riff…could not be more perfect for a New Year’s day of writing! Thanks. Great piece!
YES! Happy new year!
This is my favorite book about writing and living a writer’s life. I read it once a year or so. But, I may have to pick up some of the books named by other commenters. Thanks for sharing those.
You’re welcome, hope you find some of them helpful! aloha