Down to Business

October 21, 2009

In the end, writing is like any other endeavor.  Sure, there is a significant and compelling creative aspect to it, almost mystical at times.  It doesn’t just happen, though.  The magic comes through sweat and rigor.  King lays this out in his final section of On Writing.

His opinion is that there are 4 classes of writer: Bad, Competent, Good, and Genius.  He states that there are 2 theses to his book:

The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of the toolbox with the right instruments.  The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

The fundamentals of writing are covered in the prior section.  So, what does it take to make a competent writer into a good one?

King cuts us down to the reality of writing.  It doesn’t come from dreaming, theorizing, or speculating. It comes from sitting down in the chair and whittling away at the story one word at a time.

I won’t pretend that I found a lot of new advice in here.  Much of what King recommends is pretty common; but, as I’ve said before, if so many writers repeat the same advice, there must be truth in it.

Most writers will find the following advice familiar. However, King continues throughout to provide excellent examples, so while the advice is common, the book is worth reading for the additional clarity he provides.

Read a lot. Both good writing and bad writing can teach us a lot.

Write a lot.  “A lot” is a subjective measure, and varies from writer to writer. Each writer must discover this on their own.

Develop a Work Ethic.  Have a schedule, have a place.  These two things help to build the habit by providing a comfort zone in which to work and a target to work towards. King shoots for 2,000 words per day. I shoot for 500, but expect to increase to 1,000 after the first of the year. Do I make my mark? Not always. But I am improving.

Regarding the place, King suggests one with a door the writer is willing to close. I agree. Shutting the door is a way for the writer to show commitment and dedication, both to themselves and the people around. It should be simple and free of distraction.

What to Write?  Whatever the writer wants, but he/she must be truthful. King says to interpret “write what you know” as broadly as possible. King also warns against writing for the wrong reasons: to impress people, to make money, etc.

According to King, novels consist of 3 parts: narration, description, and dialog.

  • King works from a situational root, letting plot develop organically as he works through the narration of a first draft.  In his mind, stories are things we uncover, and we have to take care in unearthing them, making sure they are extracted as complete and intact as possible.

  • Description should be done in moderation.  Trust the reader to fill in the gaps and provide their own meaningful context and details where appropriate.  “…good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.”  Keep the ball rolling, tell the story.  Good description is clarity, fresh images and simple vocabulary.

  • Dialog is essential to defining character.  We get to know them through how the talk.  Good dialog is partially how it sounds.  It must be honest. It must go beyond the page and ring true to the ear.

The writer builds character by paying attention to real people and telling the truth about what he / she sees.  King believes the best stories are character-driven, ties back to his belief in plot coming from the process, not an outline created ahead of time.

Description, dialogue, and character are foundational.  The rest is available, it’s up to the writer to discover what improves the writing and doesn’t inhibit the story. I can appreciate this. It’s clear that King has his own preferences and biases when it comes to writing, but here gives other writers the same license. Once a writer masters the fundamentals, they are free to use the remaining tools at their own discretion, to leverage them as they see appropriate for the work.

King elaborates further on symbolism and theme as demonstration of what’s available for use. In themselves, neither is essential to the writing process, but he shows how he has used them successfully in his own revision process. He demonstrates problems each one helped him resolve, and how they can provide a useful framework for revision.

King recommends that all beginning writers go through at least 2 drafts; one with the door closed, one with the door open.

The first draft and revision, the one with the door closed, is an outpouring onto the page.  Tell the story, get it all down in black and white.  Let the story sit, King recommends, for 6 weeks.  Let is sit long enough to forget about it, to get immersed in a new project.  Then revise, concentrating on the mechanics. The writer should ask if the story is coherent, figure out what they meant, and take notes on these. The writer will use them in the second draft. This is internal feedback.

The second draft is done with the door open. This is the point where the writer shares the story with a select few people to get external feedback. King doesn’t use the term, but these are the beta readers. King stresses the importance of listening to these people, but to balance out the feedback each gives against the others. If every Beta Reader says the story has a certain problem, then pay attention and do something about it. However, if the response is mixed, any ties are up to the writer.

The beta readers are also the best way to gauge the story’s pacing. King brings out a formula he received early on in his career: 2^nd^ Draft = 1^st^ Draft - 10%. He learned from this to collapse a story during revision, to cut out the ‘boring’ parts. He focuses on back story as one keep place to collapse a novel. Essentially, don’t bore the reader.

Research is something far in the background, as far as King is concerned. It’s something that can happen after the first draft and should never get in the way of telling the story. It’s another place to trust the Beta Readers, too. Do it to keep small details from distracting the reader, but it can come towards the end of the revision process.

King goes on to express his doubts about the usefulness of writing classes. He finds a couple redeeming qualities for them: they are one place where writing is taken seriously, and they provide another source of income for the working writers who lead them. But, by and large, he feels they contradict with the idea of writing with the door closed, that all-important act of getting the story out unhindered.

King addresses other topics such as agents, whether he does it for the money (no), and provides a more personal account of how writing helped him through recovery after being struck by an automobile. All worth the read, but not essential to what I found most useful from this section.

For me, this section read like a set of instructions on where to account for each fear a writer encounters. I find it easy to get overwhelmed by all the different concerns a writer must address as part of the creation process, and I firmly believe that fear lies at the core of “writer’s block”. I realize now that each concern has its place and time. The first draft should be carefree, an outpouring of the story itself in an act of discovery. Stop worrying about the details. The mechanics are addressed in the first revision, along with note taking on all the stuff that little voice inside wanted to say during the first draft. Other concerns can be addressed on subsequent drafts, and at least one draft should be dedicated to what other people have to say. Good writing comes from good rewriting. That’s not an unfamiliar concept either, but I have to reiterate that the unique thing King provided is excellent demonstration of all these concepts.

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