You know what I love more than talking about books I’ve recently finished? Lists. I love lists. I live for them. They’re simple and compact but still so beautifully prolific. And writing them is just so fun, especially when you have a habit of jumping from one topic to another with barely held constraint, like I do.
So instead of writing a review or a mere blog post about Stephen King’s book about writing/mini-memoir, On Writing, I’m going to write a list about the key things I got from the book. Initially, I wanted to list down 10 things – as a homage to a similar feature section of my university’s magazine – but then I realized that the other five I had already learned from reading about writing online or from experience. Stephen King merely delivered them much more elegantly.
Without further ado, here’s 5 important things to remember on (creative) writing:
1.) Door closed. Door opened.
I think this one’s the most important thing to remember out of all. King basically suggested – since it’s worked for him all these decades – that you should write the first draft of your story or novel for yourself and yourself alone. Don’t think about your possible readers. Don’t think about what they might or might not like. Don’t think about pleasing anyone but yourself on the first draft. Keep the door – the metaphorical and the literal door since you kind of need to concentrate too – firmly closed. Write what you like, not what anyone else might like. It’s your work, after all. No one and nothing should dictate what you write on your first draft.
On the second draft, however, you should write with the door open. Think about your prospective readers and how they could relate to your characters and to the story. Give the story depth, is what he meant (or at least what I got from it). Although writing is a solitary task, a writer’s work is meant to be read. That’s the end goal for most, if not all, writers, I think. The door of your Writing Palace (that wonderful space in your head where you run to whenever reality threatens to break you into pieces) should be opened and should stay open when you write your second draft. Invite readers to your work, so to speak.
2.) Story over plot
I was really surprised to find out that Stephen King doesn’t meticulously plan out his novels – most of which are monstrous in size – but instead lets the story run all by itself. He literally just imagines a character (or characters) in a situation and finds out what happens as he writes. At some point he even says that he doesn’t trust plot (or plotting in advance) because “first, …our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”
It was shocking but a bit reassuring to know that even the King of Horror didn’t know what was going to happen to his characters either. Stephen King mostly relied on situations, elaborating on “what-if” scenarios that pop up in that weird and wonderful mind of his. That technique sounds pretty handy too, especially since I’m hopeless in planning things ahead.
Stories are slippery things anyway. Writers almost never have complete control over them. Better to just let the story flow than try to bend it to your will. Chances are, it’ll break before you realize what’s happening.
3.) Writers describe so readers can imagine
King knows how to paint a picture for the readers to see. That’s one of his main strengths. I’ve always had trouble with my descriptions because I never know how much is too much or how little is too little.
As it turns out – and I truly believe this is the case – the best descriptions are the ones that bond your readers to the story. Imagery that readers can see and relate to are the ones that work best. “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Kind of like, give the readers an idea what to think about but let them garnish the little (and not-so-little) details. Revealing all but the nitty-gritty can lose whatever connection the reader can have to story.
4.) Ideas pop out of nowhere
Although I already knew this, I’m going to include this anyway since I cannot stress this enough (most especially to myself). There is no story idea generator. No secret formula for the perfect story. No supernatural ritual to summon the creative writing gods and win their favor. There’s just an idea, or several hundred ideas, and mixing them up until you get a strong enough foothold for a story.
Most of King’s story ideas came from matching two unrelated scenarios together and watching what happens afterward. It’s crudely straightforward but ridiculously complicated to execute.
5.) Writing is magic
I also knew this but I just want to remind myself (and to whoever’s reading this) that writing is pure, unadulterated magic. You are mentally sending images and ideas through time and distance to people you have never met and probably never will. You’re pouring a bit of yourself into a series of words that, if read in order, gives the reader the feeling and the idea that you had conjured up from the delves of your imagination. How magical is that, right?
You, as the writer, temporarily shut yourself off from reality (but still acutely aware of its existence) and mingle with characters that don’t exist in real life. After getting to know those characters, you get yourself mixed up in situations that probably (and hopefully) won’t/haven’t happened in your life. It’s like creating a whole other world with your pen and paper (or Word Processor).
Writing is liberating as it is uplifting. As you write, you learn more about yourself and about other people, fictional or not. Even if no one ever reads your work, the act of writing is worth every heartache and splitting headache. Reality is well and good and all but, damn, is it suffocating. Stephen King described writing as water. Water that’s free for anyone to drink and be filled up with. For me, writing is air that I can’t grasp or really see but can feel even when I don’t think about it. It sustains me, keeps me going. I’ll keep on writing for as long as I’ll keep on breathing it.