Internalizing ‘On Writing’

I’ve finally finished ‘On Writing’.

I say finally, when it only took me a couple days. A couple days that included critiquing Write About submissions, working on my novel, working, and reading ‘The Way of Kings’. So, I’m feeling pretty good about my pace.

My handy highlighter sat poised through the entire thing, dutifully drawing attention to the things that clicked.

Anyway, I think I’m ready to talk about it.

I bought the only copy the BookBin, the local bookshop since the Borders shut down and Salem has no B&N, had. The 10 year anniversary edition. It’s pretty sexy. The cover has a velvety feel, clinging to my fingertips, the title and his name in bright white raised letters. It feels real good.

The book begins with a segment in which King talks about his youth, and how he started writing. It’s somewhat autobiographical, but it does tie-in with his writing, and so fits. Plus, it’s just really entertaining to read. This is a guy I know very little about. I’ve always enjoyed his work, but I’ve never gotten into some fangirlish frenzy over it, and therefore didn’t hunt down every little tidbit about what makes him tick.

Overall, I felt this segment was candid, and honest. He told his story as he saw it, and how he makes sense of it now that he’s more removed from it.

And then he talks about writing. And the highlighter finds itself a workout. He creates the idea of a mental toolbox. All the things you need to write and how readily available they should be. Vocabulary and Grammar should be in the top shelf, for instance.

Underneath that first layer are more tools. Elements of style. He talks about different ways of putting words together, sentence fragments and the like, and of the power of the paragraph. He also mentions that all writers hear a beat, or rhythm when writing. This was one of the moments where I felt really on board, connected to the book. King doesn’t go into detail about what he means by the ‘beat’. He assumes that the reader understands.

And I do. One Hundred Percent.

And he likens writing and reading to magic, and it makes me happy. He doesn’t mean that writing isn’t work, or that it isn’t skill. He says all of those things, but reminds us that what we are doing is in fact magical, and that we would do well to remember it.

Another big message I got from this book was that I don’t have to study literature and spend every waking moment dissecting the symbolism of the Old Man and the Sea, or something, to be a good writer.

He says that he reads because he likes to. Not to study the craft, but because he enjoys it. But, he also states that, just because he enjoys it, doesn’t mean the he isn’t learning.

It took me quite some time to realize that it’s OK for me to want to write Sci-Fi/Fantasy. My classes focused on general fiction. Real people with real problems. And, it’s all I’ve had published. I’m not saying that these stories aren’t interesting, or without merit. Not at all! But my heart and imagination were always elsewhere, often against my will. I don’t, usually, read general fiction. I read sci-fi/fantasy, almost exclusively. So why wouldn’t I write it?

King tells us that we learn the tools of writing from reading, and I know it’s true. The more you read, the better you write. And I know that what I read has a direct influence on my writing.

Trevor’s always telling me that I have too many books. And in a truly material way, he’s right. I have a lot of them. Two big bookshelves full. And, many of them, I’ve never read. Others are too dear to me to part with, favorites, or large series I’ve only read part of. And so the shelves are brimming. Some books can’t fit in the conventional way, all in a row with the spines facing out, so now some are stacked on top of a particularly flat row, teetering dangerously.

And I love it. I buy more every chance I get. And Trevor groans and complains, but he knows there’s no use. I can’t stop, and he doesn’t really have the heart to stop me.

Anyway, I’ve got the ‘read extensively’ part down, even if I feel like I can never read enough.

All my talk in the last post about fear, insecurity, and not knowing whether I agreed with Stephen King or not could have been waylaid and answered in the very next page of this book. If I’d only sought solace there instead of writing. But, I think it worked out better this way. I vented, worried, and shared some vulnerability. Then I slept hard. And the next day, highlighter in hand, King told me, more or less, that everything will be all right.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on the verge of reading Stephen’s viewpoint on editing. And it made me feel a lot better. Finish the rough draft then take a long break. At least six weeks, he says. Work on something else, something different. And when you finally come back, you’ll see your story differently. You’ll know it. You’ll know it as yours. But, if you’ve put enough distance in, it will be fresh, like reading it for the first time. He recommends taking notes as you read, jotting down where you know cuts need to be made, or where things need to change. He admits that the rewriting process is daunting, but that it is oddly satisfying. And not nearly as close to your emotions as the initial writing process.

I’ve heard quite a few different takes on how you can approach writing. Sanderson promotes the writing group, King does not. I find myself somewhere in between. I have a small writing group, and I love it, and they give me invaluable feedback. But, I also do really need that time alone, with the study door shut, as King puts it. Time to really work and get the rough draft done. I think, once the editing process starts is when I should utilize the writing group. Or, I should at least try it that way.

It’s a little weird to read King’s take, in which he more or less hermits up for the entire rough draft, while I’m participating in Write About Dragons. I’m posting a thousand words a week, and getting good feedback, but I know I’m not actually benefitting as much as I’d originally imagined. And it’s because my work isn’t finished yet, and people are already picking it apart.

I’m at the tenderhearted stage where one bad word can totally derail me. And I almost let it. I’m waiting anxiously for comments, when I should be writing. So, I think, when it comes to the rough draft, I’m a bit more in Stephen’s corner. He also uses a great image of the story being a fossil. The story exists, it’s the writer’s job to unearth it with as much care and precision as possible. You need the right tools to accomplish this.

But, I do really like the idea of a writing group. A trusted circle of people with the right tools to tell me what works and what doesn’t. But not until I’m ready to fix it.  Halfway through the rough draft is not the time.

Basically, this book is helping me figure out just how I work best. It’s another recommendation. An idea to try out, until I eventually come up with a method that works for me.

Writing everyday is definitely a huge one. And I’ve been doing a great job of that lately. Reading everyday is also important. I think of reading as the food of writing. If you don’t read while writing, the writing will starve. I’ve personally experienced this, and it sucks. I’ve been reading daily since I started this novel. What I’m lacking is a productive space to call my own.

Starbucks isn’t working. Co-workers see me sitting in the lobby as an open invitation to join me. And, for a while, that’s fine. The occasional ten minute break is good for them, and for me. But, increasingly people join me for extended amounts of time, and if I work later in the day, will ask me to clock on early or leave to get product. Basically, I am constantly interrupted. It’s not so much their fault. They don’t understand that, when I sit in front of the computer, headphones in (AFI today), that I’m working. That this is my job. My real job. Sure, I don’t get paid at all for it, but maybe, if I work hard enough, I will someday.

It’s been very frustrating lately. But, there isn’t a space at home that is my own. And I want it so bad! A small room stuffed with brimming bookshelves, my desk and my laptop, maybe with a printer. A place where I can shut the door. A place where I can write.

I want that so bad right now.

Sorry this post lost track of itself. I’ll let the book simmer in my mind for a couple of days, maybe outline some key points, and come back and do the discussion justice.

Right now I’m too distracted and swimming in ideas to really make it work.


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