I’ve just finished reading “On Writing” by Stephen King – a cliché I know, which is mainly why I hadn’t done it earlier. Plus the fact that I read a couple of his fiction works a few years back and wasn’t impressed enough to want to read any more, but as everyone says it’s the best book written about the craft of writing, I decided to give it a go.
I found the biographical part interesting. Through this part of the book, without explicitly saying so, he demonstrates the fact that to be a successful (or even a not terribly successful, but at least a better) writer, the key is to… you know, write. And not just churn out stuff with which to stuff your bottom drawer, but to learn from what you have written, improve on it, and send it out for publication. How else will publishers know that you write unless you tell them?
During the instructional section of the book, King gives his thoughts and experience and allows the reader to take lessons from them. I found myself nodding along with much of this, not so much because I could have said all that myself, but because I recognised a lot of points that I had unconsciously worked out for myself without necessarily putting into words. The story is the central concern, character is also important, show don’t tell, use dialogue effectively, understand the rhythms of language and structure – these are all principles I use in my writing, but I found it useful to have them expressed clearly. I think I knew them, but needed to be told.
The passage I took most from was his description of being in a road accident and his recovery. And the vital point in this was the day he started writing again, some weeks after the accident and whilst still in barely tolerable pain and unable to sit for any sensible length of time. I have had a cold this week, and haven’t felt much like writing. This has largely passed now, but I told myself that if King can still find the energy to write when the lower half of his body had pretty much been rebuilt in a series of recent operations then I can surely write through a bit of a sniffy nose and mildly annoying cough.
In the wider context, this book didn’t teach me much I didn’t know about writing. I realise how arrogant that sounds, but what I mean is that I understand the tools a writer needs to use but I am far from being a decent writer myself. Similarly I can watch football and theorise about how the players could do a better job but am utterly hopeless at the game. What this book has done though is give me a kick up the arse. I know I am lazy and procrastinating – King wrote constantly during his younger years and continues to do so now. I need to send some fiction around to find out if my work is good enough to ever be published – King sent shorts out to many magazines and newspapers while learning the craft and eventually was published.
I am at a crossroads. I know the first novel I’ve written, “Four Days”, isn’t good enough, and I know some of the places where it can be improved. But I also know what even with these improvements, and more that I haven’t worked out yet, it won’t be good enough. The plot isn’t as strong as it needs to be, and the number one basic requirement of any book is that it tells a good story. Mine doesn’t. Not yet anyway. So I have two choices – hack away at making it the best it can be, which will take another few months, and after which it will still be destined for the bottom drawer; or pick a project from the expanding back burner and start something fresh. I am tempted by the latter but feel that I will be letting Four Days down if I don’t give it just one more shot.
So that’s what I’m going to do. It’s April now, I will keep going, keep reworking and maybe the inspiration I need will strike. If it doesn’t, well I will have given it a go. And when November arrives, I will make another decision. If Four Days isn’t finished by then, it isn’t ever going to be and I will enrol with Nano as a springboard to starting something new. And at the same time, I will write more shorts, enter competitions and maybe send some round for publication. So iIf you see the name Ade Branwell in print any time soon, you will know it is as a direct result of decisions I took today.