Why King’s “On Writing” Can be Dangerous to New Writers

So my boss caught up on the Novella Dairy yesterday and commented on the fact that I was crapping on Stephen King in my post asking for feedback about the future of the project.

“I crapped on Stephen King?” I said. “I don’t remember doing that.”

“Sure you do,” she said. “You basically quote him and then talk about all the ways he’s wrong. You’re all It’s all very well for Stephen King to write about sitting in the chair until he hits 2K a day, but some of us have day jobs…

I’ll admit, at this point, that my record of this conversation probably isn’t 100% accurate, but it captures the gist. It refers back to an ongoing conversation we’ve had at work, where I’ve brought up the fact that I think On Writing has the potential to be a dangerous resource for some new writers and it bothers me that it’s so…omnipresent, I guess, as a source of advice.

So I figured I’d take a moment to unpack the reasons I used King as an example, particularly when it comes to the particular passage I quoted in yesterday’s post.

First Up: Stephen King Gets A Lot Right

Lest we get off on the wrong foot here, I’m going to state right at the outset that On Writing is actually a pretty useful book. It gets a lot of information right and it offers a pretty solid foundation for people who are getting into writing for the first time.

Better yet, his metaphor of the writer’s toolbox? Fucking brilliant. Simple, effective, well-explained. All the things that it needs to be. That it’s immediately followed by a point of contention for me (King and I disagree on the merits of plain style and not reaching for new language) is kinda beside the point, ’cause I don’t necessarily consider work with the language you’ve got bad advice in isolation.

Basically, while I think it has the potential to be problematic, I’m not really leveling the criticism at Stephen King’s advice so much as writing advice in general. On Writing is serving as a stand-in for a whole lot of conventional wisdom when it comes to writing, mostly because that conventional wisdom is presented very clearly in King’s book.

The overall gist of the advice? Write regularly? Submit your work to magazines. Embrace persistence, especially in the face of rejection. Build up your tools as a writer and make sure you’ve got them down.

It’s good stuff. I endorse it in principle, based on seeing it work for hundreds of writing students over the years. Advice goes, it’s useful.

Right up until it’s not.

No Writing Advice Survives Contact with the Enemy

The best writing advice is like a little explosion in your head. You read it, you put two-and-two together, and you suddenly realise why it’s taken you so damn long to realise how they come together to make four. You sit there thinking, wow, that’s so damn easy, how did I miss it.

The worst writing advice sits in your head like a stone, weighting you down and keeping you from moving forward. You sit there, looking it over, and thinking, wow, holy hell, why am I not doing this? It’s so damn obvious.

The weird part is that the good writing advice and the bad writing advice can be exactly the same; you’ve just heard it a different point in your career, or it works really well for you but not the next writer down the queue. I keep writing this in various places, but writing advice is not one size fits all.

The advice that helps you out isn’t even consistent year-to-year in your writing career. The things you need to hear when you’re starting out are rarely the same things that’ll help you five years in.

I Don’t Believe in Monolithic Entities

Church. State. Grand narratives about life and existence. They’ve all collapsed in the face of modern world, embracing a kind of pluralism that’s only just starting to seep into writing advice.

Stephen King’s career is a kind of monolith in some respects. It’s too successful, too big to ignore, and it’s built on the strengths of a very particular kind of writer. The career advice outlined in On Writing reflects that in a lot of ways; it’s the kind of big, monolithic conventional wisdom that is all too common in writing.

The simple core of Kings guide – write a lot, submit a lot, keep repeating and don’t give up – syncs directly with my own experience with regards to what works when you’re starting out. The details of getting there, though, that isn’t the same at all. I had very different experiences as a formative writer. I work in very different ways. Approaching the process of writing 2,500 words a day the same way King does will frustrate me at the best of times and depress me at the worst.

I know, because I tried just a few months ago. I set a daily word count throughout January and February. I set my routine and went for it, forcing myself to sit there until I hit my word count.

It worked for a short stretch, but by halfway through the month real life intervened. I’d aim for two thousand words and get to fifteen hundred. Staying at the computer wasn’t a choice, ’cause I either had to head off to work or I had to get some sleep before heading to work the following morning.

I am, after all, thirty-six. My brain doesn’t work well on five hours sleep anymore.

Victory Conditions and Sacrifice

Here is my least-favourite sentence in the how to write section of On Writing, when he talks about your daily practice and target word count:

As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this low at first, to avoid disappointment. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with. (King, On Writing)

I mean, really? Magnanimous? I’m resisting the urge to be snotty here, especially since it comes with the implication that one day you’ll level-up as a writer and be above such things.

Writers are fond of setting victory conditions. I do it myself – the novella dairy is predicated on the 1k a day goal – but the problem with setting a victory condition like you will write 2,500 or 1,000 words a day is the counter-point that not reaching that word-count means that you’ve failed. Nothing wrong with that if you’re strong enough to shake things off and get back on the horse, but that isn’t always a given. Some days you don’t have the energy to give yourself that kind of pep talk.

The rhetoric offered to aspiring writers is all about sacrifice and martyrdom. If you can do anything but write, don’t write. If you want to make it, you’ll plant yourself in front of the computer and work until you hit your word count. If you want to be a writer, you’ll sacrifice and sacrifice…and if you aren’t able to sacrifice, you obviously didn’t want it enough.

Some days I wonder if that’s a bad thing.

How many writers have we lost because planting themselves in a chair and writing two thousands words in a single sitting was impossible? How many have we lost to the belief that you need to block out hours to give to writing? Or even a single consecutive hour, where you lock the door away?

I know why the advice is offered and I understand its place, but presenting it as a monolithic given is a mistake. The process of writing is individual and idiosyncratic; writers themselves, imminently adaptable. Some days it’s okay to chill the fuck out. Sometimes you can admit that maybe, somewhere along the line, you’d like to be a writer and have a goddamn weekend to yourself.

But beginners never hear that. You can put out the argument that perhaps they haven’t earned it yet – they need to hear the monolithic lectures about sacrifice and forcing yourself to write because otherwise they’ll never figure out their process or get to the end of the story. It’s like beginners need to be bullied into doing things, ’cause otherwise they’ll surely fail.

Lets be Honest: Writing is Hard

It’s not hard like brick-laying is hard or running a conference is hard, but it’s got its own difficulties.

It’s hard when you start writing because you suck and, as Ira Glass mentions in his brilliant video about creative success, you know that you suck. There’s good odds that you’ve embraced the creative side of yourself because you’ve got exceptional taste, and it’s frustrating to enter into that period where your skills aren’t yet in synch with your ambition.

It’s hard when you’ve had some success as a writer because you’re invested in your career. You know you can achieve and you want to achieve more, only now you’ve got to make sure that every new thing is better than the work that came before it and you’ll occasionally be visited by the spectre of you’re done, it’s all been a mistake, and you’ll never be published again.

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that it’s even hard for guys like Stephen King, who have an audience with huge expectations and a million demands on their time. Things that are, technically, work, without actually being writing.

You know what all that misses?

Being a writer is fucking awesome.

Make no mistake, it’s a career path that’s got its ups and downs. There are days when I wish that I’d chosen something else to do with my life. Overall, though? Best fucking job in the world, whether I’m getting paid for it or not.

It just got a lot better, for me, when I stopped forcing myself to be the square peg squeezing into a round hole.

Here’s What You Need to Remember About On Writing

It’s a how-to-write book that reflects the way Stephen King set about building a writing career. The advice offered within worked really well for Stephen King, both in the general and the specific sense. It’s worked well for a whole bunch of other writers too.

But it doesn’t work for everyone. It presuppose a pace that you want to finish things, and in turn that’s predicated upon some very specific career goals. It assumes you want to be a novelist. It assumes you want to be writing full time. It assumes all sorts of things that may not be true for your particular path into writing, but unless you realise that, it’s easy to buy in ’cause you haven’t actually considered what you really want.

And, yeah, I got a personal beef.

There was a period of my life where sitting at the computer until I’d written 2,500 words a day nearly killed me. I was unemployed and desperate and really struggling to stay positive, and every time I failed to hit that goal it was like a mallet thumping against my already fragile self-confidence.

It never occurred to me that I was doing the wrong thing. That Stephen King’s approach probably wasn’t for me. That my attention span, short and fragmentary as it is, is better served by walking away and coming back a few minutes later. And it wasn’t like I was new to writing. I’d been doing this for years, had a whole bunch of stories published. I worked under the illusion that I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t.

Here’s the important bit.

Writing is one of those places where we don’t really examine our habits and processes. We fall into habits. We believe the things that are repeated, loudly and repetitively, rather than figuring out what works best for us. When I’m talking about the kind of advice offered in On Writing in something approaching a negative light, it’s usually because it’s a stand in for a whole bunch of conventional writing wisdom that I find enormously frustrating.

It would be easier if we could transform that baseline into something more sensible. Figure out how you write. Figure out how you finish your projects. Figure out what your career is going to look like.  

The problem, of course, is that stuff is all easier to see in hindsight. When you’re eager and just starting out, wanting to run as fast as you can even though you haven’t figured out how, the kind of advice your offered is all about getting you to the next phase of your career: finishing things, sending them off, getting paid for your work.

To go back to the Ira Glass video I mentioned above, the only way you can get your work up to the level of your ambition is producing a body of work. That’s more or less the gist of King’s book as well, although it doesn’t explain it quite so explicitly and its approach to doing so is prescriptive  That’s part of its charm and appeal; writing is presented like a magic trick you can master, after which its all book contracts and puppies.

You need to read the first half, the biography, and read for the subtext to learn that sometimes it’s not. That there are things that derail even Stephen King (although, mad respect, it appears that it took a life-threatening  injury to keep him from writing). So read On Writing. Try its approach on for size. And if it doesn’t work – keep bloody looking for models. There are so many ways people approach this writing gig that there’s bound to be some advice that works best for you. Right now, I’m deep into the twenty-minute writing groove. It may change, it may not, but I’m going to test it and keep testing it to see how it’s working.

The smartest thing you can do is figure out what your approach looks like and keep making sure it’s right for you, your life, and your goals.

  16 comments for “Why King’s “On Writing” Can be Dangerous to New Writers

  1. Maggie Slater
    22/05/2013 at 8:00 PM

    Thank you for this post! So often, I've run into the imperative "rules for writing" which used to stress me out as a beginning writer to no end until I began to realize how many other ways there are to compose fiction. It's one of the reasons I always like to ask the reprint authors for Apex's interviews questions about their process, if only because I hope that writers reading it will see that so many successful authors have come at it in completely divergent ways. Adam Troy Castro has a set time frame to work in; Daniel Abraham sometimes deletes entire copies of his original drafts when they aren't working the way he wants them to; Kij Johnson outlines like mad, grooms her pieces over and over, and writes lots of scenes and descriptions that may never make it into the finished draft; Geoff Ryman believes he wrote more when he was working full-time than he did while working part-time; Joe Lansdale deliberately participates in other stuff outside of writing to keep himself grounded; etc., etc.

    The more I learn about other authors, the more I realize how we each carve our own path, and take our own stands, in whatever shape those come in. How-to-write books can be very interesting if one comes at them with the idea that whatever might presented as "a rule" is really just a suggestion, and that one should take away only the things that really click with them personally.

    Which is another reason your Novella Diary has been so interesting, because it allows yet another glimpse into an author's head, and a possible alternative to the 2k+ (or, more lately, the 10k+) per day push. I've been trying out the 10-20 minute sessions, too, because sitting down even with a goal of a half-hour in mind can (in my head) be too easily put off "to later" when I "have more time." Which is never, really; and I can't whine about taking 10 minutes here and there. I mean, it's TEN MINUTES! And I've gotten as much done this past week per day as I've gotten done when I sit down to write for a solid half-hour (with a lot less whining and procrastinating<–always a plus).

    (To be brief, because apparently, I'm also verbose at times): So it's been a fun experiment! Thanks for sharing some options!

    • 22/05/2013 at 10:37 PM

      @Maggie I've got a lot of respect for the people writing 10K a day (and I dearly wish I was a faster writer than I am), but I think the preponderance of that kind of information is directly linked to the shift in publishing. Ebooks are setting up a return to the pulp era – the faster you write, the more you can earn.

      I can think of a whole bunch of reasons this is a good thing, but in terms of its ability to set up a new status quo for writing expectations…

  2. 22/05/2013 at 9:08 PM

    Great article! We are so often taught that there is only one right way to do something. Well, guess what: there's not! And writing could easily be the poster child for that.

    I'm just on the edge of understanding how *I* do re-drafting. I hear from writers that they always need to re-draft. Again and again and again. But I edit as I go and I have *always* written like that. It meant my first draft is much more like someone else's third draft. Same type of learning.

  3. 22/05/2013 at 9:19 PM

    There's a whole bunch of writers that don't really fit the re-draft process: Caitlin Kiernan and Nick Mamatas come to mind as people who have talked about being one-draft only writers. Same with Dean Wesley Smith, who I originally borrowed the idea of the novella diary from, although he seems to do less re-drafting mid process.

    My process is something of a weird mash-up – there's likely to be a post about it in early June at this point, but I'm a big believer in setting things on fire and replanting chapter-by-chapter.

  4. David C
    22/05/2013 at 9:32 PM

    Nothing in particular to add to this, other than to note this is all very wise advice. On Writing is a great book, but King has his ways set for his particular brand of obsession, and it's all worth taking with a grain of salt.

  5. Karen Miller
    22/05/2013 at 9:39 PM

    Kudos for this, Peter. Beautifully articulated. There is no one right way to do this. There is only the right way for you.

  6. 22/05/2013 at 10:03 PM

    Great stuff. I wrote a similar (if not quite as thorough) blog post about this myself a few weeks back, when another one of those bloody ‘real writers do THIS’ tweets ended up in my feed. Not everyone is the same. We all do it differently.

  7. 22/05/2013 at 11:14 PM

    Being a jaguar is *waaay* more fucking awesome than being a writer. Just saying.

    • petermball
      24/05/2013 at 1:17 PM

      Well, sure. I can't see many ways in which it wouldn't be. Sadly, it didn't occur to me that jaguar was a career path when I was younger, and I'm probably too old to start now.

      (We are talking about big cats, right? 'Cause if jaguar has become slang for something else while I was off being angry at the world, I'm going to be really confused for a while)

  8. 23/05/2013 at 4:34 AM

    One of the better writing books I’ve found is “The Modern Writer’s Workshop” by Stephen Koch. He relates his own experiences as a teacher, but also takes directly quoted examples from many different writers and specifically highlights that some people do things one way, and some do it the complete opposite way. It really helped me build confidence in myself and whatever way I ended up writing. I have friends who can crank out first-draft complete stories; I have friends who rewrite stories from scratch.

    The writing advice I most often give writers who ask me (apart from “you have to actually write something”) is “the only ‘right way’ to write is the way that results in something being written.”

    • petermball
      24/05/2013 at 1:29 PM

      Which is a pretty good benchmark to have. When I run workshops, one of the first things I tell people is "if anything I say stops you from writing, ignore what I've said and keep writing. That's the important bit."

  9. 27/05/2013 at 9:56 PM

    I decided to try the On Writing program this year, 2K/day, since I am only working part time and that's just about an hour's solid typing for me. After all, I've written 13 novels and 80 short stories, it's time to level up and do this for real.
    If I write a book a month, I can make a living as a writer.

    I've learned a lot in the last 5 months.

    1) I can't maintain that pace. My brain gets mushy.
    2) An hour of solid typing really gives my arthritis something to sing about.
    3) I can't write and edit at the same time, not if I want to do either of them well. (I spent March in editing hell on my most recent book.)
    4) Albannach is awesome writing music. So is Dragonforce. Sometimes I can let the beat carry me along.
    5) I can write a book in a month. With a fast-typing partner, I can write a book in 10 days. But rewriting tends to take a couple more months.

    Victor Milan gives advice that worked for some of our friends. "Commit to five words a day. If that's a whole sentence, you've got a sentence. If it's a fragment, maybe you'll finish the sentence and get ten. Maybe you'll finish the paragraph or page. But do five."

    I find the Flylady approach works for me. Fifteen minutes. I can do anything for fifteen minutes. (and four sessions don't make my hands hurt nearly as much as the solid hour does)

    Butt in chair. Words on paper. Whatever you manage, it's more than you had yesterday.

    • petermball
      27/05/2013 at 11:37 PM

      Editing hell is never fun. I think it's another one of those areas where we fall into traps due to conventional writing wisdom; I discovered I'm much better at editing and redrafting as I go along, leaving behind scenes that are pretty-close to being the way I want them to be, than I am going back and making wholesale structural changes. The latter just doesn't suit the way I work and usually results in whole new stories being written.

  10. Amy
    28/05/2013 at 1:07 AM

    Not to quibble over a minor point, but you lost some of my respect when you used the wrong form of “its” in your article. As writers, when we criticize other writers, we have to make sure that criticism lacks technical errors. Otherwise we come off as not really understanding the craft. You made some excellent points. I am going to refer my writer’s group to this article for discussion as we read King’s book.

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