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.