How to Write: In Chair, Door Closed, Daily Goal

Office

Where’s my Muse? photo: Lisa Risager, creative commons license

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft focuses on how he became a writer and the process of becoming one is full of insights worth rereading.

Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of writing every day, despite the pull of other responsibilities and distractions. Otherwise, he says, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” The excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed every morning before six.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page.

Goals are important, King thinks, and he tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. I’m a fan of powering through and getting a completed draft. I try not to get mired in all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems, but fix them in rewrite. Maybe make a note of them, if I see them, so I can move on.

Ass-in-chair, closed door, goal. Adhering to these basics, King believes, makes writing easier over time. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, write. So many would-be authors talk to me about needing inspiration, as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

By the time we’re adults, lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains from books, tv, and movies. I find that when a phrase or scene comes too easily, almost unconsciously, it may be that my mind is simply replaying someone else’s words—they’re not original any more. In my story, they’re false.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we feel satisfied when we turn that last page. As stunning as most of the hit novel Gone Girl was—a web of lies if ever there was one—the ending fell unexpectedly flat, and King has put his finger on the reason. In working out her denouement, author Gillian Flynn strayed from the truth of her characters.

Despite how hard it may be to find and express a story’s truth, King says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”

This post appeared here in slightly different form three years ago. King’s advice is evergreen.

3 thoughts on “How to Write: In Chair, Door Closed, Daily Goal

    • What I find with the “writer’s advice books” is that, even when I’ve read them, not everything sinks in. It kind of depends on what issues I’m having with my writing then–issues I may not even have recognized in the past–and now, finally, some piece of good advice finally makes sense. A perfect example of “just in time” learning!

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