People think that I must be a very strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk.
– Stephen King
I love Stephen King’s novels. I grew up reading horror and Salem’s Lot, The Shining and The Stand were touchstone texts for me and my friends. One summer we spent several days trying to figure out how we could trigger a global pandemic capable of killing most of the population leaving a plucky bunch of heroes (modest cough… us) to have adventures in a post-apocalypse world peppered with lonely teenage girls desperate to be rescued by teenage boys with big hair, flying boots and second-hand overcoats (… you had to be there). Luckily for you, our chemistry set was basic, and we didn’t have the internet as a guide.
But I’m not here to talk teenage fantasies (or hair). I’m here to talk writing; something Mr King does every single day; not stopping for birthdays, Christmas Day, hospitalisation or any other puny excuse.
Obviously, Mr King isn’t an average writer. He’s a story-machine powered by a deep love of his craft, his characters and an addictive personality; so addictive that for a period it threatened his health, family, and career, and led to him writing books under the influence of alcohol, drugs, mouthwash and those little squirts of gas you get from a can just before the whipped cream oozes out. He admits that he can barely remember writing The Tommyknockers.
In his brilliant part-autobiography/part musing on the craft of writing, On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft, he outlines his simple, blue-collar methodology, well… simply. I would recommend that every writer should read this. It’s by turns amusing, brutally honest, supportive and exceptionally useful as a guide for bursting pretensions and demystifying the craft for new writers.
A key discipline for him is to write every day. No excuses. It doesn’t matter what you did the night before, where you are today and what you have lined up for the evening. You need to make it into a habit, with fixed hours, like a regular job. This isn’t just to keep you honest; it’s a discipline that enables you to stay within the flow of your novel and to maintain momentum as you see words mount up. (But he does acknowledge this may not be practical for everybody.)
What also stuck with me was the image of him whacking his growing manuscript against desk each morning before he wrote. Feeling its increasing weight, the heftier thunk the pile of paper made as it connected with wood – Thud! -this is his way of saying … “yep, it’s coming along“.
Like most of us, I suspect, I write on a laptop or iPad (other tablets are acceptable) and whacking expensive tech against tables is costly, ineffective and lead to lively budgetary debates with spouses and partners. Instead of the whack, I always scroll through a manuscript from the top to the bottom before starting; taking pleasure from its growth, making sure the visual flow of pages is attractive – that it looks like a book should look – remembering Stephen King and feeling guilty about all the days I didn’t write a goddamn single word
When I can force myself to write every day, I find it much easier to force my way through difficult sections of a book. To access those sections that just won’t flow out of my mind and into my fingers. If I don’t write every day, if I set the manuscript aside waiting for inspiration, momentum drains away. And even if I can’t find what I know is in there, sometimes the only way to get through a tricky section is to write it badly (even really badly) and then revise. It’s better to have a shapeless lump of clay than no clay at all.
And if you are writing… well, then you are a writer.
Books are a uniquely portable magic.
– Stephen King
Why you should ignore this golden rule: see the next golden rule.
Up next: Don’t write every day