Now, I am not always such a fan of books that tell you what to do or not to do when it comes to your own writing. My reasoning for this is that I feel writing is a very personal journey and I think a lot of the how-to-write books are condescending. This one, however, is not.
I don’t say that because Stephen King swears like the millworker he is. I don’t say that because Stephen King talks about being a raging alcoholic who doesn’t remember writing certain books. I don’t even say that because Stephen King talks about how he got sober and what happened in 1999 after he was hit by a van.
First off, I love the two quotes (yes, we all know I’m a sucker for a good quote or two) he chooses to start off with: “Honesty’s the best policy.” ~Miguel de Cervantes and “Liars prosper.” ~Anonymous. The reason I love them is that they truly set up this book properly.
King repeatedly tells his reader that they must be honest. Writers should be honest about the world as they see it and as their characters see it. If you’re writing a blue collar worker in one section and a prim and proper southern society lady in the next, they should not sound the same. If they did, it would not be honest writing. For example: They should not say “sugar” instead of swearing if they are the blue collar worker and they smack their thumb with a hammer. That would not be honest to the typical blue collar worker. If they are not typical and they would say “sugar” you need to use it to explain why they are different. However, if your character is a super proper southern belle, she would most likely be more careful with her language, especially in public. The author needs to be more worried about being honest and authentic than they do about the language/manners/polite society police.
However, King also points out that as a fiction writer, you cannot write only what you know. If you only wrote what you knew then fantasy, science fiction, supernatural fiction, many mysteries, and many horror books, movies, radio, and TV shows would not exist. While your character must feel real and true and honest, their world may be completely made up. By definition, this would make it a lie. However, it is a lie that conceals the truth, allowing the reader to discover what is real through the fun of the made up.
King gives very few maxims in his book. Be honest. Cut unnecessary words. Work on your craft. Do what you love. You should write to live, not live to write.
I can agree with all of that. He admits to being a workaholic when he is writing. Says that his wife has helped him keep writing and that his writing has contributed to having a healthy marriage and family life. It is clear that after all these years, he is still madly in love with Tabby (his author/activist wife) and that he adores his three kids (one of whom is a minister and two of whom are authors).
Thank God there is an author out there who got his life under control and has lived a normal, healthy life since. Very rarely do we see successful authors who have become famous and have a brilliant, happy home life.
I also think that King’s conversational voice allows the reader to take from it what they will. He admits that he is not a planner and that he is not one for character sketches. He explains his process of starting with a situation and then going from there. However, he also explains that this is not the only way to do it—may not be the “best” way to do it—but it is how he works.
For me, that was refreshing. I am not a planner. I do research on things as my characters bring them up. I have had countless people tell me that I needed to plot out every little thing. But I’ve written eleven books and only started outlining the first one to check for consistency last year. It was nice to hear that an author that I adore has a similar process to mine. He is, however, much less obsessive during the editing phase and explains how he works his drafts. This is something that I am working on so finding that he writes his books in 2-4 drafts gives me some different ideas on how to cut back on my overkill. However, I do think I’ve finally figured out what needs to be and how to do it. And for me, this book helped me work that through on my own without condescension.