Learning to Write — A Writer Writes

After reading Gail Boenning’s story about finding paperback gold on the shelves of a half-price bookstore I had a little flash back to the book she was lucky enough to find — Stephen King’s fabulous book on writing, which, coincidentally, is named “On Writing."

See, that’s why he’s a gazillionaire and I’m hoping someone will just click Like once or twice on my latest Facebook post. I would spend weeks (or my entire life) sweating through name after name for the book, tearing my hair out as I tried to match one more pun or play on words to the content.

I’m pretty sure Stephen King calls up the publisher and says something like “No, it’s a book on writing. No, seriously. What? Hell, people would probably read it if I called it (flips to random page in phone book) Delores Claiborne. Let’s just call it On Writing. I need to MOVE man, this stuff won’t write itself.” Click. Hangs up the phone, and then BAM.

Another 45 thousand million dollars.

It is a great book. I’ve read it twice and got something different from it each time. I have vivid pictures in my head of the rejection spike, and especially of his description of the table on the stage with the top hat sitting in the middle of it. That is one of the best bits of writing advice I’ve ever found.

But what makes the book so good? Would I like it if I wasn’t a writer? Would I enjoy it as much if I didn’t know it was written by Stephen King? Or if I wasn’t a Stephen King fan?

On Writing is a wonderful peek into Stephen King’s life and career. It is filled with insight, advice, and guidance from one of the most successful writers in history, and I’m sure it has motivated many people to start working on their own novel.

But, On Writing will not turn you into a writer. It won’t make you a better writer either. It might give you some courage or push you to pick up a pen, but the only thing that will make you a better writer is to keep writing.

Like many other famous authors, King’s own advice is to read a lot, and to write a lot. Read. Absolutely. You will find that the more you write, the more you’ll dissect the stories you’re reading. You won’t be able to burn through a book and think, what a great story, or what great characters anymore, then immediately start a new one.

You’ll spend half of your reading time trying to pull out the style and voice of the book. You’ll make notes on why the main character is likeable. Or hated. You’ll slowly chew on every detail looking for the underlying recipe so you can try to duplicate it, or at least learn from it.

I spent a lot of time wishing I could write like Dean Koontz, and of course like Stephen King. There are a few things almost all new writers do when reading a book like On Writing. Most of us want to tap the mind of that writer, trying to bottle his or her secret so we can spray it on like magic cologne.

I spent more than 10 years reading every single writing “instruction manual” on the planet. Ok. That might be an exaggeration, but — I read a lot of them. And a looked for a magic pill in each one. I just knew that one of those books had all of the answers and would lead me to become a world famous author overnight.

None of those books pushed me to do anything but search through more books on writing, dream, and talk about becoming a writer. None of them helped me to get an article published or to get paid for the craft of writing.

That’s not to say they weren’t valuable, or that I didn’t learn something from each. Aside from one or two, I would never tell you that I wasted money on books like On Writing, or Writing Down the Bones. I just did what most people do and read, waited, and expected divine intervention.

I processed the information in the book incorrectly.

I should have been reading them AND writing at the same time, not waiting for one of those books, or their author, to give me permission to start writing. Or, permission to start submitting my writing. “Chapter 9 — If you’ve reached this point in the book you may begin calling yourself a writer.” Yeah. No.

I should have been writing every day, and trying to get something published in a local paper, or in a magazine, or anywhere at all instead of asking my friends and family for reviews of my half-hearted attempts to create, and then shoving those products into a virtual drawer afterwards.

I looked to all of those books to make me into a world famous writer by mentally skipping to the last chapter, expecting to find myself on stage accepting the National Book Award in the real world. Instead, I should have placed myself at the beginning of the book, where I could start to WORK my way to the last chapter.

Then I had an epiphany. This might be obvious, but hear me out. There already is a Dean Koontz, so why do we need another one? We don’t. We need a Gail Boenning, or Chuck Warren, or anyone else with a unique voice and view of the world. That is our secret recipe, our spray-on bottle of magic. People don’t want to read an imitation of Dean Koontz, they want to read Dean Koontz.

Or, maybe they want to read something from that new writer who has a good story and a fresh voice.

Read. Dissect. Make notes. Then, write. And then write some more. Nothing else will give you what you need to succeed. No matter how many books you read, or who wrote them, books on writing cannot make you write better. Only practice can make you write better. You can use the info you received from a good, instructional book to grow, but at the end of the day, only by writing a lot can you become a better writer. The act of writing makes you a writer.

So go and write. Do it now. And don’t you dare tell me you don’t have time, we’ll talk about THAT subject soon enough.

Today, sit down and write 250 words. That’s not much, and it’s not that hard. But, if you do it every day for a year you’ll have a novel. Do it every day for two years, and you’ll still have a novel. Hell, take three. That’s still less time than most people spend just talking about writing a novel.

Go write 250 words. Then, do it again tomorrow.

A writer writes.