Having watched me grapple for several years with a non-fiction project that may turn out to get the better of me, a member of my family decided I needed some help. So for Christmas she bought me On Writing by Stephen King.
I imagine that all of Stephen King's work is easy to read and that this is one of the secrets of his success. Certainly this book is. It is clear and sensible. It doesn't flash across the firmament but it is interesting, (although the parts about King's personal life interested me less than they might interest readers who are King fans; on the other hand, I was very impressed by his devotion to his wife).
Nothing he says about writing is particularly new but these are the points that struck me as more worth remembering than most:
"You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself."
"The scariest moment is just before you start."
"You should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day."
King himself aims for two thousand words a day and he confesses that:
"On some days those ten pages come easily; I'm up and out doing errands by eleven thirty in the morning ... More frequently, as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day's work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I'm still fiddling around at teatime. Either way is fine with me, but only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2000 words."
He explains that:
"Once I start work on a project, I don't stop - and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don't write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind - they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale's narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story's plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best - always, always, always - when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer."
He also quotes advice he received form a mentor called John Gould:
"When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story."
To this King adds, "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open".
My absolute favourite bit of the book is the one that reminds the reader that, when a writer is alone at their desk with the door closed, they can do whatever they like, they can be as boring or as strange as they please and they have absolutely nothing to lose, (except some time, I suppose):
"I don't believe a story or a novel should be allowed outside the door of your study or writing room unless you feel confident that it's reasonably reader-friendly ... And now that I've waved that caution flag ... let me reiterate that it's all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn't that an intoxicating thought? Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it."
Okay, so now I must get back to the octopus - I mean non-fiction project.
I may be some time.