I just finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing. It was the revelation, inspiration and manual I didn’t even know I needed. There’s so much good advice in there, so many hints and tips I’m sure will help me improve.
But most of all it’s reassurance from someone who definitely knows his stuff that how I write is ok, and nothing I need to be ashamed of. Two things in particular speak to me:
Use the words you got
King’s advice on not worrying that your vocabulary isn’t up to scratch has made my heart much lighter. As a non-native speaker this is a constant worry for me. My English is more than up to the task of living and working in the UK but I sometimes worry my writing might be repetitive because my vocabulary is smaller than that of someone who grew up here. I worry that people will think I’m an imposter.
It’s not always at the forefront of my mind, and sometimes, especially when I proofread my colleagues’ atrociously bad copy, I think that my English is pretty damn great. But then I read certain novels and realise I’ll never write like that. What I get from King is: As long as you read a lot and write a lot to improve your craft you can be a great writer with the vocabulary you have, which develops over time anyway. Very reassuring.
Don’t worry about plotting
This is an even bigger relief to me. I don’t plot, at least not the way some writers seem to, with copious notes and character outlines and so on. I write some notes, and I do a lot of edits, and tons of research, but when I start my story I start it from the beginning. Nine times out of ten I know how it’s going to end before chapter 1 is complete. Whatever happens in the middle though is at best a rough outline. Sometimes my characters do something quite different from what I wanted them to do. If I try to plan too much the story feels contrived, devoid of life. King calls it excavating the fossil. I think that’s very apt.
I have one good friend who is also a fanfic writer, and she writes in the same manner. Until now I assumed that, as amateur writers, we were doing it wrong, or if not wrong then at least, well, amateurish. But if it works for King it’ll be good enough for me.
If plotting works for you, by all means do it. There are a few things in King’s book that he dislikes but that work for me. This isn’t rocket science, and I firmly believe that, while a craft, writing is also a subjective art, and that this is a good thing.
One more thing, now that I’ve finished On Writing
King talks about two of his pet peeves: Overuse of the passive and overuse of adverbs. He thinks they’re signs that the writer is afraid. In other words, they’re security blankets, making the writer feel safer. I was very pleased to realise that I never use the passive, and that my use of adverbs is well within reason. However, after reading that chapter it occurred to me that I have different security blankets. One is ellipses, the other one is using too many words and phrases like “seems to” “might be” etc. The latter especially is definitely a sign that I’m not sure about a particular thought process my protagonist is having.
I’m so glad I read On writing now when I can still go back through my edits and fix things. It’s surprisingly hard to let go of your security blanket, even at 36.