The Lessons I Should Have Learned from Stephen King’s On Writing …

Photo by T.M. Camp

Today’s post is from Jeannie Ruesch, the author of CLOAKED IN DANGER (Carina Press). Her December pitch in our Facebook group immediately caught and held Blog Mama Therese’s attention. Jeannie is giving away two copies of Stephen King’s On Writing to random commenters, so please join in and add to the conversation!

Jeannie wrote her first story at the age of the six, prompting her to give up an illustrious, hours-long ambition of becoming a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader and declare that writing was her destiny. That journey to destiny took a few detours along the way, including a career in marketing and design.

Her first novel, a fairy-tale like historical romance, was published in 2009, but the darker side of life had always captivated her. So after a dinner conversation with friends about the best way to hide a dead body, she knew she had to find a way to incorporate suspense into her writing. (The legal outlet for her fascination.) Today, she continues writing what she loves to read—stories of history, romance and suspense. She lives in Northern California with her husband, their son, and an 80-pound lapdog lab named Cooper.

Brenda Novak, a New York Times best-selling author, has this to say:

Cloaked in Danger has all the elements readers crave—larger-than-life characters, a vivid and believable setting, heart-pounding romance and just the right amount of mystery. Don’t miss it! It kept me reading deep into the night.”

Follow Jeannie on her blog, Facebook, or Twitter.

The Lessons I Should Have Learned From Stephen King’s On Writing

Like most writers, I hold a number of books about writing on my shelf in great esteem.  I’ve touted their brilliance and counted the ways they’d help me become a better writer.  And eventually, those books took their place of honor.  On the shelf.

As a historical writer, I can attest—being “on the shelf” is rarely a good thing.

I first listened to Stephen King’s On Writing one rainy winter years ago, while commuting to work.  When King relayed the searing pain of having his eardrums lanced, the swish-swishing of my windshield wipers added the perfect backdrop.  I took in every snippet of his history, every failure, every success, and every bit of advice he offered.

So much of his sage advice sounded right.  It inspired me. It drove me to write, eager to apply his lessons.  Then at night, I would sit in my chair, fingertips hovering over the keyboard…

And I would continue on, exactly the way I had before.

If we don’t apply what we’ve learned, our cherished craft books become nothing more than trophies we acquire—we read them, rub them for good luck and forget to dust them regularly.  Over the years, I’ve thought fondly of On Writing, but until I listened to it again early last year, I hadn’t realized how I had ignored his words of wisdom for too long.

 “I believe the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months…” –Stephen King

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it?  The first months of writing a story are euphoric. A rush! The story is coming to life. And because there is a deadline (even if it’s self-imposed), everything is immediate.  Fresh.

It wasn’t for me.  I rode on the write-edit-write-edit carousel, which meant a year later I was still plotting out my story while editing at the same time.  This might work for some, but it stalled my progress.  I was caught in an endless loop that meant I wrote at a snail’s pace.

In order to write that fast (yes, for Ms. Snail here, 3 months was bunny tail-raising speed), I had to learn to get the story, and only the story, down.  When I hit a patch that my internal snail frothed to focus on, I made a note and kept going.  It was freeing.

The drafts of my story became easier to write when I could assign their purpose.  First draft: get my crazy ideas on paper; second and third drafts: edit and refine.

“Write the first draft with the door closed, and the second with the door open.” 

I have to be honest and admit I heard that literally the first time.  My office doesn’t have a door.  In fact, my desk doesn’t have an office. It sits in our front room.  So I had issues with this.  But when that was followed up with “write the first draft for you, whatever you want it to be, however crazy, however far away what you deem will be considered acceptable,” I understood.

But I couldn’t give myself permission then.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that we want others to love what we write.  We make one tiny, harmless alteration after another, and eventually our work becomes something else entirely.

While I was writing Cloaked in Danger, I had to give myself permission daily to write what I wanted— a story equal parts historical romance and suspense, something not present much in the genre.  My hero and heroine are apart in the book for chapters on end.  The fear that it wasn’t what “they” wanted was a battle I fought every day.

When Stephen King says write the first draft for you, he’s saying to give yourself permission to make this draft anything you want.  You can always change it later, and for me, that was enough to make that permission acceptable.  I could change my mind later, even though I didn’t.  And the book sold.  Perhaps your brand of “crazy” might just be what sells your story. Cloaked in Danger

It was a five-year span between my first and second reads of On Writing—and had I read it again sooner, those lessons wouldn’t have taken me so long to implement. The skills we gather from books shouldn’t be allowed to stay on the shelf with the book.

 “Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up. ” ― Stephen KingOn Writing

Dust off those cherished books. Read them again and again.  Remind yourself that you have permission to write the story you want the first time.  You can always edit it later.

When did you first give yourself permission to write the story you want?

 

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Comments

  1. says

    This last year, I did that, really did that. I thought I was doing it, but all the writing advice I’d been given over the years was actually bogging me down. I’m a pantser — I don’t outline. Moreover, I can’t outline. I’m never going to be a writer who says “I gave up pantsing and outline now!”

    But all the writing advice assumes you’re outlining. I didn’t realize how poisonous that was to my writing and how much it was dragging it down. I kept thinking about beats and turning points and what was supposed to happen at the end — and it was wrecking my story. I threw all of it out and started redrafting the story from scratch, following where it was doing. I battled over the story for several years previously; this time I’ve gotten 13K over 22 days. I still get bogged down, so I’m working on that, but it was a most freeing thing to throw the writing advice to the wind and do what the story wanted.

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    • says

      I think this is a good point. I feel the same way. If you spend too much time worry about all the good advice out there, it can paralyze you. I felt the same way about parenting advice. So I guess the answer is to do what’s in your heart, while trying to remember a good tip or two you picked up along the way. Good luck! :)

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    • says

      Hi Linda,
      Congrats on your word count!! That’s fantastic and it sounds like you found the process that works for you. That’s really what it’s about.

      There is advice for writers that covers every gamut possible —plot, don’t plot, outline, don’t outline, edit while you write, don’t edit, stand on your head while you type… I think it all boils down to accepting and honoring what works best for you. We can’t apply all the advice we read, or we’d never get anywhere.

      I guess a part of the puzzle is how to pick through the advice and choose what will help each of us, and that’s as unique as our voice when we write.

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    • Bronwen Jones says

      Hi Linda. You’ve probably internalised a heap of learnings now too, which will help you write good story when pantsing. Good on you.

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  2. says

    I don’t think I ever needed to give myself permission to write the story I wanted, but I know I needed ‘permission’ to shut down my internal editor. That occurred three (or is it four now? Yikes) years ago when I did NaNoWriMo for the first time. A lot of people dump on NaNo, but the focus on finishing–rather, the focus on cranking out 50,000 words–made me stop being quite so critical and let me just write. It was quite liberating.

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    • says

      That internal editor is tough to shut down…

      One of the things that’s helped me is something I learned in Margie Lawson’s workshops — she tells people if they get stuck in a part that is stopping forward progress, to put NQR (not quite right) in the manuscript and keep going. It’s easy to do a search for later, so you can refine and finish the scenes. For some reason, that helps me tremendously. It was part of giving myself permission not to have a perfect scene, heck even a finished scene before moving on.

      Sounds like you found a perfect way to help you achieve your goal! I’ve heard great things about Nano!

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      • Anne says

        NQR, what a great idea! I’m definitely going to use that.

        For me I always seem to get stuck about 12000 words in. I start questioning myself, if it’s really a good story, if the plot is any good, if the characters are any good, etc. I guess that would be the inner editor? I don’t know. I just wish it would shut up and let me finish. -_- my goal this year is to finish what I write and not quit in the middle.

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  3. says

    I’m glad I read somewhere about not editing as you write. I had started to do just that with my memoir and it binds your imagination. I finally decided I wasn’t getting ahead very fast and that was frustrating, so I started to just write down whatever came into my head from my memories while following an outline I had written. That worked for me, and now I know better. I’m going to try and buy Steven King’s book ON WRITING sometime soon.

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    • says

      I’m a believer that whatever helps us get those words out on paper and out of our heads works. I imagine for a memoir, writing down as you remember will make more intimate connections with your memories and how they connect. On Writing is as much Stephen King’s memoir as it is writing advice — a really great read.

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  4. says

    I think many writers struggle with this: giving themselves the permission to write the book they want to write. My debut novel is a suspense thriller with mob characters (who doesn’t love a good mob story?). As you would imagine, those characters have a penchant for the f-word. They like it. And use it. A lot. That is who they are and who I wanted them to be. I remember thinking that readers — well, my friends and family, mostly — would be shocked to see so much profanity in my book. I think that could have stopped me from using profanity — which was very necessary to these characters — if I had not given myself permission long ago to write the book I wanted to write. If we worry too much about what others think or what we ‘should’ be writing, we will never write the book we want to write.

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    • says

      Hi Dina,

      That’s really true. At a workshop last summer, a woman who’d been a cop for a number of years was talking about writing authentic cops. And she said, point blank, cops swear. A lot. So if you’re writing a cop in your books, then he/she will swear. It’s a fact in their world. So yes, giving yourself the freedom to build your characters in the most authentic way possible is so important.

      And I love a good mob story!

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  5. says

    before my second wind at fiction writing i was a full-time law student, whose community of peers demanded written (and detailed) outlines. this sounded strange and almost utterly impossible to a “pantser” (such as myself, although this term was unknown to me then), so during those three painful years i lost most of my confidence as a writer. i was made to splay time-consuming, and for me, useless, outlines that i knew i would never use in my writing. i’ve been writing since i was a kid and generally loved doing it. i received “destructive” feedback before of course, but this was the pits!

    it was not until i turned to the literary writing community for guidance that i slowly began regaining my confidence as a writer. i learned all about “pantsers”, many of who are phenomenal authors, Stephen King to name one :) i started following his advice on spending much of your time reading and writing. this is something i did as a kid but took for granted the tremendous improvements it had on my vocabulary and writing skill. who knew? thankfully, this has helped me work my way out of that “dark place” or in the words of the illustrious kermit the frog, “it’s okay to be green”. And alleluia for that!

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    • says

      “Destructive” feedback — what a great phrase! It’s one I can easily relate back to advice or feedback that I heard or read long ago that gave me that knotted feeling in my stomach. It didn’t free anything for me, it tied up my imagination in a way that was surprising.

      I don’t know about you, but I tend to take in advice, good or bad, with a visceral reaction. Part of my process has been in learning those reactions and relating them to how I write and work.

      And I agree, King’s advice about writing and reading as much as you can is gold.

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  6. CathyShouse says

    I haven’t given myself permission yet. I see that now that you have pointed it out. The lesson about “You need a critique group,” has led me to show work far too soon and get sidetracked and mostly derailed. Thanks for this valuable lesson!

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    • says

      Hi Cathy!

      I owe so much to the critique groups I’ve belonged to over the years. And when I thought about my process and what was bogging me down, it was one of the things I truly had to consider. When was the best time to show the group my work? Right after I finished a scene the first time? I realized that didn’t work for me. My writing and editing brains read the work so differently, that diving into editing mode to fix individual sentences and add more conflict to one page derailed my efforts to get that story on the page.

      For me, it’s story first, then emotion and refinement. But for any one, I think it really depends on what helps you write consistently forward.

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  7. Carmel says

    I think I *just* did!

    I’ve mentioned on WU before that I only have only book in me, but now I’m not sure. There’s something else I’d like to do. Just for fun. And, after taking years and years getting my present story where it needs to be, it sounds like a delight to sit down and just let the first draft of that next story happen in three months.

    But what does SK say about outlining before you start?

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    • says

      Hi Carmel!

      I think “just for fun” is the best reason to write something!

      King writes his first draft, if I recall correctly, without an outline. (Someone can correct me if I’m wrong?) I think the process of outlining vs. not outlining is a very intimate decision every writer must make for themselves. What feeds your imagination? What makes your fingertips tingle to get those thoughts on paper?

      For me, the outlining process is one of my favorite parts. I love being able to write down and know where I’m headed, also knowing that it might change as I get further into the story and know my characters deeper. The plotting of a new book is something that excites me. So what excites you about writing a new book?

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  8. Barbara Lynne says

    Good advice – I, too am starting to te-read my favorite writing bibles. I did incorporate a little of the advice I read the first tie – but I think it’s had for anyone to absorb so much advice all at once. As I’m re-reading, I also find that because I am in a different place in my writin now, much of the advice makes more sense or resonates differently. So I agree with you – everyone should take a second or third pass at books on wrting.

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    • says

      Barbara, that is such a good point. We change a lot more than we realize as writers over the years, and reading a book of advice now might feel and hit us very different than it did a year or two ago.

      I recall reading a number of articles about writing synopses years back. One after another, I read, trying to understand how to best write one. Until one day, I reread an article I’d read probably six months ago and it finally clicked. I finally got it. The article hadn’t changed, but I had. So you never know when those words of wisdom will click for you.

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  9. says

    Every year on Christmas Day as I’m taking in family member after family member, scurrying around fixing food, and just generally feeling that strange mix of joy and exhaustion, I think of Steven King. In ON WRITING he talked about how he even writes on Christmas and for some reason that– of all things– is one of the main things I took away from the book. Real writers write on Christmas Day. Real writers don’t let anything– even a holiday– get in the way of getting words on the page. (This is what I heard in my head every Christmas.)

    Last year I finally had to put that in perspective. Steven King is not a mother of six who has to make Christmas happen with all the aplomb and attention of a Broadway producer. This was very liberating and I had to banish all my Steven King judgment and get on with the business of living my particular life. This year when I had that fleeting thought I wished Steven King well, holed up in his office getting words on the page while I baked and cooked and entertained the masses. I was free to do what works for me and my situation. It’s good to be free and not hold ourselves up to someone else’s standard. Even Steven King’s.

    Thanks for this post– I’m thinking perhaps I should go back and re-read the book… and take something new away this time. Something useful.

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    • says

      I think it’s great that you gave yourself permission to build your writing process within your own world. We all need to do that.

      And I think at times, we can take the words too literally. King writes on Christmas Day. It works for him. Another author wrote a post about how she gets up at 4am every morning to write, and we should all be so dedicated. Another one writes through the evening until 4 am. So many ways of getting to the same point — progress on our novels and finishing them. What I take away from all of them is that sometimes sacrifice is necessary, and we have to decide where that makes sense in our own lives. Christmas Day when you’re a mother of six with a holiday production to produce — writing that day would probably make you more frazzled than anything else. So finding where you can sacrifice is a personal choice.

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  10. says

    I read On Writing a few years ago and I absolutely loved it. I would really like to read it again soon.

    I’m a huge self-doubter when it comes to my writing. One thing I found super inspiring was when I read how Stephen King had given up on the idea of getting his first novel published and even tried to throw it out. Knowing that even great writers doubt themselves when starting out helped me to realize that it’s okay to doubt myself, but to keep going anyway.

    Still, I haven’t written a novel yet. I feel like it’s such a big goal of mine that I’m too scared to start. And like many other people, the more tips and advice I read on writing, the more freaked out I get.

    Perhaps I need to re-read On Writing, as well.

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    • says

      Hi Cole,

      We tend to heap a lot of expectations upon ourselves. When we’ve learned something new, we HAVE to apply it. Or when the advice conflicts, we get stuck in the middle. Follow your gut.

      Not to give more advice that might freeze you, but one of the phrases I’ve kept in my head that helps me came from Nora Roberts. I believe this is paraphrased but it’s: “I can’t fix a blank page.” For me, that means that I can take apart my big goal of a finished novel and break it down. One page at a time some days. Perhaps taking your goal and breaking it down into something more digestible will help you give yourself permission to start.

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  11. says

    Jeannie, Thanks for the words. Now I’m off to reread, King, Lamott, Pressfeld, and Cameron. Surely one of them will get me moving again. LOL!

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    • says

      One thrust of guidance on writing, when followed, yields permission to write. That gets us into the water. Another tack is on craft, which helps the swimming. On the later, consider the books of Robert McKee, Donald Maass, and David Corbett. Tons of inspiration there as well.

      From a fellow swimmer.

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    • says

      One of the things Stephen King says in his book is to read and read often. I find when I need inspiration, I turn to my favorite authors. Reading their work inspires me to write better.

      And there are craft books that focus on digging deep and bringing out the best in my writing I also turn to. Donald Maass’s The Breakout Novel and Fire In Fiction are tremendous resources, also. I reread them often.

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  12. says

    Every writer is his/her own person. Stephen King is a piece of work, I’ve met him and he’s a true original so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to take all his points of view to the bank. What’s important is to find out what works best for you and you do that by writing yourself into an understanding of who you are and what you bring to the page. I find outlines to be a flashlight in the dark, if it’s light out, you don’t need them but when you can’t see they help you put one foot in front of the other.

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    • says

      Hi Tony,

      We all need to establish a process of writing that works best for us, and a way of taking in the craft and process advice that helps our process, not impedes it. I imagine we’re all quite original, so out of the mix of advice available, we’ll cherry pick what works for us. But sometimes, it’s knowing how to do that, how to identify what works and what doesn’t work that can be the hardest part of the process.

      You are 100% correct — understanding who you are as a writer is the first step.

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  13. says

    On Writing is absolutely one of my favorite books about the craft of writing. I read it before I’d finished my first novel, but after reading a ton of other books about writing.

    When I first started writing, I told myself I wasn’t going to have to do as many revisions as other writers because I was going to stop and learn as much as I could on the front end, so I could avoid all those mistakes. It’s okay, you can openly laugh at me. I still get a kick out of it. That first novel went through about six rewrites.

    The only thing I accomplished by reading all those books about the craft of writing was completely freezing myself. I was afraid to put words on paper for fear of them not having enough voice, enough tension, enough action, and on and on. Stephen King’s book liberated me, and my first (or was my third?) draft of that first manuscript flew onto the page.

    Now that I’m finishing up the first draft of my second novel, I’ve been thinking about going back and reading it again. I have no doubt my perspective is deeper and I’m much more likely to absorb the finer points.

    GREAT post! Thanks!

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    • says

      Kendra, you and I had kindred experiences. :) My first book took me six years to write because I did exactly that, I read and read more and more craft books and when I learned something, I immediately went back to my book and started all over, applying the new. I don’t regret the learning, though the pace could use a lot of help. And I did learn a LOT with that book. It was like my textbook for writing.
      But I find I’m enjoying the process of writing a lot more now than I did then. :)

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  14. says

    I loved On Writing. When SK said he starts with characters and an inciting incident, it really spoke to me. I thought I was “doing things wrong” because that’s how I started instead of having the whole outline of a story in me before I sat down to type.

    I also follow his advice about putting the first draft in a drawer and no peeking for at least 6 weeks. It really does help to have that emotional distance before you start revising. I think rushing too quickly into revisions can be counterproductive. It’s amazing how much easier it is to get rid of parts that aren’t working when you have that space between you and your precious words. It’s as if someone else wrote it and you’re just editing to make it better.

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    • says

      I took to heart SK’s “drawer time” advice. Any writing I do–500 word blog or 25 page essay or whatever–always improves when I give myself time away from it, and then circle back for editing.

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  15. says

    Love this post! Stephen’s book is on my craft must-read list.

    Although I like to outline and put a lot of thought into my draft as I write, I’ve learned that writing a story for the first time is a lot like getting a lump of metal shaped into the sword you want to forge. Of course you won’t get it perfect the first time, but you have to get it hammered flat and hardened before you throw it in the fire for tempering (aka revision). If you try to make your story perfect the first time around, I think you lose scope of the tale as a whole and the perspective that makes every scene meaningful and high-impact.

    Writing is magic, all right, but I think that statement comes with a caveat: although it is a deep, subtle art, it can be learned and mastered, broken down into a mystic science by one who devotes every spare hour to it. There is but one rule: don’t mess with your master’s spells until she says you’re ready; then, and only then, take the world by storm.

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    • says

      Graeme, I love your phrase “Writing is magic.” And the point that magic is built upon science.

      I think we could also look at it like bartending. Every bartender has a recipe book of specific measurements to make drinks. And yet, every bartender worth their weight in gold takes those recipes and refines them, adds to them, spices them up, and makes them uniquely their own. We can approach writing the same way— refining our own cocktails until we have something that’s built upon the greatest recipes but is yet somehow 100% our own.

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  16. says

    I’ve never read Stephen King’s book, but I’ve heard so many writers recommend it. Would love to win a copy. I’ve written several MG novels as a pantser and yet voices have haunted me with the “correct” way to do this or that. I’m writing one now without the voices and it’s a joy. I’m thinking I won’t even run it through my critique group, because they listen to the same voices that have hindered me.

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    • says

      Hi Jeri,

      When it comes to a writer’s process, I don’t believe there is one “correct” way. I think there are as many options as there are writers. Part of our success comes in understanding our own path, taking our life, our strengths and weaknesses into consideration, and listening to our gut about what works. Listen to the voices, but listen for the one that strikes you and makes you take notice. That’s the one that will move you forward.

      It’s fantastic that you’ve found a way to move forward and feel the joy of writing!

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  17. says

    Am I the only one who doesn’t complete a first draft before going back and beginning the editing? Once I get about a hundred pages in, I find I need a refresher on what I’ve done, plus, I may have changed my approach or come up with new ideas on how the story is going to go. I run into the same issue about two-thirds of the way through, and I really find that editing at that point, before the work is even done, helps to keep me consistent and fix discrepancies in the storyline I might not catch otherwise. Also, sometimes I’m just not in the mood to generate new prose. Taking some time to work on editing instead gives me a welcome break; I can still be productive without putting myself under unnecessary pressure to complete that rough draft before I do anything else.

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    • says

      Lori, I’m like that too. If I keep forging ahead it feels like I lose the story and the characters become like strangers to me. I’m not sure if that means I haven’t taken the time to really get to know my characters before I started or if that’s just part of my “process”. Before I start my next project I’m taking the time to know my characters intimately. Not sure if that will change anything or not.

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      • says

        I spend a lot of time outlining and “talking” to my characters before I start the first draft, but they always, always become much more real and human as I write. And those deeper connections change things along the way. I love that, because they surprise me… and I figure if as I’m writing, something surprises me, then hopefully it surprises the readers, as well.

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    • says

      No Lori,

      You’re not alone. I often read through the previous day’s writing before heading on and work it when it obviously falls down, which feels like callisthenics for today’s writing. In that process I sometimes touch/know the character in a way I didn’t when driving ahead the previous day(s). Sometimes this changes (my sense of) how she will choose her way through the obstacles at hand, or shift the timing of elements, or make obvious that she needs to meet a different kind of character than an outline or my gut presumed. For me, this combing behavior–going deeper–allows a process of gathering energy and insight into the story which fuels my day. It’s part of my rumination and falling in love. As a caution to my editor-self, I resist thinking/believing anything is perfect. There will be other drafts. I presume this may yield comparable results to what others derive from flying through the first draft and editing in their second and third drafts, and my approach definitely takes longer. Racing ahead without looking back, though, I tend to lose my bearings.

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      • says

        Even as I’m racing ahead with the first draft, I still look back. I don’t read back unless it relates to a specific scene that I’m working on, so I can recall details, but I also find that often I’ll shift directions or make changes that will require editing in the previous chapters. So I make a note of it and then keep going.

        I love your phrase “It’s part of …falling in love.”

        THAT right there I think defines the process we all find. It’s what helps us fall in love with our stories, our characters — to feel enamored with what we’re writing. Great phrase.

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    • says

      Lori, I know you’re not the only one. And it sounds like you know exactly what works for you, what keeps the joy in your work and what allows you to make progress. I like what you said that you’ve found a way not to put unnecessary pressure on yourself.

      It’s a fine line for me. Finishing the first draft first has meant that I’ve had to shut down that editor at times when it reared up. It meant finding a way to put notes in the margins and get that thought on the page so I could keep forward with the plot and story bones. But in my case, it wasn’t pressure, it was freeing.

      Do you plot/outline ahead or write as you go?

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  18. says

    Thank you for this post. I read so many posts, almost on a daily basis, about how I have to outline and describe characters in detail and know exactly what happens at the end of the book and on and on, ad nauseam. It’s enough to make you afraid to write the first freaking sentence of the book. All of the “advice” ends up filling you with fear that OF COURSE you’re going to do it “wrong”. I haven’t read SK’s book but I will now.
    Thank you.

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    • says

      I love to read craft books, but I agree — it can all add to that fear of failing because we didn’t do it the way Author A or Author B did. Finding the advice that resonates, and throwing out the rest, feels like a craft all of its own sometimes.

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  19. says

    I love On Writing…it inspires me. It is as much memoir as writing guide. It is instruction on how to write like Stephen King. You’ll find a lot of advice you can use and some you can’t–you’ll have to decide which is which. Most importantly, it is a great read and it is honest and true.

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    • says

      I loved the memoir aspects of On Writing. And I have to say, listening to it in audio —Stephen King is the one reading it — was like sitting in a coffee shop, getting to know him. Really enjoyable.

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  20. says

    Editing as I go is the only way to find my way through a story. I need to go over a scene two, three, ten times before moving on. Often there’s a character or story layer I don’t uncover on my first or second pass, which ends up informing the route I take into the next scene or chapter. If I don’t dig deep enough during the first draft, I might take a less effective route. Too many of those and the story ends up feeling rushed, predictable, or lacking depth. I like to swim through deep waters, even in the first draft.

    That’s how it works for me, right now. And I’m okay with that. :) We each need to find what works for us, and every now and then try something new. But you’ve made me want to read On Writing again. It’s been a lot of years.

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    • says

      Lori, I hear you. This allows a writer to fall somewhere between pantser and outliner. I outline as best I can, then offer it to the muse.

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    • says

      Lori, I completely agree. It’s all about what works. I remember listening to an author talk about her process and how she wrote completely out of sequence. She would write a scene from the end, then one from the beginning, another from the middle, one more and then jump back to the end again. I can’t imagine that process! But it worked for her, and it helped her be successful.

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  21. says

    You’ve inspired me to go get out On Writing for a third read-through. He writes well about writing, though I’m not a fan of his books (note to self: try something that isn’t scary of his, if there is anything).

    I like his analogy of building a tool box, but mine contains such different tools from his.

    I’m an extreme plotter (I use Dramatica) and intensely slow, but I love seeing, as I go along, that my structure frees me – I have a blueprint, and the ideas come easily to decorate and layer because I know I’m solidly into the same story I want to write. Everything that comes into my mind as I write gets evaluated on whether it improves the final product – and my mind seems to throw up all kinds of neat things because it already has the structure.

    I admire pantsers – for years I was derailed because I love Lawrence Block’s books on writing – but that’s not me.

    A lot of advice is offered, much of it with ‘this is the only way’ attached to it, much of it contradictory – once I realized that I had to pick and choose my own palette, I’ve been much happier.

    Alicia

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    • says

      Alicia, it’s so true that advice always seems to come with the “the only path to success” caveat. I also wonder how much of that caveat we’re creating ourselves, because for whatever reason it’s in our nature to self-doubt.

      I love how you describe your blueprint and the ideas coming in to decorate and layer. Beautifully described. :)

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      • says

        I still read writer advice columns, and try new things out, but I’ve noticed that I’m always looking for the angle to fit it into – and possibly fill a hole in – the process I’ve worked out for myself.

        I envy the people who can just ‘throw out the entire 80,000 word draft’ and start again. My mind is more plotting and plodding – it wants to work some set-but-forgotten thread from the underside of the tapestry back into the design.

        When I do write free, it tends to be a complete short story – and comes out in one piece. Weird. And fun.

        And I love the interplay of that self-doubt – with the huge ego it takes to write stories with intent to sell. It’s like a dance – one step forward, two steps back, left, right, repeat, quarter turn.

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  22. says

    Hey, what a great post! “Give yourself permission,” yes, I like that strategy a lot. I think all writers have doubts as we zip and stumble along the manuscript pages. Sometimes those doubts make me work harder to prove the doubt has no real foundation. The flow of how a story comes forward is certainly mysterious to me, especially in mystery and horror genres. I’ve not read King’s On Writing yet as I try to budget my book buying and his book is one that likely belongs on my shelf; but I’ve got it on my to-read list for 2014.

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    • says

      Hi Paula,

      On Writing is one of my favorites. Well worth a read or a listen. And giving myself permission is at times a daily endeavor. But it’s worth it.

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  23. says

    I came across the book recently myself, read it last summer and it was fascinating. We think along the same lines about a lot of things, particularly how we got our ideas from random occurrences and objects around us. I’m not one for horror, but the way he talked about his ideas that led to “Carrie” and “Misery,” I wouldn’t mind giving them a read.
    I know for a fact that the next time I read it through, I’m taking notes with paper and pencil… but I’ll probably skip the first section next time. The talk about needles in ear drums made me sick to my stomach and I almost passed out.
    And you’d wonder why horror isn’t my genre? :-P

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    • says

      Horror isn’t my genre either. But I agree, I loved hearing how his world built into his stories.

      I saw the movie Saving Mr. Banks last night, about the author of Mary Poppins. It was an incredible movie, but also showed so much how Mary Poppins was created from the author’s history, her world and how her characters were built. It’s fascinating to see how much of ourselves we put in our stories.

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  24. says

    I’m a HUGE fan of On Writing, and I recommend it even to people who are not fans of King’s fiction. And the audio version is amazing – he narrates it himself, and his passion and enthusiasm are just contagious. (I also own it in hardcover and paperback – can you tell I’m obsessed with this book?)

    I’ve used many of the techniques he preaches: in particular, writing the first draft for myself, putting it away for a while before reading/revising, and using beta readers for all my stuff. There’s a ton of wisdom in King’s book!

    I re-listen to my audio copy every year or so, or whenever I need to recharge my batteries. Thanks for reminding me: I think it’s time to fire it up again!

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    • says

      Audio, hardcover and paperback! So all that’s left for you is the Kindle version. ;)

      The best books, fiction and non, do recharge our batteries. Whenever I need a boost, I’ll pick something I know has inspired me and reread it. I love how that boost happens each time, and most often I find new things to connect with as well.

      And yes, the audio version is amazing!

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  25. says

    I’ve read Stephen King’s book On Writing and my daughter read it as a summer book for high school. I was fascinated, her not so much. The idea of permission to write comes from within and out. I’ve heard if you’re not a bestselling author, you’re wasting your time. Only from non-writers. If I write for my own enjoyment, so be it. I read for the same reason.

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    • says

      Hi Mary Jo! Nice to see you here. :)

      If only best-selling authors wrote and everyone else gave up, we’d run out of authors to read. Every best-selling author started their first novel at some point. That’s advice that makes no sense to me.lol It’s sort of like saying if you’re not already a neurosurgeon, don’t bother with medical school.

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  26. says

    I loved this post so much that when I first read it two-ish weeks ago, I purchased the audio version of On Writing on the spot and listened to it during a road trip I took that very day. (And I own the book. I just wanted to re-experience it, right then.)

    Thank you again for this fabulous post, Jeannie. It’s one of my favorites.

    p.s. No need to include me in the contest, as I am now twice Kinged.

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  27. says

    I loved this post. That’s exactly what I did. I’ve recently finished my first draft on my book, finally, and have started the revision process. All of this took about a year, no bunny here, barely even a tortoise, :) I need to take this to heart for the second book and just write the darn thing!

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    • says

      Congrats on finishing the draft! It’s such a great feeling isn’t it? I’m assuming it’s like working out…once you get your brain and body into the habit, the rush from completing it will keep us moving forward. :)

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  28. says

    It’s been at least five years since I read On Writing. Think I’m past due to read it again. The 3-month for the first draft rule really hits home–I’ve been working for six months just to craft a synopsis and sample chapters. Great post!

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    • says

      Hi Jeanne!

      The 3 month draft hits for me, as well. And it goes along with someone else I heard from author Cherry Adair — her suggestion is 9 months total for a complete book. All drafts. That hits home for me as well.

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  29. says

    Excellent post – I have been nursing the first draft of my WIP for years – going back and editing/rewriting/editing in a viscous circle and never getting the words down. Like you I also read On Writing, and was inspired – but it’s been a few years since I read it.

    I’ll definitely re-read it now. Thanks for this post – thought provoking!

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    • says

      Emily, that was exactly where I was, too. “Nursing” my book… so, so true! It just stopped my progress and I think we can lose that sense of accomplishment and joy when we don’t allow ourselves to move forward, in whatever way works for us.

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  30. says

    My favorite book (now getting a bit ratty) is The Right to Write (Julia Cameron). the other one I like a lot is The Courage to Write (Ralph Keyes). Silly me needs permission to get over that “no one is interested in what I have to say” mentality. Great post, and I’m glad you are no longer editing while composing. :)

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  31. says

    I’ve found that I don’t need permission to write. I sat down and wrote my first novel in 5 months, and have been editing and re-writing since. Unfortunately for several years. It’s time to start a new novel. I don’t think the first one is perfect yet, but it’s getting closer.
    What I think I need to give myself is permission to start another one. I’ve had lots of ideas, and thankfully I’ve written a few of them down and even partially plotted several.
    Thanks for the post. I’ll read On Writing and see what kind of inspiration I can get too.

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  32. says

    I’ve been told I should read this book several times and haven’t. Shame on me, especially after reading this post lol But I’ve been such a huge fan of Donald Mass’s books for so long, that it’s been hard to switch teachers in my mind, but I should because I’m a huge fan of Stephen King too.

    I like the quote about finishing a draft in three months. It’s a good rule of thumb to live by because I’ve seen many writers sit on their manuscripts for too long, and they just end up creating many books within one book.

    Thank you for this post, and I promise to pick up On Writing now :)

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    • says

      Hi Naomi,

      I’m also a very big fan of Donald Maass’s teachings. I share stories about his workshops often. I’ve learned so much from his books as well as his presentations.

      I get different things from each book, though. And I like having them all at hand so when I need a refresher, I can pick it up and dig back in. So yes, I highly recommend both of them!

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  33. Susan says

    Having just recently permitted myself to start taking writing seriously (while in the midst of studying for an entirely different career!), this was a surprising post in that My breathing slowed even as I raced ahead to read the whole post. Permission is so valuable. Thank you.

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  34. says

    It is only now, with my current attempt at a novel that I am really giving myself permission to write this for me and not for anyone else – not my husband, not my family, not the faceless readers out there waiting for it someday. And you know what? This makes me the most hopeful about a work I’ve started than I ever have been! I feel like I have direction for my story because I’m not constantly changing it to suit other people!

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  35. says

    This blog was so timely and perfect for me. I am nearly finished with my next book, tentatively entitled, “Entangled”.

    I wrote it from my heart, giving details and descriptions of people, places, and things. I introduced the two main characters and the antagonist within the first chapter – all five pages of them.

    I submitted the first chapter to an editor. She came back with so many changes that I basically had to rewrite the first chapter to make it tighter and introduce the “hook” on the first page.

    Ugh! I made the changes, but I lost my vision and didn’t know where to go from there. Or so I thought. I put the book aside for several months during November/December.

    Then it occurred to me: the first chapter I wrote to myself. It provided me with character flaws, descriptions, character goals and agendas, and back story that the reader didn’t need to know.

    I don’t mind change. Change is good. One can even change their change. It took me two months to figure out why I needed to make those changes. I’m glad I did.

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  36. John P says

    Haven’t read On Writing yet. Have heard and read multiple comments about it, and would like to either pick it up or listen to it as well soon.
    Found some writing I had done 20 years ago (fan fiction counts, right?) that was done for a online forum that was done by pure pantsing. I can’t say it was that good, my formatting and understanding of writing has improved a little since then.
    But I finished NaNo last nov with about a 50/50 split of formatting/seat of my pants writing. Afterwards, I ended up making some beats and other plans for other books. I can’t comment against either format, it’s just whatever works for you at the time.

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  37. says

    I was so excited to see the title of this post sitting in my inbox! I consider On Writing to be one of my go-to books for craft. I reread it when I feel I’ve gotten off-track with my writing for a while and, like Jeannie, I too failed to implement much of the advice early on. It’s easy to just write and write and let the pen carry us away – but I’ve learned it takes discipline and mindfulness to truly write well. I write what I want and when I feel inspired, but I also try to take a step back at the end and read through the eyes of someone like King to make sure I’m following through to improve my craft.

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  38. says

    I am a pantser. My fellow writing buddies and I use that term also. I let it flow when is tells me it’s time to let it out. After writing stories for years, I realized that for a first book it needed to be something I felt in my heart. Something that made me feel profound joy or sadness. I chose sad because it spoke to me and thought maybe that might help me to help someone else. Now I have a lot of manuscripts in the works, but none coming to a close yet. Hopefully soon. King gave me the desire touching and passionate literature. He’s awesome!

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  39. says

    I read On Writing and think I probably need to re-read it because I don’t re member that quote at all:)

    It’s great to be reminded of it. I blog and write articles for publications a lot. This means I’m writing, editing, and publishing in a week. When you have that mindset it’s very difficult to let yourself go crazy and just get the story out no matter how many times your character runs their fingers through their hair, says things cautiously, or has their heart pound in their cliched chest.

    Turning off the inner editor is a bear.

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  40. says

    I don’t know that I have given myself full permission yet. On Writing is a fantastic book and it was quite inspiring, but as I read your article I realized you are absolutely right! I read it, thought it was great and have probably ignored most of it. Time to go back to it, reread, and as you say apply it!

    Thanks for the refreshing reminder!

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  41. says

    The “permission slip” is only something I’ve just recently become comfortable with. Due to a perfectionist personality and the perpetual fear of failure no project was ever good enough to complete. I think that’s the jumping point of truly becoming a writer – when you’ve accepted that “failure” just comes with the territory. Not everyone is going to like your writing style, plot devices, or character development. There’s always going to be some flaw or inconsistency someone will pick at. But I have found that if I’m writing something I would enjoy reading, others follow suit. I suppose my break through happened when I realized that I didn’t write to be “good.” I write because it’s the best way to be myself, and that makes me happy.

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  42. says

    I always advise writers to find their process. People who know they are plotters are set free as soon as the realize it. And pantsers are the same.

    Too often the discussions around the writing process end up being about which way is best. I say there is no best way, only the way that works for you.

    I also need to be able to write my first draft fast and for me. It’s discovery writing even though I have an outline. When it’s on the page, I can edit it into shape. And I enjoy editing. I think of the first draft as my prep – getting my mis en place done – then then revision and editing is about assembling the ingredients so the form a perfect product.

    Thanks for the post.

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  43. says

    Great article, Jeannie. I love the quote about the permission slip – I’d forgotten that one, but it’s completely right. Most of learning to write is learning the craft – and ALSO learning to give yourself permission to do whatever comes.

    For that reason I also love this one:

    “Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
    ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

    Charles

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