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

Photo by T.M. Camp

Today’s post is from Jeannie Ruesch [2], the author of CLOAKED IN DANGER (Carina Press). Her December pitch in our Facebook [3] 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 [4], Facebook [5], or Twitter [6].

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.

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

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.

[pullquote]”Write the first draft with the door closed, and the second with the door open.” [/pullquote]

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 [7]

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 King [8]On Writing [9]

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?