"Stephen King has published 57 novels, all of them bestsellers. He has sold more than 350 million copies of his works. According to Forbes, he earns approximately $40 million per year, making him one of the richest writers in the world.
"In 2002, King temporarily abandoned writing horror novels, instead publishing On Writing, a little book chronicling his rise to fame and discussing exactly what he believes it takes to become a good writer. Since then, it’s become the most popular book about writing ever written, pulling in over 1,000 reviews on Amazon and selling God only knows how many copies."
I was one of those God-only-knows folks who did buy and read On Writing, some time shortly after 2002. It is good.
But the best advice for writers I've ever read comes from Ann Patchett, the novelist, essayist, former Seventeen magazine writer, and famous independent bookstore owner. It's a longish essay called "The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life," and it appears in her collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (in the title essay, the author chronicles her avoidant/dismissive adult attachment style and the relative unhappiness of her marriage—she refused to even live with her husband for many years, and seems surprised that he became happier once she relented and moved in with him—but never mind).
Why this post: every now and then I get an email from a high-school or college student asking if they can please write something for TOP. Evidently this is part of a course they're taking, which (I'm deducing) recommends that one of the ways to market oneself as a writer is to construct a chipper "cold call" email to an established website and request to contribute. Since some of these young persons write to TOP, I suspect that maybe the coursework recommends that they shouldn't be too ambitious and that it might work better to pick a smaller, less well known, somewhat out-of-the-way site.
All of these form(ish) letters include the assertion "I can write about anything you want!" or some eager variant thereupon. Note to earnest would-be writers: no; no, you can't. You can write about your opinions; you might be able to flex your fledgling reportorial skills to some incomplete degree of competence (deliberately ignoring that many seasoned and excellent reporters are lately out of work); you might know a few things and can probably write about those things, after a fashion. But not only can you not write about all things or anything, you are fortunate enough if you can write about one thing. And some of us older wannabees will have our doubts on that score too, I have to say.
Ann Patchett's basic prescription: She notes (obviously but at the same time astutely) that writers write, and suggests that if you're one of the numerous people who fantasizes about being a writer, the first, most basic test of that aspiration would be to see if you can sit down and write for an hour a day for thirty consecutive days. If you can't do that, she says, you'll never make it.
The rest of the essay has a similar hard-boiled, practical, no-nonsense tone. I've found it useful.
She has a new novel just out, if you're a novel-reader.
"Open Mike" is the off-topic editorial page that I try to write every Wednesday. Since I haven't been doing too good with that intention lately, I thought I could make up for it by writing several of 'em today. Does that count?
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
J. Robert Lennon: "Ann was my writing teacher. She gave me the single most useful criticism (or, more to the point, put-down) I've ever received: 'If this is the kind of thing you want to do, then this is about as good as it's going to get.' Needless to say, I stopped doing that kind of thing, and moved on to projects that were beyond my capability—the kind that make me a better writer every time I try them."
[J. Robert Lennon is an accomplished published novelist and short story author. —Ed.]
Gaspar Heurtley: "I'm a journalist. I've worked in newspapers and online news sites for a long time, and now I'm an editor (mostly educational books). I studied hard when I was young(er) and I'm working my way up the ladder. My essential tool, required to do my job, is the spoken language. Same way a blacksmith would use a hammer or a surgeon would use a scalpel. The thing is, everyone can speak and write a few words. So everyone thinks they can do my job. It's just words, isn't it. The same way a photographer just presses a button and that's it! One of my best friends is an architect, but I would never ask him to skip work and let me build a bridge for him."
Geoff Wittig: "Stephen King's book is delightful, both as a fine example of clear expository prose and for the sound advice it contains about the importance of simple diligence and a work ethic to the creation of any art, however humble. I'm equally fond of William Zinsser's classic On Writing Well. Zinsser similarly emphasized simplicity and clarity of prose, citing Strunk and White, but he also pointed out the importance of finding and cultivating one's own unique voice, rather than emulating someone else's. English is a wonderfully supple and potent language. It can be immensely satisfying to craft a sentence or paragraph that conveys precisely what you intend, in an entertaining or even beautiful manner. Much like crafting a beautiful print."
William Schneider: "Re 'The first, most basic test of that aspiration would be to see if you can sit down and write for an hour a day for thirty consecutive days.' That advice, modified a bit, would work for anyone who aspires to be a professional photographer too."