Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Opening the Door: Stephen King On Writing and Feedback

Wednesday is book review day at Triumphal Writing, and I was slated to review Stephen King's seminal On Writing, but I can't.  First off I haven't finished it yet, and secondly I can't review it once and then put it away.  There's too much in it to talk about, and I couldn't really "review" it anyway.  Am I to assign a mark and a stamp of approval for such a book, Haley's writing Bible?

No, I won't review it, but I will draw on some wisdom from it as we continue to address the issue of feedback and constructive criticism this week.  Yesterday Haley listed five suggestions on giving and receiving feedback, something writers are (or should be) always engaged in.  Do you want to hear what Stephen King says on the matter?  Well, ok, I'll tell you.   Then, afterwards, you should go to the library or bookstore or amazon or however you acquire books, and read the whole thing for yourself.  Or come back here where we'll surely talk about it again. 

Write With the Door Shut

When it comes to revising and feedback the take away point from On Writing is "Write with the door closed, revise with it open" and I've already talked about why that's important on Monday.  But King goes into it a bit more specifically.  "The great thing about writing with the door shut," King says, "is that you find yourself forced to concentrate on story to the exclusion of practically everything else."  The novel, the story, the poem, the essay, whatever it is you're writing is the only thing that concerns you when you shut that door.  King suggests that you avoid letting people read your work while you're still right in the middle of it.  "If no one says to you "Oh Sam (or Amy)! This is wonderful," you are a lot less apt to go slack off or to start concentrating on the wrong thing...being wonderful for instance, instead of telling the goddam story." This has been true for me, as I've had people read unfinished drafts, received praise, and grew complacent.  It may help your ego, but it doesn't help your writing. 

Revise With the Door Open

After the work is written, take a nice long break and return to it with fresh eyes, then review it over once before you send it out into the world.  While On Writing focuses on novels, this is true for all writing, and as Haley pointed out yesterday, the deadline is not the day you stop writing, but the day you finish the whole process. According to King, the first people who should see your manuscript are people you trust and respect and don't mind receiving direct and honest feedback.  King suggests having these first readers be those you know, instead of the usual suggested "unbiased" readers other writing guides suggest, because it's better to hear if your book sucks from a friend before it's too late. 

Please Please Your Reader? 

How much criticism and feedback should you take into consideration?  How much should you revise for the sake of those few people you've allowed to read your work, especially "when you give out six or eight copies of a book, you get back six or eight highly subjective opinions about what's good and what's bad in it"? Can you maintain your vision of the work while still listening to criticism?  King says, "Plenty writers resist the idea.  They feel that revising a story according to the likes and dislikes of an audience is somehow akin to prostitution. " He suggests that if you are writing purely for yourself, then don't open the door.  Don't let the manuscript leave its safe little room. Lock it away.  If, on the other hand, you do want your work to be seen and read by the outside world, it really is best to take feedback seriously, especially when those giving the feedback are people you already trust.  

In short, read On Writing, write with the door closed, but allow your ill-formed brainchild some sunlight and fresh air, and really embrace the feedback process.

Images thanks to Aunt Owwee and Neosnaps on

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