On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stephen King.  The man needs no introduction.  Incredibly prolific and one of the most successful authors in the world.

That said, I must admit that I’ve only read a fraction of what he has written. Yet I can clearly remember each that I did, which is a testament to his mastery.  And “On Writing” is by far my favorite.

I heard something recently where the discussion revolved around how King is able to write for hours each day, every day of the year; and the complaint of how he has the freedom to do so while the rest of us don’t.  To which the other person replied;

“Do you think he is able to write like that because he is Stephen King?  Or is he is Stephen King BECAUSE he writes like that?”

For anyone who has ever attempted to put words to the page, On Writing is a must read.

Some of my favorite points, loosely organized by theme:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

Creativity, Motivation, and the Muse

  • Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
  • We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.
  • I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild—timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline—a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample—that fear may be intense.
  • The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
  • By the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.
  • For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.

But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become.

Productivity

  • If you’re just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television’s electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.
  • TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.
  • The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already.
  • I believe the first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.
  • I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book—something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.
  • The hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.

Rules of the Road

  • Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is “Omit needless words.” 1
  • Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.
  • I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
  • How to form possessives: you always add ’s, even when the word you’re modifying ends in s—always write Thomas’s bike and never Thomas’ bike.
  • One of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us.

Vocabulary

  • The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary. In this case, you can happily pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and inferiority. As the whore said to the bashful sailor, “It ain’t how much you’ve got, honey, it’s how you use it.”
  • Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.
  • Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.
  • The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.  To write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

On Writing

  • When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.
  • Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
  • In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

  • If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
  • The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next.
  • A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.
  • Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot.
  • The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction

 

Rewriting

  • Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails.
  • For me the answer has always been two drafts and a polish (with the advent of word-processing technology, my polishes have become closer to a third draft).
  • Then read your manuscript over. Do it all in one sitting, if that’s possible
  • Make all the notes you want, but concentrate on the mundane housekeeping jobs, like fixing misspellings and picking up inconsistencies.
  • Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I’ll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning.
  • Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.

There is so much more to this book than what I’ve noted here.  It is the one book on writing that I re-read yearly, and the only one that gets me fired up in just the right way.

I should note though that King is Pantser; that is, he writes with no outline (by the seat of his pants).  He advocates “writing as fast as the gingerbread man runs” so you can get the first draft completed while the shape of it is still clear in your mind.

I’ve always tended to be more of a Plotter; that is, plotting out the full outline before hand.  The chief difference is that the Plotter knows the stories ending before writing a word, while the Pantser lets it happen organically as the story develops to its natural conclusion.

If you haven’t read this one, drop everything and get a copy.  Even if you don’t have writing aspirations.  It is full of stories and so well written that it is a highly entertaining read as well.

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