“On Writing” by Stephen King: the holy book of any aspiring author

There is definitely a huge market out there profiting from aspiring authors: creative writing seminars, how-to-write-a-novel books, editing services, marketing tools, pitch writing services, self-publishing consultancies, review writing agencies, book fairs, writing conferences etc.

I have been attending the London Book Fair for the past three years, but other than that, I have not invested any money in anything else. I’ve been lucky enough to be traditionally published in Greece and disciplined enough to have self-published in English.

What made the difference for me in the last fifteen years was reading Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”; and it only cost me $9 as I bought it for my Kindle app.

Stephen King makes writing look easy, but kindly warns you that it is not. It requires discipline, discipline and discipline. His book is about 300 pages long, but every advice in there comes from a genius that has sold more than 350.000.000 copies, so it feels like an encyclopedia.

I do strongly recommend that you buy it and to persuade you, I quote some excerpts below:

Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

I have spent a good many years since – too many, I think – being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.

Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right – as right as you can, anyway – it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.

Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.

But none of them taught me the things I learned from Carrie White. The most important is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional strangulation and despair. These concepts are very familiar to most alcoholics; the common reaction to them is amusement. Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers – common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words.

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word – of course you will, there’s always another word – but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.

You should avoid the passive tense

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.

Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.

Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.

In fiction, the paragraph is less structured – it’s the beat instead of the actual melody. The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want. When composing it’s best not to think too much about where paragraphs begin and end; the trick is to let nature take its course. If you don’t like it later on, fix it then. That’s what rewrite is all about.

The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.
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I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing – the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words. If the moment of quickening is to come, it comes at the level of the paragraph. It is a marvellous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run on for pages.

While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

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.

Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

Once weaned from the ephemeral craving for TV, most people will find they enjoy the time they spend reading.
Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy.

Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.

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.

My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).

The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question:

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.

When a simile or metaphor doesn’t work, the results are sometimes funny and sometimes embarrassing. Recently I read this sentence in a forthcoming novel I prefer not to name: ‘He sat stolidly beside the corpse, waiting for the medical examiner as patiently as a man waiting for a turkey sandwich.’ If there is a clarifying connection here, I wasn’t able to make it. I consequently closed the book without reading further. If a writer knows what he or she is doing, I’ll go along for the ride. If he or she doesn’t . . . well, I’m in my fifties now, and there are a lot of books out there. I don’t have time to waste with the poorly written ones.

The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.

Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story.

One of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us,

When dialogue is right, we know. When it’s wrong we also know – it jags on the ear like a badly tuned musical instrument.

Writing good dialogue is art as well as craft.

Everything I’ve said about dialogue applies to building characters in fiction. The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.

I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you. When you ask yourself what a certain character will do given a certain set of circumstances, you’re making the decision based on what you yourself would (or, in the case of a bad guy, wouldn’t) do.

You can’t please all the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. I think William Shakespeare said that.

Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.

How long you let your book rest – sort of like bread dough between kneadings – is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.

During that reading, the top part of my mind is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns: knocking out pronouns with unclear antecedents (I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer), adding clarifying phrases where they seem necessary, and of course, deleting all the adverbs I can bear to part with (never all of them; never enough). Underneath, however, I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme? I’m asking myself What’s it all about, Stevie, in other words, and what I can do to make those underlying concerns even clearer. What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf. I’m looking for ways to do that without spoon-feeding the reader or selling my birthright for a plot of message. Take all those messages and those morals and stick em where the sun don’t shine, all right? I want resonance. 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. I’ll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions.

Someone – I can’t remember who, for the life of me – once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this. I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’

Plenty of writers resist this idea. They feel that revising a story according to the likes and dislikes of an audience is somehow akin to prostitution. If you really feel that way, I won’t try to change your mind.

I’d hate to see novels revised on the basis of test audiences – a lot of good books would never see the light of day if it was done that way – but come on, we’re talking about half a dozen people you know and respect. If you ask the right ones (and if they agree to read your book), they can tell you a lot. Do all opinions weigh the same? Not for me. In the end I listen most closely to Tabby, because she’s the one I write for, the one I want to wow. If you’re writing primarily for one person besides yourself, I’d advise you to pay very close attention to that person’s opinion (I know one fellow who says he writes mostly for someone who’s been dead fifteen years, but the majority of us aren’t in that position). And if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes. You can’t let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter the most. And you should.

The truth is that most writers are needy. Especially between the first draft and the second, when the study door swings open and the light of the world shines in.

Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced. I guess the underlying thought is that people have so many things to do today, and are so easily distracted from the printed word, that you’ll lose them unless you become a kind of short-order cook, serving up sizzling burgers, fries, and eggs over easy just as fast as you can. Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit . . . which is why, when books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain suddenly break out of the pack and climb the best-seller lists, publishers and editors are astonished. I suspect that most of them ascribe these books’ unexpected success to unpredictable and deplorable lapses into good taste on the part of the reading public.

You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi, post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills, or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself. These lessons almost always occur with the study door closed. Writing-class discussions can often be intellectually stimulating and great fun, but they also often stray far afield from the actual nuts-and-bolts business of writing.

There have been times when for me the act of writing has been a little act of faith, a spit in the eye of despair. The second half of this book was written in that spirit. I gutted it out, as we used to say when we were kids. Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.

The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. 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.

And now do yourself a favour and buy it.

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