Ten Things I Learned About Writing, From Stephen King

On writing by Stephen Kind: Review

Posted by on June 14, 2017

I’ve been (re) reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft this week, and I’d love to share some of the things that jumped out at me. Here are the top ten snippets of advice I took away from this particular reading.

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 round these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

If you’re a would-be writer but you don’t read much, ask yourself if you’re really in love with the written word, or if you just like the idea of being a writer. I’d say it’s a little like getting married because you like the idea of being married, rather than because you’re in love with your partner. You’ll never be able to sustain it.

I’d also ask yourself if you’re reading the right things. Are you reading great work in the same genre you want to write in? In an essay in The Atlantic The Case Against Writing Manuals: How To Write in 700 Easy Lessons, Richard Baush laments the fact that so many aspiring writers don’t read literature, they just read ‘How To Write’ books. Don’t get me wrong. I’m addicted to books about writing, but I agree it’s not much use reading a book entitled, How to Write a Great Work of Literature unless you also read hundreds (or thousands) of great works of literature.

“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”.

Good books show you what to do. Bad books show you what not to do. The latter is probably more important than the former. Whenever you read a passage in a book that makes you cringe or yawn, analyze it. Is it full of clichés? Clumsily written? Not moving the story forwards? Whatever the writer did wrong, learn from it. As an aside, really bad books make you think, ‘I can write better than this.’ They inspire you to throw the book down and get back to your own writing  – perhaps the most valuable lesson of all.

“This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.” 

Working writers, especially commercially successful ones like King, know that being a writer means sitting down and writing. You don’t wait for inspiration before you drive your truck, or lay your pipe (or teach your Kindergarten class or perform brain surgery). You just do it. King does allow for the fact that there may be such a thing as inspiration, or a writing ‘muse’, but as he puts it:

“Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon or seven ‘til three.”

“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.”

These really are the 3 elements of good story telling and we all have our strengths and weaknesses. I love writing dialogue and struggle with description. It’s OK if your work is heavier on one than the other, but they all have to be there.

Notice there’s no mention of plot here. King does not really believe in plotting and that’s maybe the most important thing he’s taught me. I used to plot in advance, and plot a story to death. Now I take his advice and dive straight into narrating the story. King clarifies his position with this telling quote:

“I won’t try and tell you I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible.”

“The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate.”

I remember trying to write a novel years ago and the “How to Write” book I was reading at the time insisted I should know every detail about all my characters first. I wrote a page on each one, and never got more than a third of the way through the novel. I just couldn’t make these characters fit into my plot (yes, I had plotted the story to death as well!)

Recently I started a new story with just a situation and characters that were so unformed I didn’t even have names for them (I just assigned them random
letters). I was pleased with how the action started unfolding and I honestly think I have the beginnings of a novel. I’ll let you know how it pans
out.

“A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.”

Now most fiction writers will be familiar with the concept of the What-if question. It’s often what we start a story with and what we use when we run out of ideas and just don’t know what to do next. But I love the idea that we can take a situation and just ask a what-if question and then simply begin to write. No further plotting necessary. I’m trying it out with my latest stories. Join me, and let me know how it works for you.

“Description begins in the writers’ imagination, but should end in the readers.”

I like this idea because I don’t like writing description. I think it’s best kept to a minimum. A few well-chosen words can often paint a stronger picture than a long descriptive piece anyway. We all have our own mental short-cuts and images. Your ’short-cut’ image of a teenage nerd, self-absorbed obsessive, or high school drop-out may be different from mine. But it doesn’t matter. As King says, description ends in the reader’s imagination.

“What people say often conveys their characters to others in ways that they – the speakers – are completely unaware.”

I love this concept because I love writing dialogue. I find it the ultimate ‘show, don’t tell’ tool, and you don’t have to overdo it. A few words can show someone as a racist bigot, insecure control freak or bored housewife. A few words can convey their character, reveal their motivation and set them up for a fall.

“I was astonished at how useful “thematic thinking” turned out to be. It wasn’t just some vaporous idea that English professors made you write about on midterm essay papers.”

King talks about ‘finding’ themes in your work rather than creating or inserting them, and I think I know what he means. You are a human being with your own passions, concerns and values. When you re-read (and re-write) your first draft, you’ll start to see one or more ”themes”, or recurring ideas, in your work. Themes can often be summed up in one word –Redemption. Atonement. Persuasion. (Yes. You can make the theme the title of the book – but you certainly don’t have to). The re-write is the time to strengthen and clarify themes.

“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.”

Easy for him to say, you might think. King is rich, and famous, but what he’s saying is that’s not his motivation, and I believe him. Nobody pays a would-be writer upfront. You have to work first and (sometimes) get paid later. The belief that your work will someday enrich your readers’ lives, and the daily knowledge that it’s enriching yours, is what keeps you going ‘til the fame and riches show up. And sometimes what keeps you going when fame and riches just aren’t enough.

The last part of On Writing is about how King survived an almost-fatal accident, and about how he recovered. In between surgeries, physical therapy and learning to walk again, he also started to write again. As King says:

“Writing did not save my life. {My surgeon’s] skill and my wife’s loving care did that – but it has continued to do what it always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place.”

You can order a copy of On Writing here. Or click the image below.

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