Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft gives you insight into his own development as a writer and also the method he has developed for himself, which has helped him write at least a 108 novels, of which many have become bestsellers.
Many of his books have been made into movies some of which are Shawshank Redemption, The Green mile, IT, The Shining and many others, which goes to show, the kind of commercial success his writing has actually achieved.
For the book Stephen King says,“This is not an autobiography. It is rather a curriculum vitae – my attempt to show how one writer was formed.”
If you’re an aspiring writer, an avid reader or just a fan of King’s work, you must read this book to learn more about his approach to his craft. Here’s what Stephen has to teach us about writing.
1. Take it seriously
“…you must not come lightly to the page…”
Well, if you’re trying to write a best-selling novel it’s highly advisable to take it seriously.
Writing is not an easy job, and especially good writing requires a lot of practice and effort.
If you truly want to be a writer, you must not wait for inspiration to strike, you must work consistently if you plan on finishing a novel and in doing so you must also accept that some days will be easy and others will be hard.
You must accept bad writing so that you can move on and do good writing.
2. Build a Toolbox
“I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.”
Every carpenter needs a toolbox, and according to Stephen King so does every writer. He recommends that you build a big toolbox for yourself, one that will help you to tackle every kind of problem, or in the case of writing, one that will help you write any kind of story.
Vocabulary is the most common tool and should be at the top. As far as vocabulary is concerned, if you have an expansive one that’s great, but if you do not, then write simply, don’t “dress-up” your words as Stephen put it.
Write the first word that comes to your mind. When it comes to words, they are not created equally and a synonym might not relay the same meaning or effect as the first simple word that comes to mind.
Grammar also factors in right next to vocabulary. Bad grammar will produce bad sentences, which might be off-putting to your reader.
Passive Sentences are for timid writers, ones who aren’t confident about their writing. Don’t be a timid writer, write in the active voice.
Adverbs again are described as crutches for a sentence that might be limping. A well-written sentence doesn’t need an adverb. Limit the use of adverbs in your writing.
3. Read and Write a lot
“Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach then the good ones.”
Reading always has lessons attached to it.
Good books and bad ones will always teach you something, the good books will inspire to write well, while the bad ones will teach you what not to do, which is an equally important lesson.
Reading a lot will help you build up your toolbox. You will learn new styles of writing that will help you develop your own unique style.
Stephen adds,“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time(or tools to write).”
4. Writing Rituals
“If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”
Once he starts on a project, Stephen King says he doesn’t stop or slow down unless he has to. He writes in the mornings, which is the preferred time to write for many writers.
He writes every day or he starts to feel like he is losing his hold on the plot and the characters are starting to seem stale or distant. Usually, when he is in his writing mode he even writes on holidays, even Christmas.
He writes at least ten pages a day which is about 2000 words. But if you’re just starting out you must set a writing goal of your own, he recommends getting in at least 1000 words every day, with one day a week off.
Writing is accomplished one word at a time, and for a newbie writer, it is very important to eliminate all possible distractions especially from the workspace.
Stephen King writes to the loud music – hard rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns ‘N Roses. If you prefer to write in silence, do that, but you must write.
It is very important to write if you want to become a writer.
5. What to write?
“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.”
When it comes to genre pick one that you enjoy reading. Where will you find the right idea for your story? In the words of Stephen King,
“There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; 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.”
6. Forget about the Plot
“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.”
I took a writing course recently by James Patterson and plotting is one technique he swears by, King, on the other hand, abhors the concept. He prefers the spontaneity of writing.
It’s not like he’s never used that technique for writing, but what he most enjoys about writing is where it leads him, which according to him is generally not where he thought.
He believes a story will always come out somewhere all you need to do is write it, word by word.
“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.”
If you want your reader to feel the situation, hear it and even smell it, the only way to do it is through good description.
Over-description is as bad if not worse than under-description, it will bury the reader in details that might be unnecessary and will bore him.
Don’t bore your reader.
Use clear writing with simple vocabulary and you will invoke the reader’s imagination, which is the exact purpose of fiction.
“…one of the cardinal rules in fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us instead…”
Dialogues give you insight into the character. The way a character speaks will define who they are and you must let the characters speak openly, if you want your story to be honest.
Profanity is not something that Stephen is privy to but if the character requires it, it can and should be done.
You will learn about dialogue writing mostly from real life, the main skill required is listening. Listen to how people around you talk and you will know how your characters should talk.
“The best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.”
Characters rely heavily on dialogues as mentioned before.
As a writer, each of your characters is an extension of you. They will behave like you would in the given situation and you will learn about creating characters from real life as well.
Characters are central to the novel, you must create strong characters and you must understand their motivations for the story to progress as well as it possibly can.
10. Bells and Whistles
“It’s all on the table, every bit of it and you should use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way of your storytelling.”
These are referred to by King as embellishments to your story.
Bells and whistles are added to the story in the second draft. They are things like theme and symbolism, which strengthen the story and concept.
Others such as onomatopoeia, incremental repetition, the stream of consciousness, interior dialogue, changes of verbal tense etc. are also worth understanding and should be used where necessary.
11. Rewriting or Revisions
“By the time a book is actually in print, I’ve been over it a dozen times or more, can quote whole pasages, and only wish the damned old smelly thing would go away.”
Stephen has a specific formula for rewriting,
Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft -10%
An editor Stephen King worked with at the Lisbon Weekly Enterprise told him,”When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main goal is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
Stephen mostly writes two drafts with a final polish, which he says has now turned into almost a third draft after he started using word processors.
12. Ideal Reader
“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.”
Your Ideal Reader is also called your Alpha Reader, they are the first person to read your manuscript after you.
They are the person you are actually writing for, always keep them in mind while writing.
The feedback your Ideal Reader gives you is invaluable so it is important that they are honest and that you are willing to believe them and take their advice.
Your Ideal Reader will help you perfect your second draft.
“What I’m looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude, like the handful of spices you chuck into a good spaghetti sauce to really, finish her off.”
Research is necessary for situations when you are writing something other than what you know, but it belongs in the back and there it must stay.
These were the 13 rules of writing enumerated by Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it!
“Writing is not life, but I think sometimes it can be a way back to life.”