Book Cover
On Writing


★ ★ ★ ★

TL;DR: Stephen King talks about his life and how he approaches writing with candor and spunk.

Notes

C.V.

  • Struggled in childhood
    • Single mother raising him and his crazy brother Dave
    • Strep throat, measles, lots of health problems
  • Really loved horror movies
    • Began writing by imitating/copying these movies
  • I am, when you stop to think of it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit. This might not be important. On the other hand, if you’re just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television’s electric plug-write, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far. Just an idea. (33)
  • Advice from John Gould, who ran the weekly newspaper Stephen worked for:
    • When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story…when you rewrite, your main job is taking outa ll the things that are not the story.
    • Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open
  • Lessons from finishing Carrie (paperback rights sold for 400k)
    • Writer’s original perception of character(s) may be as erroneous as the reader’s
    • 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. (76)
  • Roasting drugs (context: King is a recovered addict): The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time […] Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers […] Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons. It doesn’t matter if you’re James Jones, John Cheever, or a stewbum snoozing in Penn Station; for an addict, the right to the drink or drug of choice must be preserved at all costs. Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter. (98)
  • Now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job. As promised, it won’t take long. 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. (100)

What Writing Is

  • 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.
  • I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I’m not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humor (please God you have on). This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t it’s time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe. (106)

Toolbox

  • Metaphor of a toolbox for writing
    • Instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct cool and get immediately to work. (112)
  • Common tools on top.
    • Vocabulary: the bread of writing
      • The basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. (116)
        • Don’t overthink it
        • Don’t overdo it
        • Don’t use fancy words
    • Grammar
      • Relax, chill, read, you’ll get it.
      • Pet peeves
        • Avoid the passive tense of verbs, where the subject is just letting it happen. (The body was carried…)
        • The adverb is not your friend
          • They’re like dandelions…first you have one, then you have a ton
          • Never use adverbs for dialogue attribution
            • Never “she shouted menacingly”. Just use said.
            • While to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine. (127)
  • Next layer of toolbox: elements of style
    • Organize good paragraphs. Compose a beat.
    • Play around with it a bit

On Writing

  • Two theses of this book:
    • Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments
    • 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. (144)
    • Get off the screen Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it. (146). Great description of screens
    • I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie. […] I didn’t want to sound like a workaholic dweeb. The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. […] And when I’m not working, I’m not working at all, although during these periods of full stop I usually feel at loose ends with myself and have trouble sleeping. For me, not working is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good. (153)
  • Basics: a room. a door. The determination to shut the door. And a goal. Every day a goal.
  • Three parts of stories: narration, description, dialogue
    • NO PLOT
      • Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. (162)
      • I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. […] I want to put a group of characters in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. (162)
      • 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: What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (169)
    • Just be honest about your characters, make one unexpected inversion in the story, and go
    • Light description
      • Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. (173)
      • If I tell you Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. (173)
      • 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. (177)
    • Dialogue: there are no one-dimensional characters in real-life, so don’t just create a generic “whore with a heart of gold”. No one-dimensional dopes
    • Practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really not like practice at all) and honesty is indispensable
  • Don’t be silly and try to write for themes and symbolism and stuff. Waste of time. As you go back and excavate the fossil of your story more finely, you will see it, and you can pull it out and enhance it.
    • In this category: imagery, literary homage, etc.
  • High-level process
    • Write first draft with the door closed. Can take months
    • Stick it in a drawer and don’t look at it for months
    • Read it again, preferably in one sitting
      • During that reading, the top part of my mind is concentrating on story and toolbox concerns: knocking out pronouns with unclear antecedents, adding clarifying phrases where they seem necessary, and of course, deleting all the adverbs I can bear to part with. (213)
    • Who do you write for? Your ideal reader. What would he/she say/think?
    • Formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%
  • Back story: everyone has a history, and most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest.

On Living

  • Tragic accident :( got run over while taking a walk. Took him out of commission for a looooong time. Changed perspective a lot.
  • 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.