Stephen King’s Perspective
Stephen King is a ‘New York Times’-bestselling novelist who made his name in the horror and fantasy genres with books like ‘Carrie,’ ‘The Shining’ and ‘IT.’ Much of his work has been adapted for film and TV. His books have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide.
“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.”– Stephen King
Stephen was passionate about writing from a young age. The first time he made money from his writing was when he watched a horror movie and sold his transcriptions to people at school. Subsequently, Stephen became passionate about writing his own stories. However, he received rejection after rejection when sending these stories off for publication. Stephen would pin each of these rejections onto his bedroom wall. However, the number of rejections became so extensive that the nail fell out under the weight. This period of rejection was between the ages of 14 and 16. However, by the age of 16, he was at least receiving handwritten rather than generic rejection letters. This was an encouraging sign that he had the potential to make it big.
After receiving so many rejections, Stephen started studying writing markets in the Writer’s Digest. Additionally, he started sending more and more stories off to different magazines. Despite this, Stephen continued to experience push-back from people. He would write particularly gory stories and try to sell these stories at school. However, the school punished him because of the nature of his stories. The school allocated him a guidance counselor who suggested that he just became a sports reporter. Unsurprisingly, Stephen did not take kindly to this suggestion.
King’s First Book
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”– Stephen King
King’s first full book was called Carrie. He wrote this when he found a job teaching English. However, he hated the first draft of this book. He threw this draft in the bin as he didn’t believe it had any potential. However, his wife fished the book out of the bin and read it herself. She saw the book’s potential and encouraged Stephen to keep writing. The book would end up being a fantastic success, as Carrie was published with its paperback rights sold for a staggering 400 thousand dollars. This quantity is a large amount today but was a humongous amount back in 1974. Additionally, this money had added value as Stephen used part of it to pay for his mother’s treatment, who had recently been diagnosed with uterine cancer. Even with the treatment, Stephen’s mother passed away. She had brought Stephen and his brother up as a single mother, as Stephen’s father had abandoned them when he was young.
For a large portion of Stephen’s life, he struggled with both drugs and alcohol. Stephen described his addictions as being equivalent to some of the murderous characters included in his novels. His drug use had a significant impact on all parts of his life. He recalls how he was there when his mother died. However, he was hungover. Additionally, he doesn’t even remember writing some of his books as he was so drunk.
Stephen describes the best writing as being intimate. This intimacy has to apply to both the easy and the hard work. Therefore, Stephen does not recommend stopping a piece of work just because you find it challenging, either emotionally or creatively. Pushing through these emotional and creative blocks is all part of working towards a great piece of writing. It might feel like what you are writing is not perfect, but you will often surprise yourself with how perfect the writing is that comes out of these moments. Stephen knew his brother would never become a professional musician as he was unwilling to keep pushing through the challenging moments. He would never just bliss out and play his horn in all moments. His brother would play his horn when he felt like it, and then it would go straight back in the case.
Stephen suggests that you find what your talent is. Then, once you have found this talent, you should be practicing this talent until your fingers bleed and your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. As a creator, doing something you are talented in will help bring you joy. This joy will help make every act feel like a performance, even if you are alone.
For writers, writing should not feel like real work. Instead, it should be a kind of inspired play. Writing is all about enriching the lives of those who will read your work and enriching your own life. Writing is about getting up, getting well, and getting over.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”– Stephen King
Stephen sees adverbs as fearful. Stephen explains that he uses adverbs for the same reason that any writer does, which is a fear that the reader won’t understand otherwise. However, Stephen argues that fear is at the root of almost all bad writing. Therefore, try and limit your use of adverbs as much as possible. As Stephen puts it, you want to throw a drowning man a rope rather than knocking him unconscious with ninety feet of steel cable.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”– Stephen King
Language does not always have to be smartly dressed and courteous. Fiction is not about being grammatically correct. Instead, fiction is about making your reader feel welcome. Then, telling them a story that will help them forget that they are even reading a story. Writing in its simplest form is seduction, and good talk is part of seduction. Therefore, using something like a single-sentence paragraph is an effective way of seducing readers. A single-sentence paragraph is more like talking than writing.
Good writing relies on the writer mastering the fundamentals:
- Elements of Style
- Read a lot
- Write a lot
Stephen recommends that people read bad prose. Bad prose helps us understand the mistakes to avoid when writing ourselves. Because of this, Stephen explains that a novel like The Bridges of Madison County is worth a semester at a good writing school. Learn from those who have failed at being a good writer.
Additionally, reading good writing will also help you. Reading lots of good writing will teach you about writing with style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.
Here are some tips that Stephen provided as ways to encourage good writing:
- Let others flatter you. Every good writer was created because they had been flattered. You have to experience being swept off your feet to be able to sweep someone else away purely by the force of your writing
- Write what you like, then imbue it with life by integrating your own knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Interestingly, Stephen states that work is one of the topics that people like reading about the most
- Try and find a happy medium of description. If your description is thin, you will leave the reader confused. In contrast, if you over-describe, you are leaving your readers buried in the details. Readers get bored with a book because the writer has become obsessed with descriptions and forgot to keep the ball rolling
- Choose a few well-chosen details for each description you give
When writing backstories, Stephen recommends that you always remember these two important things:
- Everyone has a history
- Most of a person’s history isn’t very interesting
Writing is about telling yourself the story you want to tell. Therefore, rewriting is there for the purpose of taking out everything that doesn’t fit the story. Stephen suggests that you should be lost in your writing when it is written for the first time. Therefore, your door should be closed, and you shouldn’t let anybody but you engage with this writing. However, once you have written the story for the first time, your door should be open. You should open to what others think and rewrite with their idea of clarity in mind. Your rewrite must include readers. Although writing starts out being just for you, it will eventually become for everyone. Therefore, welcome anybody willing to criticize your work. You don’t want people who are just reading your work passively. Surround yourself with people who will rip your work apart to rebuild it with your rewrite.
Every good book is about something. After writing your first draft, you have to decide what your book is going to be about. Then, your purpose for the second draft is to make this something even clearer in your writing. Aim to enrich each of your drafts with your overarching aims.
When you’re ready to revise, read it in one sitting, make notes, and fix minor items like misspellings and inconsistencies. Stephen explained that your second draft should be your first draft, minus 10%. Everybody can retain their story’s primary flavor while taking out 10%. Therefore, if you are struggling to do this, then you need to try harder.
Rewriting facilitates you being able to write freely for the first draft. Stephen recommends writing rapidly so you can write the story exactly how it comes into your mind. Only look back to check that your characters’ names are correct and that the relevant parts of the character’s backstories have been covered. Stephen states that this writing approach helps you maintain your enthusiasm for the story throughout your writing process. Additionally, the faster you write the story, the less time you give yourself to start self-doubting.
Themes only emerge when the story is already complete. Then, as a writer, you can re-read the story and identify underlying patterns. After noticing these patterns, you should then bring these patterns out even more during the second draft. Your second draft is one that emphasizes symbolism. Good fiction will never begin with a theme and then develop a story.
In terms of time scale, your books’ first draft should take no longer than three months to write. If you take longer than three months to produce your first draft, your story will start to feel foreign. To keep to this target, Stephen personally will write approximately ten pages per day. Ten pages translate to roughly two thousand words. If you keep to this rate, you should be able to write 180 thousand pages in three months. This is a good length for a book.
Where to Work
As a writer, you want your environment to encourage you to be creative. Therefore, Stephen recommends working in a serene atmosphere. Place your desk in the corner of the room. Every time you sit down to write, you should remind yourself that this is your writing space. It is not in the middle of the room because its sole purpose is to be a space for your writing.
It is almost impossible for even the most naturally productive writer to work in an environment where there are alarms and people moving around. Therefore, traveling to quiet places to write should be a rule of yours rather than a rare occurrence.
Your writing space should be humble. All you need is a door that you can shut, so it is just you and your writing device. Closing your door is you telling the world that you mean business. You have committed at that moment to shut out the rest of the world and focus on your writing. By the time you have made this commitment, you should have a daily writing goal already established.
During your writing period, you should get into a routine. So, make sure you are ready to go to sleep at the same time each night. Additionally, follow the same rituals around bedtime. Writing and sleeping are similar. Both actions require us to be physically still but open to our minds unlocking our imaginations. Therefore, if you can build a structure around successfully sleeping, you can build a structure around writing successfully.
The Writer’s Toolbox
Stephen’s uncle, Oren, has a handmade toolbox. This toolbox had three levels, and the top two of these three levels were removable. Additionally, this toolbox had many little drawers. His uncle would carry this toolbox everywhere, even if he was just completing a very simple job. Oren always wanted to be prepared and knew his toolbox had him covered, no matter the problem.
Stephen suggests that writers have to create their own toolbox for writing. However, you also have to build up enough muscle to then carry it with you wherever you go. The tools within your toolbox should include:
- Vocabulary – Your vocabulary should be on the top shelf of your toolbox and left in its natural form. Stephen suggests that you avoid consciously choosing to improve your vocabulary and instead let it develop organically
- Grammar – Bad grammar will always produce bad sentences. However, people either naturally pick up grammar in their native language, through talking and reading, or do not
- Elements of Style – Your style should be unique to you. Although other pieces of writing might inspire you, your style should be your own
Thematic thinking is like the magnifying glass in your writer’s toolbox. Ask yourself why you’re spending the time writing rather than doing something else — when you’re stuck, or before starting the second draft.
Things to avoid:
- Passive Voice
- Overly-fancy dialogue attributions; instead, just use ‘said’
- Loose thinking, as this produces loose writing
Stephen’s Fundamentals of Being a Writer
For fiction, you want your paragraphs to be less structured. Stephen describes fiction as the beat rather than the melody. In works of fiction, the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing. Paragraphs allow your words to start becoming more than mere words.
When to Write
Stephen will write every day when he is working, including holidays. Then, when he is in a non-working period, he will avoid writing at all. However, although most would view the non-working period as a holiday, Stephen describes his time off as ‘work’. Stephen sees writing as his time to enjoy himself and be creative in his playground.
Simple Secrets of Success
Stephen attributes his success to two things: Staying physically healthy and staying married. These two factors helped make his work possible. Plus, his wife was the one who helped him improve his health. Specifically, she is the one who told him he had to go to rehab. Rehab helped save his life, as he gave up alcohol from there. In addition to these simple secrets, Stephen also recommends taking one day off per week.
How to Construct a Story
Stories are built up of 3 parts:
- Narration – This moves the story from point A to Z
- Description – You use this to create a sensory reality for the reader
- Dialogue – This brings the story’s characters to life through their conversations
The story is the most critical part of any book. The setting is important, but it is not the most important thing.
How to Get Published
To get published, you need to understand the market for fictional literature better. Stephen suggests you read several writer’s journals, such as Writer’s Market. If you are looking to write short stories, then you should also be studying the magazine market. Additionally, subscribe to Writer’s Digest and The Writer. Try and get published a little here and there. Building up your credits will help you to work your way into bigger and better publications slowly. Once you are reaching this level, you can start thinking about getting an agent.
“If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”– Stephen King
- Similes and metaphors are highly effective at helping us to see an old thing in a new and vivid way
- Avoid cliches
- Avoid nonsensical comparisons
- Use dialogue to help define your characters and what they are about
- Show your readers rather than telling your readers
- Be honest and truthful in your writing, even if it leads to criticism. You cannot please every reader, but you always try and please some of your readers
- Listen to others talking as inspiration for writing dialogue
Final Book Recommendations
- Bryson, Bill: A Walk in the Woods
- Buckley, Christopher: Thank You for Smoking
- Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist
- Faulkner, William: As I Lay Dying
- Gerritsen, Tess: Gravity
- Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
- Hunter, Stephen: Dirty White Boys
- Krakauer, Jon: Into Thin Air
- Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird
- Schwartz, John Burnham: Reservation Road
- Smith, Dinitia: The Illusionist
- Spencer, Scott: Men in Black
- Vonnegut, Kurt: Hocus Pocus
Final Summary and Review of On Writing
On Writing is part memoir and part instructional. It guides us through the essential parts of Stephen King’s life, while also offering tips that he has learned along the way. The result is a book that offers a wide range of guidance for people who are interested in writing in any capacity. From overcoming addiction to having his first book published, Stephen King offers his life wisdom for the writers of tomorrow.
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