MihirChronicles

NotesBooksLinksWorkArtMe

On Writing | A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King

11 November, 2022 - 14 min read


I. Brief Summary

Stephen King needs no introduction in its current era. His novels are well-read and movies are drawn upon from his writings. I'm not the biggest fan of King's books, but I really enjoyed his advice on how to write well. His advice will empower an aspiring writer.

II. Big Ideas

  • Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
  • Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.
  • 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.
  • One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.
  • Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.

III. Quotes

  • Books are a uniquely portable magic.
  • Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking. Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn’t they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius.
  • It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written.
  • I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
  • The adverb is not your friend.
  • Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.
  • Reading at meal is considered rude in polite society, but 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 uintend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
  • It was bad, but what in high school is not? At the time we're stuck in it, like hostages locked in a Turkish bath, high school seems like the most serious business in the world to just about all of us. It's not until the second or third class reunion that we start realizing how absurd the whole thing was.
  • 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.
  • Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or something yours is about. Your job in the second draft— one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails.
  • It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.
  • 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.
  • Description begins with visualization of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with you translating what you see in your mind into words on the page.
  • You can’t please all of 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.
  • If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
  • 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.
  • One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, working for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed, and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.
  • The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn't very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don't get carried away with the rest. Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.
  • If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?
  • Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought. If your work consists only of fragments and floating clauses, the Grammar Police aren’t going to come and take you away. Even William Strunk, that Mussolini of rhetoric, recognized the delicious pliability of language. “It is an old observation,” he writes, “that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric.” Yet he goes on to add this thought, which I urge you to consider: “Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.
  • 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. 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.
  • Strunk and White don’t speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I’m willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.
  • I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one's own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I've used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample — that fear may be intense.
  • The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story. Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction.
  • If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It's what I have.
  • 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.
  • 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. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.
  • When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of coarse you do. When you're writing, you're creating your own worlds.
  • What you need to remember is that there’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story. The latter is good. The former is not.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • When you’re still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.
  • 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.
  • Don't wait for the muse. As I've said, he's a hardheaded guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. 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. 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. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up.
  • I think we're actually talking about creative sleep. Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream.
  • 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.
  • Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.
  • There were times...when it occurred to me that I was repeating my mother's life. Usually this thought struck me as funny. But if I happened to be tired, or if there were extra bills to pay and no money to pay them with, it seemed awful. I'd think 'This isn't the way our lives are supposed to be going.' Then I'd think 'Half the world has the same idea.
  • Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.
  • You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.
  • You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
  • Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in...Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but 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.
  • Reading is the creative center of a writer's life.
  • 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.
  • Words have weight.
  • The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.
  • 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. ...this book...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.
  • Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.
  • The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.
  • I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.
  • When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.
  • I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book — something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.
  • Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do―to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.
  • Reading in bed can be heaven, assuming you can get just the right amount of light on the page and aren't prone to spilling your coffee or cognac on the sheets.
  • 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.
  • I'm a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, most fiction. I don't read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read.
  • If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the tools to write.
  • 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.
  • It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.
  • Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity.
  • Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill,one of the prime reasons you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It's not just a question of how-to, you see; it's a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.
  • Although deer season doesn’t start until November in Maine, the fields of October are often alive with gunshots; the locals are shooting as many peasants as they think their families will eat.
  • You try to tell yourself that you've been lucky, most incredibly lucky, and usually that works because it's true. Sometimes it doesn't work, that's all. Then you cry.
  • To write is human, to edit is divine.
  • Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
  • 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.
  • Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.