Writing Tips: Stephen King

Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is required reading for any writer these days, whether you’re a fan of King’s work or not. It’s candid and heartfelt, and the advice he dispenses has worked for him. Below are some quotes from the book, along with some notes on how his ideas align with my own process.

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

This returns us, onces again, to my concept to the puke draft. Just get it all out and worry about cleaning up the mess later. You’ll feel much better and less anxious. Editing and second drafts are separate processes that exist for a reason. You can’t try to polish it and make it concise and shiny while you’re trying to get everything out of your system.

“The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.”

I would argue that the object of any writing is simply to be understood. Treat typos like cockroaches, by all means, and assume that spotting one means there are 50 more lurking in a baseboards. Learn how to spell, but still use the crap out of every spellchecker you can get hold of. Weed out as many grammatical errors as you can, and try to save colloquialisms for dialog and conversational essays. Beyond that, make sure that what you’re saying is clear. My standard comeback now, when someone tries to clock me over some grammatical error, is “but did you get what I was saying?”. If the answer is yes, then they can shut up. If the answer is no, then I have an actual problem that I need to address.

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

This I agree with. There are subjects that I shy away from, for fear that I’ll alienate readers. There are things I’m afraid to write about because people are rude, cruel, and willfully ignorant and I just don’t want to have to deal with them. A certain small percentage of the internet are unstable and violent, and I really don’t want to attract their attention. My writing would be better if I wasn’t holding myself back, or trying to artlessly dodge around certain points.

“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

Here we’re back to fear. I don’t write as truthfully as I can, for all of the reasons listed above. It’s something I need to get over. The best work within me stems from my having something to say, and no matter what stand you take these days you’re bound to offend someone.

“The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

Puke draft. Seriously. Get over yourself and just get it done. Then you can go back and polish it.

“There’s should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”

Remember that period on The Office (US version) when Ryan was working out of the supply closet? There was just enough room in there for a small table to hold his laptop and a chair. I would be happy with that. Get rid of the shelving with the supplies and replace it with soundproof foam tiles, like you see in recording studios. Nothing but a laptop and a kitchen timer. Close the door, set the timer, and write uninterrupted until the bell rings. Of course I’d still need a regular office for other business, but a writing closet free from distractions would be luxurious.

“You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

Even going back and reading some of my older essays is bizarre. You will be surprised by how good you actually are, but you will also be smacked in the face with your own bad habits.

“Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”

Unless you’re writing a history textbook or an encyclopedia, the research is not the story.

“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”

Thank you, Stephen King. As a largely self-taught writer, it’s nice to be validated.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

While I write for a living, I’ve been writing since I was a kid. It’s just what I do. I didn’t go to school for a degree in English Lit or an MFA, but I did get a business degree with learn how to peddle my writing. Make of that what you will. No go write something!

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