On Writing by Stephen King: Book Summary & Notes
Listened to the audiobook. It's a gem of a book. It details Stephen King's 20-year journey as a writer since he was a kid. He grew up poor with his single mom working as a caregiver making $8,000 a year.
He started writing fiction when he was 6. Did work as the editor of the school newspaper and wrote all his way through high school & university. Upon graduation, he couldn't find a job so he worked odd jobs like working at the laundry mats and his wife was working shifts at Burger King. It would be a while before he hit pay dirt, but he did.
His life story is a reminder that the path to success as writer is much longer than we expect.
If you've been in the world of online courses and guru's teaching you how to become a published author (like I have), reading Stephen King's life story tells a tale of the reverse. He wrote young, did it as a hobby of his. Writing was his therapy. Sure, he wrote for publication and loved the craft itself. Even if his work wouldn't see the light of day, he would still write as it was his favourite past time. It wasn't until he was in his late 20s and early 30s that he struck gold, but it was a lifelong craft of his. It's a very refreshing. Worth the read.
Here are my notes on his techniques for writing:
What is writing? Telepathy of course.
Description starts in the mind of the writer and ends in the mind of the reader.
Construct your own writers toolbox.
Common tools go on top, the more specialized tools go on bottom. You should only have three or four levels to it.
The most commonest tools - Vocabulary, grammar, elements of style - in that order.
King is a big fan of Strunk and White's Elements of Style.
Among his favourite tips from the book are:
- Omit needless words
- Avoid adverbs (words that end with -ly e.g. "he said so aggressively)
Active vs passive verbs, always better to go active:
Passive: "The boy was hit by the ball"
Active: "The ball hit the boy"
Also don’t overstate the dialogue attribution: ““Put down the gun, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.”
- meaning just write "Put down the gun, Utterson!" - no need for [Jekyll grated].
If you have to, King says just use "he said, she said" i.e. "Put down the gun, Utterson!" Jekyll said.
“We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.”
Good ideas appear out of nowhere, from unrelated concepts coming together and creating new thoughts in your head. You can’t force this process, your job is to recognize when they show up and take advantage of them.
When writing, think of an ideal reader (an audience of one) - for King, it's his wife. I think this a good hack. Predicting how your spouse will react to your words is the simplest as you know what will bore him or her as you write your story. Try reading one of your posts to them out loud - often you can sense she will be bored before you read the upcoming sentence, I have.
Write for yourself. Edit for others. King suggests a minimum of one time writing and one time editing.
When editing, take out everything that isn’t the story - aim for two things - clarity and coherence.
Is what you're writing clear? And is it coherent with the story / argument?
We all hate unclear writing and writing that is all-over-the-place.
Keep these two things in mind and you will be fine.
"Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%"King aims to cut down 10% of his words when he edits. I think this works fine for fiction as cutting down too much might remove the details necessary to paint the picture fully.
However, for non-fiction, it's not surprising to see drafts being cut as much as 50%! I'm following the - 20% rule instead as I value brevity when it comes to non-fiction.
Have a designated area in your room for writing. “Keep your desk in the corner” King suggests. He also adds "Life is not a support system for art, art is a support system for life."
“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.”
“Still, I believe the first draft of a book— even a long one— should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
“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.”
“I suggest a thousand words a day, and because I’m feeling magnanimous, I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with.”
“If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.”
Avoid the “Zen Simile” / cliches: “He ran like a madman, she was pretty as a summer day, the guy was a hot ticket, Bob fought like a tiger . . . . don’t waste my time (or anyone’s) with such chestnuts. It makes you look either lazy or ignorant.”
To cure this, you have to read a lot.
You can write about anything you want, so long as you tell the truth.
(For most of his writing tips, install the Hemingway App on your desktop. It follows most of his technical rules for writing).
Please do yourself a favour and listen to the audiobook read by Stephen King. You can't help but fall in love and get romantic with the craft of writing.
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