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Notes on Stephen King's 'On Writing'

By Jamie in Lessons / The Writing Process  12.25.18  
Summary - Stephen King released a book in 2000 about his writing process, from the start of his career until publication. These are some notes I found particularly important.
Understand the Basics
Know proper grammar. Expand your vocabulary. Know the basics of the English language.  Avoid passive sentences. Never use -ly words. Read and digest Strunk and White's 'The Elements of Style.'  Understand that you can write simply and still get across complicated story ideas that resonate with a reader. Do not overwrite or overindulge, this may come off as magniloquent or pompous and could easily lose a reader.

Of course, in order to write well, one must read obsessively. That is a no brainer. But one thing Stephen King points out that never occurred to me is that it is okay, and important to read bad stories and bad books.

I have always read authors I admire. I read stories and novels as if I am reading letters from my gods, and I stand back in awe thinking to myself, 'I can never do what they do.' According to Stephen King, this is the kiss of death to an aspiring writer. Who can write if all they ever do is compare themselves to the greatest writers who ever lived?

King's advice is to read as much as possible and read as many authors as possible. Don't just stick to your favorites. He claims that every good writer ultimately read a book where they thought, 'I can do better than this.'  And that is they key. You must realize there are authors being published, even praised, that you can best.

On making time for reading, King points out that you can and must read everywhere: in the bathroom, on line at a store, in the car (listen to audio books), on the treadmill, as well as in the obvious places like a coffee shop, your bed, the couch, your office.

Find Your Place & Close the Door
A concept taught to me in creative writing classes, and now again in Stephen King's book, that still eludes me is finding a time and place to write.

In 'On Writing' Stephen King explains that you can not wait for your muse to stimulate you into writing. Instead, you must go to the basement and close the door. He means this literally in his case, but also figuratively. In order to write, you must have a place you can go to block out the rest of the world, to keep out any distraction or intrusion, and your brain must know this place is only to write. Ambient music is okay, but TV and the internet are the enemies.

Your muse lives in the basement, he says. He will not come find you, you must go find him. And he will not be sexy and beautiful, he may be grumpy, lazy and full of warts. So don't wait for your muse, you must find a place and go there everyday, then your muse will know where you go and hopefully someday, if you're lucky, he will sprinkle some of his magic dust over your pen, but you should not wait for him to do so. Just get to work writing.

In an intense workshop back in college, Robert Olen Butler once explained that he wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, 'A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,' while riding on the subway to and from work everyday.  With its incessant racket a subway seems counter to this theory of finding a place with no distractions. But he had no choice but to be on the train to go to work. He was on the train for at least an hour each way and the people in and out of the doors created a din that allowed Butler to enter a zone aspiring writers can only hope they ever encounter. So he started writing on the train. And sometimes, he would be so in the zone that he would skip his stop and continue on the subway until it circled back to his destination. I got it.

Another excellent point King makes related to writing, but probably also related to finding your place, and probably how he would answer me when I say I cannot find a place to 'get in the zone' and write on a consistent basis, is this: 'if you want it bad enough, you will find your place.' 

On Plot
Forget about plot. Plot is the enemy. Let the story develop naturally. Uncover the story as if you were excavating a fossil. The fossil could turn out to be a little bird (a short story), or it could turn out to be a huge dinosaur (a long novel).

You must use delicate tools to excavate the bones. Your job is to reveal the fossil to the reader as you uncover it. The reader should discover the fossil as the writer does. The tools used to excavate the fossil must be gentle in order to not break a thing - but understand that even under such careful attention, bones still will break. That is okay and expected. However, 'plot' should be thought of as a huge jackhammer, not a delicate tool. Try excavating bones with such a monstrosity and the entire fossil is likely to break.

Instead of plot, King says he often starts with a scenario and asks himself, 'what if?' 

What if, an obsessed fan kidnaps a popular author and demands he pen his next novel just for her?

What if, a family was stuck in a car because a rabid dog would not let them out?

Then, bone by bone, uncover how the characters react in those circumstances and watch how the story, and the characters are revealed to you.

On Narration (Description)
Don't let description distract from the story. Don't use hackneyed similes or metaphors. Don't use similes or metaphors that are lazy or make you as the writer seem as dull or as a plain as a dry turkey sandwich. Use similes and metaphors that add to the ambience of the setting, or that reinforce the mood of the scene, or that bring to life a character's trait.

In future drafts, feel free to cut great description if it does not add to the story. Just because you wrote something great, he says, doesn't mean it belongs in the story. You must be able to cut your 'darlings.'

On Character Development
Write honestly about your characters. Example... if they curse, let them curse, don't avoid cursing just because it goes against your values. Be true to your characters. Johnny from the streets might say 'oh fuck,' when he makes a mistake, but Aunt Jennie who goes to church and lives in the south might really say, 'oh darn.' Be honest about your characters.

Most importantly, a story might start with a scenario, but it should always evolve into revealing truth about the character(s). The story should never get lost, however, and should remain the main attraction. A character study alone, after all, would simply be a biography. "The best stories always end up being about the people, not the event," King says. But the story, he emphasizes, should always be boss.

Avoid one-dimensional characters. These are characters that simply play a role in the story, and don't diverge from that role. A bad guy, in other words, is not all bad. And the hero is not all good. Tell the truth about your characters.

First and Second Drafts
The first draft should be written as freely and as fast as you can keep up with. Get the story out. Try not to look back other than to check names or pieces of backstory. Get to the end of the story without seeking advice or second opinions. Write the first draft with no fear of negative reception, but with a deep fear that if you don't finish quickly you will lose your creative vision.

In the first draft, create the trees, draw the branches and watch the leaves fall. Keep creating the trees until the story is over. Then, take a walk. Go on a vacation. Separate yourself from your story. Do not dive back in hoping you will see how brilliant you are, or wishing you will find every little mistake before moving on. Go back maybe six weeks later and look at your manuscript. If it feels completely foreign to you, you have waited long enough. Then, take a look at the forest you have created.

Before you start the second draft read the first draft and take a look at your forest. Read until you understand your theme. In other words, figure out what the story is really about. When you have it figured out, start the second draft with the intention of making very clear what the story is about, removing meandering passages and scenes that distract from the story. This could lead to major changes, deletions or edits, but it is imperative to follow through for the betterment of the manuscript.

At this point you can also let other people you trust read and give you their notes on your work. If everyone agrees something is wrong, fix it. If one person thinks its wrong, another thinks its good, it's a wash, leave it. Tie goes to the writer!

Further Drafts
After the first and second drafts, King will often go over a manuscript so many times, making small corrections, or major changes, that he has passages memorized. But this only happens after the first draft. He makes very clear that the first draft should be written as fast and freely as possible, do not reread at this stage. Don't worry about stupid mistakes yet, because if you do it will only make you feel bad about your ability as a writer, which will hinder the development of the story.

Write for Your Ideal Reader
While you are writing you should be constantly thinking of your ideal writer. For Stephen King, it is his wife Tabitha. He respects her opinion and feels if he can please her, the book will be pleasing to a larger audience. He also respects her notes and reactions so therefore considers them valuable enough to consider seriously on draft number two.

Some writers might imagine someone dead as their ideal reader. It doesn't matter, but constantly think, 'would my ideal reader like the pace of the story, a particular dialogue, or narration, or chapter?' Thinking in this way elevates your writing from the start, helping to eliminate most nonsense and garbage. It is like having an editor before ever letting another person read your work.

On Writing Classes & Workshops
Don't go to writing classes, writing retreats, writing seminars or any other such place where you 'have to' write and are going to get quasi-interesting feedback on your stories. Most feedback from random people is so vague that it mostly serves as a hindrance to your creative process. You only need keep your Ideal Reader in mind when writing and write your first draft with the door completely closed. Also, write because you want to write, not because you have to write. Having to write inhibits the free flow of your first draft and makes you feel pressure about deadlines and being judged by people you don't know or respect. 

Technically, you shouldn't even be reading this book, King says (and thus, this article). The key to learning how to write is to read and write often. The more you read, the more you write, the more you will learn from yourself as your mental database of read material grows.

Write a story that resonates. King emphasizes that his ultimate goal is for the story to linger in the reader's brain long after it is over.

Random Notes
  • write a story as if you were a reporter. your job is to reveal to your audience the life of the story in a way that captures the reader's attention until the very end. the details you include must create the ambience of the story and it always must be honest. exclude details that are irrelevant. only add details that enhance the understanding of the world you are creating for the reader.
  • paragraph structures. the rhythms of a story are like the rhythms of speech. You must seduce the reader as if in a conversation with a beautiful woman and language is the tool you use to seduce. (learning rhythms of speech and writing comes mainly from reading and subconsciously studying and taking in all that was written until you are filled with a sea of examples, of rhythms that have worked, and those that have not.)
  • people love reading about other people's jobs. include what people do in your stories. if you are a plumber, your characters can be plumbers, thus they will know in depth details about the trade.
  • write about what you know, but understand you must also write about what you want to know, or that you don't know - after all, that is why you are writing, to uncover things about something you and the reader didn't know.  you don't know about outer space, or life after death, no one does, but you can imagine those things. 
  • fiction would be lost without imagination, or if people only wrote what they knew. it is when you mix the two that truth is revealed. So, a plumber in space might be a great premise for a novel.
  • go where your mind takes you. don't try and force your mind to go in one place or another. this is what a preconceived plot or theme does to a writer.
  • the first draft the story is telling itself to you. let it. don't interrupt it. the second draft you are perfecting it so other people can enjoy it.
  • on character backstories... Every character has a backstory, but most of it is uninteresting and irrelevant to the story. Only tell backstory that is interesting and that adds to the story being told. And tell it in a manner of stealth, not in a matter-of-fact report.
  • write 2,000 words everyday and don't stop until you reach your goal. But, start with 500 words per day for a week, then 750, then 1000, until you get to 2,000 words per day (this is an example, set a goal that is right for you, but be relentlessly consistent with it).
  • don't ever spend more than one season writing a story or book. it gets stale and the reader will notice. only ever take one day off per week while in the heat of developing a story. two days off and by the time you return the following week the story will no longer be fresh in your mind. you will have to spend too much time reacquainting yourself with your story, getting back into your subconscious and that will either be a waste of time, or too overwhelming, and you will give up.
  • writing is hard work. who cares if you have a good idea. if you aren't going to put in the work, all the great ideas in the world mean shit.