Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Stephen King: On Writing

I don’t ordinarily read Stephen King’s books—don’t care anything about the horror genre. However, this summer, I am making a study of writing. So I fell into his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

The first part of the book is an entertaining autobiographical account of how he got into his writing. He was a constant watcher and reader of horror movies and books from his earliest days; so it isn’t something he just stumbled into when he grew up. He started writing those scary stories when he was just a child, and his first published work was a novella “in a horror fanzine issued by Mike Garrett of Birmingham, Alabama.” The title of the story was “I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber.” Yikes!

In the second half of the book, King gives very straightforward, practical advice for budding writers. Here are some of his best pointers:

  • Don’t get a huge desk that you place in the center of a room, he says. Put a small one “in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind your self why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” Don’t abandon your life. Live it; then if you pay close attention, you will recognize good subjects when they show up.
  • The “bread of writing is vocabulary.” It’s your most common tool, so keep it handy. Don’t “make any conscious effort to improve it” because if you do, it will become stilted, and it won’t sound like you.
  • Read constantly, whenever you aren’t writing. Your handle on the language will improve, and your vocabulary will improve without your having to work at it.
  • If you aren’t good at grammar, you need to be. A good help is Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition; “. . .almost all you need is summarized on the front and back endpapers of the book.” A great style manual is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
  • Avoid adverbs, the passive voice in verbs, and any kind of “dialogue attribution” other than “said.” “Do as well as you can,” he said, “and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.”
  • Don’t be overwhelmingly wordy.

If you want to be a writer, he says, you have to be seriously committed to it. Stephen King says he writes about 2,000 words a day. He is willing to let us get away with 1,000 words a day, and he will let us have Sunday off. This is a concrete goal, which we need.

Write about whatever you want to; “anything at all . . . as long as you tell the truth.” By truth, he means the things the heart knows. He says, “The job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck.” People want to read stories in which they recognize themselves, in which they hear “strong echoes of (their own lives) and beliefs.”

Somehow, King gives me confidence that maybe I can improve my writing. What I have been lacking is the serious commitment part. I’ve been the one who takes care of every other little problem first and then I get around to writing, if there’s still time. I hereby commit myself to write at least 1,000 words every day . . . well, lots of days, anyway. King says there’s a sort of “redemptive power of writing that I had long felt but never articulated.” I think he is right.

*The picture comes from

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