Author: Stephen King
Recommended by: Maarten Brands
Date read: 25-02-2021
My rating: 4 out of 5
Great read with some of the most concise advice for writing I’ve ever seen. Focused on writing fiction, but a lot translates very well to non-fiction too.
Highlights and notes
This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.
I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style.
I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. 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.
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. 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. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould’s, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter.
My wife made a crucial difference during those two years I spent teaching at Hampden (and washing sheets at New Franklin Laundry during the summer vacation). If she had suggested that the time I spent writing stories on the front porch of our rented house on Pond Street or in the laundry room of our rented trailer on Klatt Road in Hermon was wasted time, I think a lot of the heart would have gone out of me. Tabby never voiced a single doubt, however. Her support was a constant, one of the few good things I could take as a given. And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. 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.
the things I learned from Carrie White. The most important is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. 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.
The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time
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.
Chapter 2: What Writing Is
I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We’re close. We’re having a meeting of the minds.
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
Chapter 3: Toolbox
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.
Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful
Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.
You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox
You should avoid the passive tense. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.
The other piece of advice I want to give you before moving on to the next level of the toolbox is this: The adverb is not your friend.
Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously
With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
I can be a good sport about adverbs, though. Yes I can. With one exception: dialogue attribution. I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it.
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
All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.
Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.
I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing—the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.
Chapter 4: On Writing
God had not given him that particular talent. I knew, not because Owen stopped practicing, but because he was practicing only during the periods Mr. Bowie had set for him
I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose—one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.
Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.
So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
Once weaned from the ephemeral craving for TV, most people will find they enjoy the time they spend reading. I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing.
Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head.
The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing
Writing is at its best—always, always, always—when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer. I can write in cold blood if I have to, but I like it best when it’s fresh and almost too hot to handle.
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.
The biggest aid to regular (Trollopian?) production is working in a serene atmosphere. It’s difficult for even the most naturally productive writer to work in an environment where alarms and excursions are the rule rather than the exception.
The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
By the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. 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. No more; you’ll lose the urgency and immediacy of your story if you do. With that goal set, resolve to yourself that the door stays closed until that goal is met.
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.
But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. 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, chomping his cigar and making his magic.
John Grisham, of course, knows lawyers. What you know makes you unique in some other way. Be brave. Map the enemy’s positions, come back, tell us all you know. And remember that plumbers in space is not such a bad setup for a story.
In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.
I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible
It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. 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.
The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate.
For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind. Certainly they will do for a start. If you decide later on that you’d like to change, add, or delete, you can do so—it’s what rewrite was invented for. But I think you will find that, in most cases, your first visualized details will be the truest and best.
My all-time favorite similes, by the way, come from the hardboiled-detective fiction of the forties and fifties, and the literary descendants of the dime-dreadful writers. These favorites include “It was darker than a carload of assholes” (George V. Higgins) and “I lit a cigarette [that] tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief” (Raymond Chandler).
Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story.
one of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us, instead
In the end, the important question has nothing to do with whether the talk in your story is sacred or profane; the only question is how it rings on the page and in the ear. If you expect it to ring true, then you must talk yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk.
Everything I’ve said about dialogue applies to building characters in fiction. The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.
We’ve covered some basic aspects of good storytelling, all of which return to the same core ideas: that practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really not like practice at all) and that honesty is indispensable. Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity (and without using a lot of tiresome, unnecessary adverbs).
Two examples of the sort of work second drafts were made for are symbolism and theme.
I think that, when you read your manuscript over (and when you talk it over), you’ll see if symbolism, or the potential for it, exists. If it doesn’t, leave well enough alone. If it does, however—if it’s clearly a part of the fossil you’re working to unearth—go for it. Enhance it. You’re a monkey if you don’t.
Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book—at least every one worth reading—is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings 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.
At one moment I had none of this; at the next I had all of it. If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects. I have heard it called “thinking above the curve,” and it’s that; I’ve heard it called “the over-logic,” and it’s that, too
There is no moral to The Stand, no “We’d better learn or we’ll probably destroy the whole damned planet next time”—but if the theme stands out clearly enough, those discussing it may offer their own morals and conclusions. Nothing wrong with that; such discussions are one of the great pleasures of the reading life.
I was astounded at how really useful “thematic thinking” turned out to be. It wasn’t just a vaporous idea that English professors made you write about on midterm essay exams (“Discuss the thematic concerns of Wise Blood in three well-reasoned paragraphs—30 pts”), but another handy gadget to keep in the toolbox, this one something like a magnifying glass.
Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. The only possible exceptions to this rule that I can think of are allegories like George Orwell’s Animal Farm
But once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob your work (and eventually your readers) of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own.
If you’ve been writing awhile, you won’t need me to help you much with this part; you’ll have your own established routine. If you’re a beginner, though, let me urge that you take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open.
This first draft—the All-Story Draft—should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else. There
The great thing about writing with the door shut is that you find yourself forced to concentrate on story to the exclusion of practically everything else.
Now let’s say you’ve finished your first draft. Congratulations! Good job! Have a glass of champagne, send out for pizza, do whatever it is you do when you’ve got something to celebrate. If you have someone who has been impatiently waiting to read your novel—a spouse, let’s say, someone who has perhaps been working nine to five and helping to pay the bills while you chase your dream—then this is the time to give up the goods … if, that is, your first reader or readers will promise not to talk to you about the book until you are ready to talk to them about it.
How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneadings—is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.
When you come to the correct evening (which you well may have marked on your office calendar), take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready.
I love this part of the process (well, I love all the parts of the process, but this one is especially nice) because I’m rediscovering my own book, and usually liking it.
Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I’ll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning. I’ll also want to delete stuff that goes in other directions.
When I’ve finished reading and making all my little anal-retentive revisions, it’s time to open the door and show what I’ve written to four or five close friends who have indicated a willingness to look.
I had written a line that went something like this: 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.
Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.
Ideal Reader is also the best way for you to gauge whether or not your story is paced correctly and if you’ve handled the back story in satisfactory fashion.
Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings).
In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High—1966, this would’ve been—I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”
Back story is all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story. Back story helps define character and establish motivation. I think it’s important to get the back story in as quickly as possible, but it’s also important to do it with some grace
The most important things to remember about back story 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. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.
When you step away from the “write what you know” rule, research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story. Just don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.
When I proposed the idea of a book on writing to my publisher at Scribner, I felt that I knew a great deal about the subject; my head all but burst with the different things I wanted to say. And perhaps I do know a lot, but some of it turned out to be dull and most of the rest, I’ve discovered, has more to do with instinct than with anything resembling “higher thought.” I found the act of articulating those instinctive truths painfully difficult.
Chapter 5 On Living: A Postscript
The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.
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. Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. 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. 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.
it seems to me that one of the things marriage is about is casting the tiebreaking vote when you just can’t decide what you should do next.
Writing did not save my life—Dr. David Brown’s skill and my wife’s loving care did that—but it has continued to do what it always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place.