Stephen King “On Writing”

This book was recommended to me by my friend Mathias, who swears by it as the only useful book on writing. I grabbed a copy at my local public library (can you imagine, a French public library had it in English? I was ecstatic). I truly enjoyed it, and I wanted to share a couple of my favorite quotes from it.

p. 29 – Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

p. 46 – I have spent a good many years – 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. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.

p. 56 – 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. 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, more will want to do the former than the latter.

This one is the nightmare of all creative folks: p. 76 – I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows, potbelly rolling over my Gap khakis from too much beer. I’d have a cigarette cough from too many packs of Pall Malls, thicker glasses, more dandruff, and in my desk drawer, six or seven unfinished manuscripts which I would take out and tinker with from time to time, usually when drunk. If asked what I did in my spare time, I’d tell people I was writing a book – what else does any self-respecting creative-writing teacher do with his or her spare time? And of course, I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty. Probably plenty of them.

And how King got through it. My wife made a crucial difference during those years. If she had suggested that my writing time 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 spouse, 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.

p. 112 – 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.

p. 142 – You need only look back through some of my own fiction to know that I’ve spilled out my share of adverbs in my time, including some (it shames me to say it) in dialogue attribution. When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.

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, that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp for a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

p. 143 – Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.

p. 148 – In fiction, the paragraph is less structured – it’s the beat instead of the actual melody. The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your own paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want. When composing it’s best not to think too much about where paragraphs begin and end; the trick is to let nature take its course. If you don’t like it later on, fix it then. That’s what rewrite is all about.

p. 154 – Is there any rationale for building entire mansions of words? I think there is. Sometimes it’s beautiful and we fall in love with all that story, more than any film or TV program could ever hope to provide. Even after a thousand pages we don’t want to leave the world the writer has made for us, or the make-believe people who live there. You wouldn’t leave after two thousand pages, if there were two thousand. The Rings trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien is a perfect example of this.

p. 247 – Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. 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.

p. 255 – What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in the reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.

p. 326 – 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.

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About kartiksingh

I have been living in Paris, France since 1996. I was born to Sikh parents who immigrated to the USA. I grew up outside of Kansas City, and at 18 went to Washington DC with the intention of becoming a diplomat. Five years later, I arrived in Paris and found my life purpose: to make films that bring hope, insight, and inspiration to the world. My debut feature film Callback premieres in September 2010 in New York. For more details on where you can see my films, look for me at http://www.facebook.com/#!/kartik.singh
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5 Responses to Stephen King “On Writing”

  1. daveed says:

    Excellent. I started it a few years ago and was slightly bored with the over-emphasis on “proper writing” — grammar and whatnot. But this gives me impetus to crack it open again and look for the gems, like those in the passages you cited.

  2. John Daly says:

    I came across this book in the room my wife and I stayed at in an old B&B in Massachusetts a few weeks ago. The house was undoubtedly haunted, but our room was occupied by spirits who were doing their best to convey positive messages to both of us. One message was to urge me to write more. Placing this book in the room for us to find was one of several tools used to send this message. Finding this book on Kartik’s blog site now is a friendly reminder from afar that someone is waiting for me to start. Time to write I guess…

  3. kartiksingh says:

    Wow, the universe is intense. Mathias in Paris tells me about a book which my library happens to have. I soak up the book and enjoy it so much that I post highlights on my blog. John in NY reads it, reminding him of his dream to write. I love it! To paraphrase King, I would say it is time to drink and be filled up.

  4. Pingback: Laborous love « Heart of the Matter

  5. Pingback: 2010 in review « Kartik’s Blog

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