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My Highlights from “On Writing” by Stephen King

I love this book. Read it, whether you are a writer or not. King covers both his personal journey and his advice for aspiring writers. The book is split into two parts based on this premise.

To myself if I come across this post in the future – Read this book again dude.

You can read about more of my favorite books from 2015 here.

Here are my Kindle highlights from the book. Each specific highlight is separated by paragraph:

“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.

But none of them taught me 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.

It didn’t, of course. The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional strangulation and despair. These concepts are very familiar to most alcoholics; the common reaction to them is amusement. Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit.

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.

It’s easy to become careless when making rough comparisons, but the alternative is a prissy attention to detail that takes all the fun out of writing. What am I going to say, “on the table is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high”? That’s not prose, that’s an instruction manual. The paragraph also doesn’t tell us what sort of material the cage is made of—wire mesh? steel rods? glass?—but does it really matter? We all understand the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don’t care.

Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

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.

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.

Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.

Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition – I assume I wanted to remember the name of this book here.

Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. 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.

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. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp 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.

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.

Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs—including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long—and lots of white space. They’re as airy as Dairy Queen ice cream cones. Hard books, ones full of ideas, narration, or description, have a stouter look. A packed look. Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.

Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story  . . . . to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

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. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people.

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.

Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do. If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider a novel about a plumber aboard a starship or on an alien planet. Sound ludicrous? The late Clifford D. Simak wrote a novel called Cosmic Engineers which is close to just that. And it’s a terrific read. What you need to remember is that there’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story. The latter is good. The former is not.

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 want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety—those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot—but to watch what happens and then write it down.

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. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s

I think locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players. Nor do I think that physical description should be a shortcut to character.

More about the restaurant would slow the pace of that story, perhaps annoying us enough to break the spell good fiction can weave. In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it “got boring,” the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.

The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.

One of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us.

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.

It’s also important to remember that no one is “the bad guy” or “the best friend” or “the whore with a heart of gold” in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby. If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.

We see her go through dangerous mood-swings, but I tried never to come right out and say “Annie was depressed and possibly suicidal that day” or “Annie seemed particularly happy that day.” If I have to tell you, I lose. If, on the other hand, I can show you a silent, dirty-haired woman who compulsively gobbles cake and candy, then have you draw the conclusion that Annie is in the depressive part of a manic-depressive cycle, I win. And if I am able, even briefly, to give you a Wilkes’-eye-view of the world—if I can make you understand her madness—then perhaps I can make her someone you sympathize with or even identify with. The result? She’s more frightening than ever, because she’s close to real.

My job (and yours, if you decide this is a viable approach to storytelling) is to make sure these fictional folks behave in ways that will both help the story and seem reasonable to us, given what we know about them (and what we know about real life, of course). Sometimes villains feel self-doubt (as Greg Stillson does); sometimes they feel pity (as Annie Wilkes does). And sometimes the good guy tries to turn away from doing the right thing, as Johnny Smith does  . . . . as Jesus Christ himself did, if you think about that prayer (“take this cup from my lips”) in the Garden of Gethsemane. And if you do your job, your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own. I know that sounds a little creepy if you haven’t actually experienced it, but it’s terrific fun when it happens. And it will solve a lot of your problems, believe me.

Two examples of the sort of work second drafts were made for are symbolism and theme.

It is that ability to summarize and encapsulate that makes symbolism so interesting, useful, and—when used well—arresting. You could argue that it’s really just another kind of figurative language.

Symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create a sense of artificial profundity. None of the bells and whistles are about story, all right? Only story is about story.

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.

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.

You undoubtedly have your own thoughts, interests, and concerns, and they have arisen, as mine have, from your experiences and adventures as a human being. Some are likely similar to those I’ve mentioned above and some are likely very different, but you have them, and you should use them in your work. That’s not all those ideas are there for, perhaps, but surely it’s one of the things they are good for.

Warning—starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. 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.

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.

If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.

This first draft—the All-Story Draft—should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.

Here’s something else—if no one says to you, “Oh Sam (or Amy)! This is wonderful!,” you are a lot less apt to slack off or to start concentrating on the wrong thing  . . . . being wonderful, for instance, instead of telling the goddam story.

My advice is that you take a couple of days off—go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle—and then go to work on something else. Something shorter, preferably, and something that’s a complete change of direction and pace from your newly finished book.

You’re not, though, and you’re not ready to go back to the old project until you’ve gotten so involved in a new one (or re-involved in your day-to-day life) that you’ve almost forgotten the unreal estate that took up three hours of your every morning or afternoon for a period of three or five or seven months.

Make all the notes you want, but concentrate on the mundane housekeeping jobs, like fixing misspellings and picking up inconsistencies. There’ll be plenty; only God gets it right the first time and only a slob says, “Oh well, let it go, that’s what copyeditors are for.

With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. I’m talking about holes big enough to drive a truck through. It’s amazing how some of these things can elude the writer while he or she is occupied with the daily work of composition. And listen—if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us.

Underneath, however, I’m asking myself the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme? I’m asking myself What’s it all about, Stevie, in other words, and what I can do to make those underlying concerns even clearer. What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf. I’m looking for ways to do that without spoon-feeding the reader or selling my birthright for a plot of message. Take all those messages and those morals and stick em where the sun don’t shine, all right? I want resonance. 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.

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. And you know what? You’ll find yourself bending the story even before Ideal Reader glimpses so much as the first sentence. I.R. will help you get outside yourself a little, to actually read your work in progress as an audience would while you’re still working. This is perhaps the best way of all to make sure you stick to story, a way of playing to the audience even while there’s no audience there and you’re totally in charge.

Also, needy or not, you might want to watch and see when your I.R. puts your manuscript down to do something else. What scene was he or she reading? What was so easy to put down?

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).

Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.

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.

On the whole, I think story belongs in front, but some research is inevitable; you shirk it at your peril.

You should also pick up the writers’ journals and buy a copy of Writer’s Market, the most valuable of tools for the writer new to the marketplace.

You may also want to add a copy of the LMP (Literary Market Place) to your reference shelf.

Total highlights: 62

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