Book Notes: On Writing – Steven King

Reading is such luxury. Reading about how to write from someone like Steven King is a greater privilege.

The first thing I thought about after reading the book was, why aren’t Singaporeans writing more? Fiction, non-fiction, whatever? Or are there people who write but have gone undiscovered? What happened to our generation of Russell Lees, our Teenage Textbooks, our Catherine Lims?

On Writing should be made a textbook for all writers. Fiction or not – Steven King covers the nooks and crannies of writing with honesty and pragmatism. There’s lots of practical tips in his “toolbox” for beginners but it’s his emphasis on writing about the truth and sticking to what we know, said what was on everyone’s mind but hadn’t been said before.

Here are my highlight / notes from the book:

Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around. So you don’t need a big fancy desk to start writing under the perfect conditions. All you need is a closed door, a computer or notepad and grit. In fact, put that table in the corner of the room and just focus on the writing.
From the toolbox:

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.

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.

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

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.

The simplicity of noun-verb construction is useful—at the very least it can provide a safety net for your writing.

Rocks explode. Jane transmits. Mountains float.

You should avoid the passive tense

Write The meeting’s at seven. There, by God! Don’t you feel better?

You might also notice how much simpler the thought is to understand when it’s broken up into two thoughts.

The adverb is not your friend.

The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.

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

While to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

You always add ’s, even when the word you’re modifying ends in s—always write Thomas’s bike and never Thomas’ bike

Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs—including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long—and lots of white space.

Topic-sentence-followed-by-support-and-description insists that the writer organize his/her thoughts, and it also provides good insurance against wandering away from the topic.

Writing is refined thinking.

The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own.

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.

On reading and writing

Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. If not so, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?

You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.

Words have weight. (Literally)

if you’re a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you’re good and want to be great … fuhgeddaboudit.

There is a muse,* but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor

If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well—settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.

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

Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns.
Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it.

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. And how much of a sacrifice are we talking about here?

 If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good. 

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.

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing

Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness.

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.

How much and when to write?

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.

When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.

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.

You can read anywhere, almost, but when it comes to writing, library carrels, park benches, and rented flats should be courts of last resort—Truman Capote said he did his best work in motel rooms, but he is an exception; most of us do our best in a place of our own. Until you get one, you’ll find your new resolution to write a lot hard to take seriously.

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

Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.

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.
When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.

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.

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.

What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all … as long as you tell the truth.

What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money.

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.

(John Grisham)  He was once a young lawyer, though, and he has clearly forgotten none of the struggle. Nor has he forgotten the location of the various financial pitfalls and honey-traps that make the field of corporate law so difficult.

Don’t imitate,  emulate Grisham’s openness and inability to do anything other than get right to the point.

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.

Do you consciously need a plot?

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.

Honesty in storytelling makes up for a great many stylistic faults, as the work of wooden-prose writers like Theodore Dreiser and Ayn Rand shows, but lying is the great unrepairable fault.

Descriptive writing

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

Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else

It’s also important to remember it’s not about the setting, anyway—it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.

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.

When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects—a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage—we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way.

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, instead

Talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character; it can also be a breath of cool, refreshing air in a room some people would prefer to keep shut up.
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.

I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.

in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.

Boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam. I spent those walks being bored and thinking about my gigantic boondoggle of a manuscript.

The Ideal Reader

In the end I listen most closely to Tabby, because she’s the one I write for, the one I want to wow. If you’re writing primarily for one person besides yourself, I’d advise you to pay very close attention to that person’s opinion.

Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time.

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.
Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds.

The best way to find the happy medium? Ideal Reader, of course. Try to imagine whether he or she will be bored by a certain scene
Editing and backstories

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.

In a very real sense, every life is in medias res.

Don’t go to writing class, just keep writing

It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.

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