Book Notes: On Writing by Stephen King

Stephen King, the prolific and successful horror fiction writer, wrote On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft a few years ago. My friend Wayne McVicker, author of Starting Something, recommended On Writing to me and it didn’t let me down. It’s a great read for any writer or aspiring writer. Writing and language is one part of my renewed focus on strengths, not weaknesses.

King’s book on writing is, appropriately, very well written. I’ve never read any of his horror books, but I’m guessing one reason he’s so successful is because he has some talent. Indeed, this thin paperback flies along beautifully, offering concrete tips to writers as well as a larger framework to think about the craft.

The Big Idea here is that you can’t be a great writer through simple hard work. That takes some god given talent. But you can go from a merely competent writer to a good writer with hard work and practice (King says reading a ton is as or more important than writing a ton).

Two main theses:

1. Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocab, grammar, style).
2. Competent writers can become good writers with practice.

Random notes:

Stories consist of three parts:

1. Narration – point A to point B

2. Description – sensory reality

3. Dialogue – brings characters to life

King’s not keen on exhaustive physical descriptions. He lets reader supply the faces. "Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s." Best physical details will be those that first visualized images that come to you (just like the first word that comes to mind is the word you should use, not a longer thesaurus version). Focus on a few poignant details to set the scene or describe the person — ie the first few distinctive qualities that come to mind.

Authentic dialogue is hard to pull off, King says. Many people do it wrong. The best dialogue writers are those who do a lot of listening in real life conversations. The best dialogue writers: "Their talk is so real that part of what we feel is the guilty pleasure of anyone first tuning in and then eavesdropping on an intersting conversation."

Profanity — it’s important to tell the truth and develop trust with reader. Your mother may have taught you never to say "shit," but if you drop and shatter a glass in your kitchen, are you going to yell "Oh shoot darn!" No, you’d likely exclaim, "Oh shit!" If you bow down to the "Legion of Decency" you are breaking your promise to reader to express how people really act and feel.

Best books have "ideal reader" in mind — an IR — and the author always has this person in mind. For King, it’s his wife. He always thinks how she’ll respond to something. I’m not sure how I feel about this technique….

When you get feedback from people on your writing, tie goes to the writer. So if reviewer A thinks it’s good, and reviewer B thinks it’s bad, keep it. If both think it’s bad, change it.

Other tidbits I underlined:

  • "Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace up shoes."
  • "When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story."
  • Simile and metaphor — when done right, are absolutely golden.
  • Best form of dialogue attribution is "said."
  • Adverbs and passive voice = evil.

4 Responses to Book Notes: On Writing by Stephen King

  1. Chris Yeh says:

    Stephen King is an enormously skilled writer, who is admired (and envied) by many “serious” writers as well, though of course not all of his work is masterpiece-level.

    Do you have a copy of Wayne’s book I can borrow? It looks like an outstanding addition to the startup library (Startup, Burn Rate, High Stakes No Prisoners)!

  2. Tim Taylor says:

    This is very interesting to me on a lot of levels. I love this quote that you pointed out:

    “When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.”

    That’s right on the money. You know, I’m not sure if I read this or heard this in an interview but when describing writing horror, for some reason Stephen King said if you can get someone to picture how it would feel if you left a piece of gum on a bed post for the night then a moth gets stuck on it and dies and the next morning, unwittingly, you put the gum and the moth in your moth and start chewing, then you’ve got something.

    Pretty heady stuff.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I know passive voice is evil, but are adverbs evil too? Why?

  4. Dani says:

    re: adverbs–

    answer: Swifties!

    “I need a pencil sharpener,” said Tom bluntly.

    “I can no longer hear anything,” said Tom deftly.

    “I have a split personality,” said Tom, being frank.

    harharhar. To add to the adverb-ial issue–adverbs are modifiers that can couple with nouns, verbs, adjectives–even other adverbs! They’re promiscuous buggers. If you ever look at a sentence and there’s a word that seems misplaced or odd, 9/10 times, it’s an adverb. Nouns and verbs are just stronger parts of speech. More concrete.

    I loved this book too–I tore through it, and I’d never read another King, either.

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