Even if you’re not a fan of Stephen King’s fiction, his book on writing is filled with insightful advice on the craft. (Btw, it was also the inspiration for the title of the “On Writing” posts we publish here.) Some excerpts below.
Get the first draft done quickly…
I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months…Any longer and — for me, at least — the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave duiring a period of severe sunspot activity.
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.
Second drafts can only help so much…
“A movie should be there in rough cut,” the film editor Paul Hirsch once told me. The same is true of books. I think it’s rare that incoherence or dull storytelling can be solved by something so minor as a second draft.
Formula for success: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%...
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 suggest 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)...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.”
Practice isn’t painful when you love what you do…
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.
Some meaty detective-fiction similes…
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).
On writing seminars and the desire for “the right writing environment”...
In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. 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.
What scares the master of fear…
The scariest moment is always just before you start.
Don Schenckon 23 Mar 07
And always remember: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS WRITER’S BLOCK!
Simply lower your standards.
(Seriously. Think about it)
Emilyon 23 Mar 07
Markon 23 Mar 07
Sorry dude, but it’s “Stephen”, not “Steven”. :)
But yah, fantastic book.
Anonymous Cowardon 23 Mar 07
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”
- On Writing by Stephen King
Luison 23 Mar 07
Say what you want about the man, but he’s an example of one who writes clearly, simply-stated stories, void of flowery language that we all know is prevalent in “literature.”
Chris Huffon 23 Mar 07
Great information. Quite helpful. Of course, writing novels is a bit different than writing for the internet, but I can see how this would apply to writing for the internet as well.
Dave Rosenon 23 Mar 07
I like King’s initial kamikaze approach to the first draft that embraces storyline over similes.
Everyone says they’ll write a book one day, but few do.
If your a Stephen King wannabe, and feel like setting aside fears and making a mad dash for the impossible, join the annual National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, for short – http://www.nanowrimo.org/
Create a Writeboard and begin to type…
soxiamon 23 Mar 07
“I’d never had writer’s block before,” said King. “I wasn’t even sure it really existed. I thought it was just other writers being lazy.”
Aon 23 Mar 07
King’s book is great – he cuts right through the bullshit, a style which I whole heartedly approve.
Leahon 23 Mar 07
One of my favorite parts was talking about how he now writes where he lives. That when he was at the height of his addictions, he wrote at a huge desk and was isolated from his family. Now his desk is next to the couch and his family is welcome to bounce in and out of the room.
This book is chock full of great lessons. The most important, of course, is that writer’s write.
floydon 23 Mar 07
Stephen King is quoted as calling himself the ‘literary equivalent of big mac and fries’...
Calebon 23 Mar 07
Thanks for sharing this. It’s very helpful.
bikehamon 23 Mar 07
Steven vs Stephen King. Best howler of the year.
Stephenon 24 Mar 07
Your permalink will forever be mispelled!
Quixon 24 Mar 07
I’m not really into the King horror books, but the Dark Tower series is one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read. Right up there with Tolkien as far as “rocked my world” fiction goes. If you haven’t read these yet, do it. Do it now. Better yet, listen to the Audible versions (Frank Muller rules – I wish he were still able to narrate).
You write true, King, I say thank you.
Percyon 24 Mar 07
On Writing is one of the best writing books that I’ve read and re-read. Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird is another.
bradon 24 Mar 07
Interesting contrast between King and Annie Dillard on the subject of second drafts:
King: ”’A movie should be there in rough cut,’ the film editor Paul Hirsch once told me. The same is true of books. I think it’s rare that incoherence or dull storytelling can be solved by something so minor as a second draft.”
Dillard (in The Writing Life): “Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs. I hope you will toss it all and not look back.” “You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how excellent in themselves or hard-won. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now.”
Markon 24 Mar 07
I read that when it came out, and I got on a books-on-writing kick a few years back. Ray Bradbury’s “Zen and the Art of Writing,” as well as others’ “Room to Write,” “The Forest for the Trees,” and “Sin and Syntax” were worthwhile reads. I read “Bird by Bird” then as well.
Jason Albaon 24 Mar 07
This is awesome – I have always loved reading Ste[ph]en King – what a treat to get tips, etc on how to write. My fav: not having writer’s block.
Jason Alba CEO – JibberJobber.com
Tom P Schaafson 24 Mar 07
Highly recommended – and with an interestingly familiar title – is William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”. First published in 1976 and refined through the years, this book is a fine example for its own domain. And the density of actionable take-aways is high.
Steve Portigalon 25 Mar 07
The part from that book that I always cite is King’s own references to Kill Your Darlings (I think the original may have been Murder Your Darlings) – iteration involves getting rid of stuff that you may have liked, a lot, and getting rid of it (material, characters, whatever) may be painful but is essential.
The book about Chiat-Day (I’m forgetting the name, right now) describes something familiar, they call it Demo Love. Falling in love with your demo and deciding that it should really be that way when it comes to actually designing something.
Gregon 25 Mar 07
I love that book, and reading it really gave me a new respect for King’s books. Say what you want about his novels, the man knows the craft of writing inside-out.
“2nd = 1st -10%” is one of my favorite maxims for writing. The other is “No one likes reading as much as you like writing”.
Darrenon 26 Mar 07
My personal favourite quote on writing is similar to the writer’s block thought at the top of this list, ‘allow yourself a sh**y first draft.’
Great post and great comments, cheers peeps
Anonymous Cowardon 27 Mar 07
Stephen King on writing = Thomas Kinkade on art.
avion 29 Mar 07
“2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%...” I am hanging this on my cubicle’s wall.
count0on 30 Mar 07
I have read King’s “On Writing” and love it.
And I have the same impression that writing fiction is similar to writing software, so his explanation on writing also apply to programming.
This discussion is closed.