Book: On Writing by Stephen King

„Writing is a telepathy” – it’s a process that transports thought from the writers mind to the reader’s.

The biggest takeaway from this book is:

Damn, this guy knows how to write books! I know, insightful!

Part autobiography – part writing manual, „on writing” is a deep dive into Stephen King’s writing process.

An author of Carrie, The Green Mile, The Dark Tower series and countless other stories, Stephen is prolific to a point where people (including my mom) think he has ghost writers.

Now, pushed to spill his secrets, Stephen addresses his prolific career. The book is not self-congratulatory at all. It consists of two parts – one about writer and one about writing.

The writer

In the first part of the book, Stephen briefly tells his life story and it’s exactly what you would expect. He tells amusing stories about his teenage adventures, and later cocaine. All in all, I respect him more now than before reading this book. He just seems like a fun guy. Not only because of the cocaine.

He grew up poor, hardworking and fascinated with the stories. He kept writing since the age of 7 and not long after started sending his stories to journals and magazines, accruing quite a stash of rejection letters.

But he kept improving his art, kept going at it, getting better and better.

He immersed himself in storytelling – mostly pulp fiction, good writing and the kitschy movies of the 50s and 60s. He was at a drive-in cinema when his wife broke into labour.

This is not at all surprising for me. In fact, that’s precisely what Malcolm Gladwell discovered in Outliers and Walter Isaacson explained in Innovators.

Immersing yourself in your art and devoting hours of deliberate practice is key to being ’the best in the world’ in your area of expertise.

The Writing process

The second half of the book holds a few writing principles but is not in any way a curriculum.

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

  1. Read, Read and read some more. You need to absorb new writing styles and writing tools, so you need to read any chance you get.
  2. Some well-behaved people will not considered it good manners to read while eating. If there is anything slowing down your progress more than not reading any chance you get, it will be listening to well-behaved people.
  3. Write a lot. A LOT.
  4. Ideal paragraph explains itself in the first sentence and in later sentences provides supporting evidence.
  5. Grammar is important. Adverbs are risky and sleazy. Especially in the dialogue. „He begged pitifully”
  6. Stories are made of:
    1. Narrative that moves the story from A to B
    2. Descriptions transferring the reality to the readers mind
    3. Dialogue
  7. Everybody is the hero of their own story. The best characters are the ones that are the heroes from their point of view
  8. “Write behind a closed door, edit in the open. The first draft belongs to you, the second – to anyone willing to read” – a concept similar to „Shitty first draft” of Anne Lamott
    Your second draft IS NOT an opportunity to add more stuff.
    Second version = First version – 10%

Benefits of daily writing practice

In the interviews I used to say that I write every day except Christmas, Fourth of July and my Birthday.
It’s a lie. In an interview you have to say something that sounds a bit funny and I didn’t want to look like a maniac.
The truth is that I write every day, including Christmas, Fourth of July and my Birthday which I try to ignore.

Stephen King

After taking the “Write of Passage” course, I finally understood why daily writing is helpful. Stephen’s reasoning is quite similar:

  • It gets the avarage ideas out of the way. You just have to flush the obvious out of your system
  • In the beginning you will use a hodge-podge of other people’s styles. There is nothing wrong with that. Only with writing you will be able to grow your own style. It needs room to develop and that room is the page.
  • Stephen says that when he is not writing daily, the characters in his mind start to ‘calcify’.
    It becomes harder and harder to make them move and it feels more like work.
    I found the same thing in regards to my blogging – when I don’t create something every day, it becomes harder and harder the next one.

”Write what you know about. If you know plumbing, the story about Space Plumbers is a good concept.”

You know what? I just very well may do that.