Stephen King has the unique ability to make you feel every emotion on the spectrum: rage, disappointment, terror, love, joy, and sorrow. This skill is what we writers grasp for, our greedy ink-stained fingers slipping across the keys. After all, a writer’s greatest task is to make readers feel.
To have them on the edge of their seats or praying that the protagonist doesn’t do ‘that thing’ that they know he’s about to do. You know, like when little George Denbrough reaches into the storm drain to grab his newspaper boat from that friendly clown’s outstretched hand.
Authors want to make people cry, laugh, and wipe off their sweaty palms so they can better grip their Kindles or paperbacks. Stephen King has mastered this. ‘Mastered’ is the key word here.
Though he’s an incredibly gifted writer, King worked blood, sweat, and tears hard to get where he is today and was gracious enough to share his advice in his book, On Writing – a must-read for aspiring and established authors.
His advice is the no-bullshit version of all those rejection letters writers receive, probably because King got a truckload himself. As he put it, “By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
In his own words, Stephen King's greatest writing advice:
On the Best Advice He Ever Got
It boils down to what Satchel Paige said: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” There will be people who like what you do and people who don’t. But if they’re picking over the last thing and you’re working on the next thing, that’s all yours.
On Starting Out in the Industry
That you don't always have to take the editor's advice. Sometimes the way you see it is the way it should be. I assume that every writer was a lot smarter and a lot craftier than I was. That turned out not to be the truth.
On Book Genres
As far as I’m concerned, genre was created by bookstores so that people who were casual readers could say, “Well, I want to read romances.” “Well, right over there, that’s where romances are.” The thing about genre is, so many people are like little kids who say, “I can’t eat this food because it’s touching this other thing.”
On Avoiding Distractions
It's pure habit. I write from probably 7:30 till noon most days. I kind of fall into a trance. It's important to remember that it isn't the big thing in life. The big thing in life is being there if you're needed for family or if there's an emergency or something. But you have to cut out the unimportant background chatter. That means no Twitter. That means not going to Huffington Post to see what Kim Kardashian is up to. There's a time for that – for me, it's usually before I go to bed. I find myself sitting hypnotized and looking at videos of funny dogs, that kind of thing.
On Starting the Day Writing
I wake up. I eat breakfast. I walk about three and a half miles. I come back, I go out to my little office, where I've got a manuscript, and the last page that I was happy with is on top. I read that, and it's like getting on a taxiway. I'm able to go through and revise it and put myself – click – back into that world, whatever it is. I don't spend the day writing. I'll maybe write fresh copy for two hours, and then I'll go back and revise some of it and print what I like and then turn it off.
On Kindle and the ‘Death’ of Books
The book is not the important part. The book is the delivery system. The important part is the story and the talent.
On Writing Short Stories
The novel is a quagmire that a lot of younger writers stumble into before they’re ready to go there. I started with short stories when I was 18, sold my first one when I was about 20 and produced nothing much but – well I wrote a couple of novels but they were not accepted and a lot of them were so bad that I didn’t even bother to revise them, but the short stories were making money and I got very comfortable in that format. And I’ve never wanted to leave it completely behind.
Reading is more than a door opener to a better job. It’s cool, it’s a kick, it’s a buzz. Plain old fun. Non-readers live just one single life. It may be a good one, it may be a great one, but a reader can live thousands. Sometimes when the right book falls into the right pair of hands, it lights a fire that leads to others.
You know what I like? When I go into someone’s house and ask to use the bathroom and see a bunch of books beside the commode. When I see that, I know I’m with my peeps, you know what I’m sayin’? People who read on the toilet, as far as I’m concerned, good people.
On New Ideas
Particularly in the Horror genre there are only three or four good ideas and we’ve all done them before. And it’s really – okay, I mean like, how many times in your life have you eaten eggs? But there’s always a new way to fix eggs and, you know, I look at it that way. You can always find a new way to do it. I think there are as many ideas as there are probing talented minds to explore those ideas.
On Why to Write:
I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.
For the Fulfillment
I’ve written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side – I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart.
You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page. (From On Writing)
For The Process
For me the fun of writing novels isn’t in the finished product which I don’t care about. There’s a guy over there looking at all the books on my shelf and to me those are like dead skin. They’re things that are done, but I love the process.
In terms of work, once I sit down to write and I’m in the story, all that falls away. I’m not thinking about cultural implications, I’m not thinking about genre, I’m not thinking about any of those things that have to do with what critics would talk about when they analyze fiction — all those things go away. But they only go away in the first draft. And then you put stuff away. When you come back to it, you read it and you say, these are the important things, this is where lightning struck for me. Those are almost always things that are cultural and thematic, and I just try and highlight those.
Stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.
On How to Write:
Write Like Yourself
Hemingway sucks. If I set out to write that way, it would have been hollow and lifeless because it wasn't me.
Read A Lot
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
Go Where the Story Leads You
When I started that story (Salem’s Lot) I thought to myself, “Well, this will be the opposite of Dracula where the good guys win and in this book the good guys are gonna lose and everybody’s gonna become a vampire at the end of the book.” And that didn’t happen. Because you go where the book leads you.
The best description of writing a novel that I ever heard was actually in Thomas Williams’ book, The Hair of Harold Roux, which is about a novelist trying to write a novelist and it just covers one or two days in this process and a lot of things happen to him. Fabulous book. But he says that writing a novel is like building a little campfire on an empty, dark plane and one by one these characters come out of the dark and each one has a little pile of wood and they put it on the fire. And if you’re very lucky before the fire goes out it’s this big bonfire and all of the characters stand around it and warm themselves. And that’s the way it’s always been for me.
Two pages of the passive voice—just about any business document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction—make me want to scream. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous, as well. How about this: My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun. Oh, man—who farted, right?
I cannot emphasize the importance of rewriting. I’ve been working on it for a few weeks. I’m still working on the opening for my next book.
Reality in Fiction
You can never bend reality to serve the fiction. You have to bend the fiction to serve reality when you find those things out.
The other piece of advice I want to give you before moving on to the next level of the toolbox is this: The adverb is not your friend.
Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.
Sentence Fragments Can Be Okay(ish)
Must you write complete sentences each time, every time?
Perish the thought. If your work consists only of fragments and floating clauses, the Grammar Police aren’t going to come and take you away. Even William Strunk, that Mussolini of rhetoric, recognized the delicious pliability of language. “It is an old observation,” he writes, “that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric.” Yet he goes on to add this thought, which I urge you to consider: 120.
Keep It Simple
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
Don’t Sweat the Grammar
The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.
Don’t Over Describe
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.
Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, toss it.
And most importantly, On Writing by Stephen King.