“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
After the first half of the book, which is more concerned with how he came to be an author, Stephen King comes to what – for him, at least – works when he writes books. It’s a few simple guidelines every beginning or more competent writer can follow. So these are the most important ones I gathered from his rather charming* book “On Writing”.
- “Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to change it. (You’ll be doing that as you read, of course … but that comes later).” (129)
- Read The Elements of Style by Strunk & White – it helps polishing up your grammar. They say things like “You should avoid the passive tense” (136).
- “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 […] 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.” (139)
- In dialogues use “said”, nothing else. Only in exceptional cases another word like “said” is acceptable.
- About structure, King says: “In fiction, the paragraph is less structured – it’s the beat instead of the actual melody. The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own.” (148)
- “We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style … but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.” (155)
- He goes on to say this several times, so listen: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” (164) “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in.” (167)
- Have a routine and a word count you have to reach every day of writing. Stephen King recommends a thousand words in the beginning. His limit is 2.000 words. Make sure you have a room where you can close the door to shut the world out. We all know the distraction pits of the modern world, don’t we? “For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.” (179)
- “Good fiction always begins with the story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.” (247+8)
- I will stop here. King’s book has heaps of good advice in it, about characters, the story, theme and symbolism. About the finished first draft, the ideal reader and so on. If you are a writer, do read his book. It will only do you good, I promise. Here’s one more thing: “The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” (325)
For the ones who already know how the strenuous effort of producing and creating a story can feel like: “And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.” (77) So even though I haven’t produced my first novel yet: thank you Cindy. Thank you Kai. Thank you mum, dad and my brother. It’s been a good start so far with the believing thing.
I know now why so many writers recommend this book. I believe that if you follow his advice you will make a lot less mistakes. It’s likely even that you write a book and you finish it as well!
Have fun reading & writing!
* And Stephen King would scold me because “charming” is not at all the most fitting word here. The book is witty, once King’s childhood is taken care of it’s also straight to the point and very honest. I love that last part very much.