Stephen King on Writing

One of my recent interests is writing. I have discovered that I enjoy and love writing, and I want to become better at it. Often I get into a state of flow when writing, which makes me happier. As an excuse to do more writing, I revived this blog at the beginning of January. As a next step, I would like to write a novel.

Besides practising writing via this blog, I figured I should get advice from excellent writers. A couple of Google queries later (or rather Amazon queries), I find several people recommending Stephen King's book On Writing.

I have to admit that I haven't read a single one of Stephen King's books. For some reason I have a hard time enjoying fiction. If I would be forced to guess why, I think it is because I am obsessed with learning useful stuff that can be applied to enrich my life. When reading fiction, I feel that the 10 or so hours it takes to read a book could be better spent learning or doing something useful.

I liked On Writing. King does exactly what I had hoped for when opening it on my Kindle. He begins with a brief summary of the life events he thinks has affected his decision to go into a career of writing, and also what life events affected his choice to write the kind of books that he writes, and last but not least what life events and habits have made him as successful as he is.

The second part of the book is about more practical things. This is the part I obviously found the most interesting. He describes exactly how he structures his day. He describes what he deems an optimal writing environment. He describes all habits important to his writing. I loved reading about this.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death. Writing is at its best – always, always, always – when it is a kind of inspired play for the writer.

One of my main takeaways is that to be a successful and productive author of books with an interesting and coherent storyline, one should write every day. Stephen King personally begins every day with writing 2000 words. He does not do anything else until he has finished his 2000 words. And he writes every day. In earlier interviews, he tells, he sometimes have said that he takes a few days off each year. Days like Christmas Day. But that is not true, it is only so that he will not be portrayed as a total workaholic. The truth is that he writes his 2000 words every day.

After finishing writing, which some days happens in the morning, some days after lunch, he does some errands and other small tasks. Then the next important part of his day is reading. He reads a lot, maybe 4-5 hours per day. He attributes his success in writing to reading a lot. King is convinced that to become a good writer you constantly have to read a lot of books, in order to learn both bad and good writing style.

To read a lot, it helps to become accustomed to both long and short reading sessions. The long reading sessions are when King sits in his blue chair in his study in the evenings (he never watches TV). The short reading sessions is when on a bus, or in the doctor's waiting room (something I can assume he has done a lot after his near-fatal encounter with a truck running him over in 1999).

Further elaborating on his actual writing process, King compares the writer's work with that of an archeologist. The story is buried where, deep in the ground, and you as a writer have to carefully chisel it out and uncover it without inflicting any damage to it.

King never makes a story outline before writing a book. In fact he always just begins with a situation – an intriguing situation that he thinks a good story might revolve around. Then he just starts writing. He says it is important to let the characters in the story live their own life. The writer's job is just to tell the truth. He is often as surprised as his readers of the outcome of a story, and all the twists and turns in it.

After writing a whole book, something he does in around three months, he lets it rest for six weeks. He just lets it sit around in his desk drawer for six whole weeks without ever looking at it. In the meanwhile he works on other things, often shorter texts. Then after six weeks he goes through and reviews the book, revising and improving it with fresh eyes. He provides examples in the book of a raw first draft from the short story 1408, and what changes he made in the second draft. It is encouraging to see how many, often simple, mistakes even one of the foremost writers in the world makes in the first draft.

After his own second draft he lets a few other people read the work and give him feedback. Often only around five people.

I personally attribute most of King's writing style and success to the process where he just lets his subconscious write the story for him. King also reflects on the manifestations of this. "Holy shit, I’m an alcoholic, I thought, and there was no dissenting opinion from inside my head – I was, after all, the guy who had written The Shining without even realizing (at least until that night) that I was writing about myself." This I find fascinating.

So if you want to gain an insight into the life of a writer, go read On Writing.

Thanks Stephanie Lawton for the header photo, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Micael Widell

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