Lessons From ‘On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft’

What can we learn from Stephen King’s memoir/writing guide?

I recently read On Writing, by Stephen King, for the second time since I started trying my hand at all this writing crap. I refer to this book every now and then in my portfolio commentaries for my uni assignments, so this time around, I thought I would underline certain quotes which jumped out at me as being paricularly useful, or even particularly dumb. At the very least, I thought it would make it easier to find the page number for that one quote about adverbs I always like to steal.

A small disclaimer: These quotes are taken exclusively from the second half of the book – the half which serves as a writing guide. The first half, the memoir, is interesting, but generally useless when it comes to practical advice. I’ve attatched some explanatory (and often annoyingly autobigraphical) notes in places, too.

This is a long one, so consider yourself warned. Anyway, here’s what I learned from On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft:

On Vocabulary

“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.” (p.129)

  • Okay, guilty as charged. But less so, these days. When I was starting out, I would often pause after a sentence — typically a long meandering one — and right click, synonyms… for every word that wasn’t it, and, or the. Inevitably, this would lead to my writing sounding as though I had shoved Thesaurus.com down my gullet and shat out the results. King is correct here. Vocabulary should be simple. Less is more.

“Remember that the first rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. […] And do feel free to take appropriateness into account; as George Carlin once observed, in some company it is perfectly all right to prick your finger, but very bad form to finger your prick.” (p.130)

  • Yes, ha-ha, very funny, Steve. Seriously though, he’s right on the money here. I’ve critiqued a lot of work-in-progress (and written some of my own, regrettably) in which the writer seems to think excessive use of profanity adds shock value. Profanity can be effective though, when used sparingly, and I mean very sparingly. I’m not a prude, but when every other sentence is ‘Fuck-fuckity-fuck-fuck’, the impact softens.

On Sentence Structure

“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.” (p.133)

  • This is what I love about writing fiction. After being brought up on a strict diet of institutionalised essay-writing for the first eighteen years of my life, making the leap to creative writing was liberating. There are rules, of course there are, but you’re free to break them. Once you realise you can start a sentence with But or And, it will change your life.

“It is possible to overuse the well-turned fragment, but frags can also work beautifully to streamline narration, create clear images, and create tension as well as to vary the prose-line. A series of gramatically proper sentences can stiffen that line, make it less pliable.” (p.151)

“Strunk and White caution against too many simple sentences in a row, but simple sentences provide a path you can follow when you fear getting lost in the tangles of rhetoric.” (p.134)

  • King is refering to William Strunk and E.B. White’s ‘The Elements of Style‘. It’s not a particularly fun read, but it is a necessary one for anyone who is serious about working with the English Language. This is one of the many pieces of writing advice given in the book, and I think it’s invaluable.

On Active and Passive Tense

“Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.” (p.136)

  • This is a tough one to weed out during the revision process. I’m sure I’ve committed a few sins of the passive tense in my time. I’ve seen several articles which advocate on behalf of the passive tense. They claim there are exceptions to the rule. But I’m going to have to go with King on this one. Avoid the passive tense.

On Adverbs and Dialogue Attribution

“The adverb is not your friend.” (p.138)

“Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” (p.139)

“I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions . . . and not even then, if you can avoid it.” (p.140)

“The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.” (p.142)

  • This is a commonly held view among writing experts, and I agree strongly with it. Adverbs are bad. If I ever catch myself writing: ‘he yelled menacingly’, I think I’d kill myself. And yes, I’d probably yell menacingly in the process. Maybe I’d even shout angrily.
  • If you think of adverb-hate as a spectrum, King sounds like he’s on the extreme end of it, right up there with the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and Raymond Carver, who seem to believe that adverbs and other uneccessary words should be purged from the face of The Earth. King can put himself among them all he wants, but anyone who has read The Mist can attest otherwise. King uses adverbs in that story as though they’re going out of fashion, which, I suppose, he claims they are. The Mist is bad. The Mist is reaaally bad. King shatters his own rules into a million pieces in that story. I could give an example, but I’d have to open the book up again, and I can’t bring myself to do that. Although, I’m quite certain ‘he yelled menacingly’ was somewhere among the rubble, and probably more than once. I really really hate The Mist.

“When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t. I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” (p.142)

  • He must’ve been terrified when he wrote The Mist, then.

“All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.” (p.144)

  • The Mist aside (and I promise I’ll stop bringing it up now], this is great advice. I mentioned Raymond Carver earlier, and for good reason. He’s the master of He said, She said. It’s simple, and efficient. I’d like to refer you to his short story Fat, from his collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?. Carver’s use of the default ‘said’ or ‘says’ as dialogue attribution in this story is borderline excessive. In fact, it is beyond the realms of excessive. It’s brilliant, and it works perfectly.
  • Elmore Leonard is another of these purists, stating that a writer should, “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue,” and should also, “Never use an adverb to modify the verb said.”

On Structure and Pacing

“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.” (p.148)

  • Again, this is what I love about writing fiction; there really are no rules. Paragraphs and sentences can be as long or as short as you need them to be. They are dictated only by the writer’s ear for ryhthm, unlike non-fiction in which you must adhere to the standard ‘topic sentence, conclusion, blah-blah, bluh-bluh. But there is a downside to being too experimental. Ducks, Newsburyport by Lucy Ellmann is an example of this. She tries to tell a 1,000 page story in a single run-on sentence, with no pauses. An interesting idea, but it’s impossible to read. It was generally well-recieved by critics. All I can say is: well done to them for getting past the first page.

“Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast paced. […] Like so many unexamined beliefs in the publishing business, this idea is largely bullshit. […] But you can overdo the speed thing. Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind, either by confusing or by wearing him/her out. […] Nevertheless, you need to beware – if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive.” (p.263-265)

  • This is a pretty safe point of view, and you would do well to find someone who believes otherwise. Basically, your pacing should not be too fast. Nor should it be too slow. It needs to be just right. Like a bowl of porridge, or a chair, or the bed you find after breaking into the home of a random and unsuspecting stranger. Juuuust right…

“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 suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do.” (p.266)

“Formula: 2nd draft = 1st Draft -10%. […] What the formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten percent of it while retaining the basic story and flavour, you’re not trying very hard.” (p.267)

  • I agree with this. I suppose the amount of excess fat you can trim away depends of how obese your story was to begin with. 10% isn’t much, at least not for me. Perhaps that means I let a lot more rubbish through the cracks of my stories than King allows for in his initial 10%. One of my own stories, Don’t You Know There’s a Sickness, was cut by a whopping 50%, and I think it’s a much stronger story for it. Again, less is more.

On The Process

“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.” (p.164)

  • This is probably the best bit of advice in this book. A lot of novice writers naively believe they can get by without opening a single book, but it’s impossible. Reading is the best way of learning how to write. I haven’t always wanted to be a writer, and I haven’t always been an avid reader. But once I realised writing was in my future, I went out of my way to read as many books as possible, from as many different writers. I’ve read overy fifty books so far this year, and I don’t plan on stopping. I also find I learn more about the craft from reading terrible fiction than good fiction. If you identify what you don’t like, you can purge it from your own work. At the very least, reading a poorly written New York Times bestseller is encouraging. I always like to tell myself: if J.K. Rowling can do it, so can I.

“This first draft – the All-Story Draft – should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else. There may come a point where you want to show what you’re doing to a close friend, either because you’re proud of what you’re doing or because you’re doubtful about it. My best advice is to resist this impulse. Keep the pressure on; don’t lower it by exposing what you’ve written to the doubt, the praise, or even the well-meaning questions of someone from the outside world.” (p.250)

  • I’m guilty of this. There’s an inherent instict for all writers to seek validation, and I’m no different. I’ve often found that sharing work in progress kills momentum, and inevitably leads to a pile of abandoned and unfinished stories.

“Only God gets it right the first time and only a slob says, ‘Oh well, let it go, that’s what copyeditors are for.'” (p.253)

“It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.” (p.253)

  • This is another common piece of writing advice. ‘Kill your darlings’. Some believe it was William Faulkner who first said this, or some vriation of it, while others are adamant it was Arthur Quill-Couch. Either way, it’s true. It’s always tough to look at your own work with an impartial eye. This is what makes the editing process so difficult. You might think that ten page run on sentence you wrote is the best thing anyone has ever envisioned. But if nobody else likes it, how good can it possibly be? Kill your darlings — listen to other people when they tell you something about your work isn’t working, because nine times out of ten, they are right, and you are wrong.

On Plot and Story

“You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer – my answer, anyway – is nowhere. I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” (p.188)

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and laboured.” (p.189)

  • It is generally believed that there are two types of writers; plotters and non-plotters. Plotters and pantsers. George R.R. Martin calls them Architects and gardeners. The plotter, or the architect, plans out their story before they put pen to paper — they know how it starts, they know how it ends, and they know exactly how theyre going to get there. The pantser on the other hand, or the gardener, does not. They plant a seed — a idea or a situation — and watch it grow. Basically, they just make it up as they go along. This is what King does, and you can tell when you read most of his books *cough cough, Under The Dome, cough cough*. It’s often fairly obvious that he had no plan, that he just made up the ending on a whim, and the story shows for it. These endings can often feel confusing and undeserved.
  • I wouldn’t put myself in either camp; I think its a good idea to be a bit of both. Maybe I do lean a little further towards the plotting end of the spectrum, the architect. But King lives and dies by his lack of clear direction, and I have to disagree with him on this one. A writer needs to know where the story is going. If they don’t, how can the reader possibly follow them there?

“The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualised. In most, however, it’s something I never expected.” (p.190)

  • This is a litle more like it. As I write, I often discover things about my characters that I didn’t initially plan for, and it’s never a good idea to force them to conform to this plan. If you need a character to do A for your plot to make sense, but you think, ‘that character wold never do A, they would do B instead,’ let them do B. Stories are about human beings, after all, and when your characters stop being human, you no longer have a story to tell. Change the direction of your plot, not the traits and philosophies of your characters. When writers do the opposite, you often end up with charcters like Luke Skywalker in Episode VIII, or every other Star Wars character in Episode IX. God, I’m still not over that. Game of Thrones S8, too. Don’t get me started on that festering pile of panther piss.

“A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-If question.” (p.196)

“Please remember, however, that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy: plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.” (p.197)

“Back story helps to define character and establish motivation. I think it’s important to get the back story in as quickly as possible, but it’s also important to do it with some grace.” (p.268)

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best recieved in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.” (p.272)

  • I agree with everything he says about backstory. It belongs in the background.

On Description and Narrative

“Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.” (p.202)

  • Again, not too much, and not too little. Use your best judgement. That’s what most of the advice in this book boils down to. It’s simple, and fairly obvious.

“I can’t remember many cases where I felt I had to describe what the people in a story of mine looked like – I’d rather let the reader supply the faces, the builds, and the clothing as well. If I tell you that Carrie White is a highschool outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you?” (p.202)

  • Agreed. Too much description can really limit the reader’s imagination. Description should give the reader a nudge, but if it all reads like an instruction manual or blueprint for what the reader should be seeing, the writer is going to alienate their audience. Describe the stuff that’s important to the plot. But anything other than that is uneccessary, and gets in the way.

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” (p.203)

“I think locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players. Nor do I think that physical description should be a shortcut to character.” (p.203)

  • Okay, I agree that description of setting is more important than that of character appearance. But the same rules still apply. As a reader, I don’t want a writer to describe to me exactly where that chair is in relation to the table, exactly how many tiles are on the floor and how big or small they are, exactly how many apples are in that fruit basket, and whether they’re pink ladies, granny smiths, whatever. I don’t want any of that. If you tell me the characters are in a kitchen, I’ll picture a kitchen. It probably won’t be the same kitchen as the writer envisioned, but at the end of the day, a kitchen is a kitchen.

“It’s also important to remember it’s not about the setting anyway – it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.” (p.205)

  • Yes.

“Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then get on with your story.” (p.210)

“One of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us.” (p.211)

  • Show, don’t tell. Another common piece of writing advice. Basically, if you want the reader to know that Bob was angry, don’t tell them: ‘Bob was angry.’ Show them. Show them his facial expression, or his body language, or the sudden change in his tone of voice. Not all of the above at the same time, though. Just one will do. Let the reader actively participate, and figure out that Bob was angry. If you tell them right off the bat, they probably won’t be invested enough to care, and they’ll lose interest pretty quickly.

On Dialogue and Narrative Voice

“The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.” (p.122)

“I think the best stories always end up being about people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven. Once you get beyond the short story, though, I’m not much of a believer in the so-called character study; I think that in the end, the story should always be the boss.” (p.224)

“Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity (and without using a lot of tiresome, uncessary adverbs).” (p.231)

  • Dialogue — especially realistic, believable dialogue — is a tough one to get down. You either have an ear for it, or you don’t. If you listened to a conversation and transcribed everything you heard, you would probably end up with a conversation filled with ums and ahs, fragmented clauses, unfinished sentences, and frequent interruptions. This would be realistic, sure. But it would be hard to follow in a piece of written fiction. That is not to say your characters should converse like the Queen of England, but good dialogue in fiction is typically not realistic. But it is believable enough to engage the reader. A writer can capture a lot of things through dialogue, such as tone and dialect. Again, you need to find a balance.
  • Sidenote: there are some examples of ‘realistic’ dialogue and narrative voice done well; Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh, being among the best of them. But generally, extreme use of realism in dialogue and voice does not pay off. This is a rare exception.

On Theme

“I don’t believe any novelist, even one who’s written forty-plus books, has too many thematic concerns.” (p.246)

“Starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.” (p.247)

  • Agreed. Anyone who starts off by listing the themes their story is going to tackle before even putting pen to paper, is barking up the wrong tree. But English Literature classes in schools condition kids to become obsessed with theme, with finding ‘the meaning behind the text’, and the moral of the stroy. Writers don’t think about any of this. At least not until they’ve finished writing. And even then, those themes of good vs. evil, love, redemption, and all that bollocks, were all a total accident to begin with.

“But once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob your work (and eventually your reader) of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own.” (p.248)

That just about covers it, I think. That’s everything I found useful — or not so useful — about Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft. Leave a comment down below if you want to see more entries in this Lessons From series, or let me know if I’m barking up the wrong tree entirely.

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