On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King

On Writing provides valuable advice and instructions on how to become a good writer, what tools and elements of writing to use, how to develop believable and interesting characters, and how to keep the reader's attention and interest so you can produce quality books that they will love. 

Summary Notes

The Writer’s Toolbox

“The dictionary is the most used tool of all; it is the foundation of writing.”

Writing is a craft, and every writer has a unique form and style. To be a good writer, you first need to master these two tools: vocabulary and grammar.

A powerful vocabulary brings a sense of eloquence to your words. With vivid descriptions, you can spark your readers’ imagination and bring them enjoyment. One way to expand your inner thesaurus and grow more eloquent is to read a dictionary - it might sound boring, but you will learn new ways to communicate your thoughts. 

When constructing sentences, avoid passive verbs and unnecessary adverbs. An example: "The first kiss will be remembered as the beginning of my romance with Shajan, and never forgotten."

Let's see a better way to say this, using active verbs: "My romance with Shayan started with Jen's first kiss. I will never forget it."

Use adverbs when you need to show something. For example, instead of "he was scared", you can write, "his hands were shaking; his voice was barely a whisper."

To keep the dialogues simple, the best expressing verb we can use is “to say.” A simple sentence like “‘Put it down!’ John said.” sounds much better than a complex one like “‘Put it down!’ John said with a frightened, high, trembling voice.”

We want to write neat, short paragraphs that serve their purpose. The ideal paragraph has one thematic sentence representing the main point, while other sentences further explain the purpose of that thematic sentence, answering how it is essential for the story.

Actions to take

Quality Writing Requirements

“Reading is the creative center of the writer's life. I don't go anywhere without a book, and I find all kinds of opportunities to dive into it.”

It is impossible to become a good writer if you don't read and write. How much we should read and write varies per individual. For example, Stephen King usually reads about 80 books annually and writes about 2000 words daily.

We should read both good and bad books. We can learn a lot about writing style, narrative, character development, plot development, and many other things from exposing ourselves to all sorts of books. We want to know what works, but also, what doesn’t work and why. 

You can read a book anywhere - in your bed, chair, treadmill, library, coffee shop, or wherever else you like. However, you need a specific space to write. It doesn't matter if your writing space is decorated and modern. What matters is that the room is quiet and free of any electronic distractions.  Writers prone to distractions should turn their desks toward the wall instead of the window.

To be more productive as a writer, you should set a goal for how many pages or words you want to write each day and habitually write at the same time every day. One thousand words each morning is an excellent place to start.

Whatever you write, it's crucial, to tell the truth, and make sure your characters are authentic and believable. You can achieve this by writing about what you know already and analyzing real people. 

People like the characters they can identify with when they recognize their thoughts and behaviors. So, write what people would say in real life. For example, no real dialogue contains many adverbs simply because people do not talk that way.

Actions to take

Holding the Reader's Attention

“A story based on a preconceived plot is doomed to look artificial and stiff. I rely on intuition.”

The three elements that make novels are the narrative by which the writer leads a story from one point to another, a description that helps the reader to imagine what he reads, and dialogue that revives the character. But what about the plot? 

The plot is unimportant because there are usually no plots in real life. Spontaneity and honesty are key ingredients for good stories. Writing pre-deliberate plots will make your story artificial. 

The length of the description and the rhythm of narration are essential to keep a reader's interest. You don’t want to exhaust the reader or bore them with monotony; balance is key. A skilled writer can inspire with a single paragraph.

If you're unsure about your narration’s rhythm, it's best to ask someone to read your book and evaluate how quickly the plot develops. When a story moves too slowly, it only takes removing unnecessary text to get the rhythm to speed.

Dialogues must sound natural, as if the reader is actually there to witness the situation rather than just reading some fiction. The reader must also relate to the characters, which can only happen if their conversations seem real and believable. To accurately imitate such discussions in writing, paying attention to how people communicate in real life is crucial.

Set a theme for your narrative and stick to it. Keep aware of what your story is telling people and what message you want to deliver to readers.

Actions to take

Character Development

“What I think happens to the characters as the story unfolds depends entirely on what I discover about them along the way. In other words, from their growth.”

People read stories for the characters, not for the plot and events. They enjoy relating to the characters and seeing them go through personal growth and development while overcoming obstacles. This explains why a writer needs to develop likable characters who face challenges and go through significant personal growth. 

To do this, the author must study real-life individuals and use them as inspiration for creating believable characters with virtues, flaws, habits, and other unique traits that make them compelling. Their story’s development should focus on the changes the character will experience while going through the problems we pose to them during the story.

The famous phrase “show, don’t tell” is a fundamental principle of good writing. This means describing your characters’ actions and appearance and letting the reader understand the character's emotions for themselves.

For example, you could describe your character's unsightly appearance, slow movement, poor appetite, and messy home to illustrate their depression. This way, the reader will be able to visualize the story and understand how your character feels.

Actions to take

Correcting the Book

“The best thing about writing behind closed doors is that it allows you to focus on the story and detach from everything else.”

The job is just beginning when you finally write the last sentence in your book. The following rules will help you go through this process easier.

First, you should write the book's first version alone, without showing manuscripts to others. Showing your work to others while writing the first draft will burden you with the suggestions, ideas, and opinions of others and can slow down your writing or cause you to lose your originality.

Second, leave the book somewhere once you've finished it and don't pick it up for at least six weeks. Then return to your book, read it, and make corrections after you give yourself some space. Read quickly, without taking long breaks. As you read, correct all mistakes, such as grammatical errors, unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, narrative gaps, long descriptions, unclear character motivation for some acts, etc.

Third, focus on whether the book follows the central theme of your chosen narrative. You should remove everything that is unnecessary or has nothing to do with the central book theme.

After you finish writing and proofreading, your book needs to get its first critics and readers. These should be close, trustworthy people who honestly tell you their opinion. The first critic of Stephen King’s works, for example, is always his wife.

Actions to take

Don’t just read. Act.
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