Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Few Lessons From Stephen King

I've been reading a lot of good books* lately, but not sharing them with you. How rude!

I went through Stephen King's On Writing recently and am going back through parts of it a second time right now. I don't remember how I found it. I'm not a fan of the kinds of books Stephen King writes so I couldn't have been perusing his cv. In any case, it's a wonderful book and he reads it himself.

Audiobooks are vulnerable to poor reading. Jonathan Cecil is such a good voice actor that you can't wait to hear the next of his P G Wodehouse renderings. Derek Jacobi is so bad that he takes one of my favorites - Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur and turns it into indigestible sludge. Stephen King is no one's idea of a great voice actor, but he was perfect for this.

By the end of the book I had a deep affection for him. He's genuinely in love with his craft and he wants to share that love with you. I felt like we were good friends when I finished. He didn't read it so much as he talked to you. It was like having him in the car with me. I drove and he shared. It was beautiful.

And now to the content. The key to being a good writer is to read a lot and write a lot. Every day. It's the same key to being a good artist, engineer, soccer player or whatever. There's no shortcut to success. With that out of the way, here are a couple of revelations from the book.
  • He doesn't believe in plot. He starts with characters and a situation and goes from there. His stories surprise even himself because he never really knows where they are going.
  • Write in your language. Don't dress up your vocabulary through learning and exercises. That will come through reading, but let it come naturally.
  • Know grammar. This echoes what Jerry Pournelle wrote. Learn how to write properly first. After that you can write the way you want.
  • Stephen King hates adverbs terribly. Longingly, he wrote about how he assiduously avoids them. (Blech. I get it now. Those two sentences were terrible.)
  • Writing is telepathy. You communicate with people separated by space and time with your prose.
  • Don't write to make money. Write what you want. If there was a formula for making money writing, everyone would be doing it.
  • Stephen classifies writing talent into four categories: bad, competent, good, great. If you're a bad writer, forget about it. If you're competent, you can work really hard and become good. Nothing can take you from good to great. Charles Dickens is Charles Dickens and you're not.
There were a few others I can't remember right now, but don't take my word for it. Pop over to Audible and buy the book for yourself. You'll learn a lot and make a new friend at the same time.

I looked for a really good video clip of Stephen talking about his craft. This was my favorite, but it wasn't embeddable.

* - Well, actually, I've been listening to most of them.


tim eisele said...

"He doesn't believe in plot. He starts with characters and a situation and goes from there."

Right there is the thing that ultimately stopped me from writing fiction. I can create amusing settings, people them with various appropriate characters, and . . . they all basically say to me "this is a nice world you've created for us", and proceed to kick back and relax without actually doing anything interesting.

That's OK, though. There's room for non-fiction in the world, too.

K T Cat said...


I've written some fiction, but most of it was terrible. The characters would wander into boring situations and I couldn't get them out.

Jedi Master Ivyan said...

Tim, I have the same problem. I can create a world in my mind populate it with people, conflict, and the whole thing stalls. It is so incredibly frustrating. I've let people read my stuff and invariably they get to my wall of writer's block and say "it's great, where's the rest". Then I hang my head in shame. LOL. I think my problem is trying to write a novel when I'm actually a short story writer.