5 Tips from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’

My latest read, Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is the best book I’ve ever read on how to go about creative writing. His raw honesty is compelling.

As an aside, years ago my daughter, aged 15 at the time, crawled into my bed between my husband and myself. It was uncomfortable and I got little sleep that night. In the morning her admission was having read a Stephen King novel that scared her!

I’ve not read a single novel of his as stories in the genre play on my mind. Much to my horror, my younger daughter grew up liking mean stories. In her father’s vein, she was quite at home with Dracula stories from mid primary. (By the way, I know that’s not one of King’s characters!) Even so, one of King’s stories proved too scary for her, so my genetic influence holds some sway! She is twenty plus years older now and reads all the horror stories and watches all the horror movies I can’t go near!

Back to King’s memoir. On Writing is nothing like his other books. His advice is brilliant! Every review I come across on this book raves. I’m adding mine to the list!

If I quote all the bits that helped me I’d be over the top. I’ll choose a few standouts that hit the mark for me.

1. Use ‘said’

First of all, attribute dialogue by using ‘said’ rather than adverbs or adverbial phrases.Trust that you convey how the person says something without adding ‘ly’ words that modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Try writing dialogue with an adverb then replace it with ‘said.’ Context will define how the person is speaking. I’ll not deign to give an example. If that’s what you need, please refer to his book!

2. Paragraphs are ‘maps of intent’

King’s extensive explanation of how a paragraph is created and its value in story writing is jam-packed with information. I’ve not come across a detailed analysis of how a paragraph works in creative writing before. With a background in formal writing I find the line,‘… you’ll find a paragraph forming on its own’ most helpful. I now allow creative flow to take over and disobey stringent expectations of topic sentences and supporting detail. It also depends on what I am writing, of course, as that only applies to fiction. As an aside, I’ve noted a huge shift in how copy is presented. Check out some upbeat blogs and note how font sizes vary and sentence structure and paragraphs are fashioned in ways I am only quasi-comfortable with.

3. Avoid the passive voice

King claims it’s for someone who is timid about their writing. I look for timidity and slash the words. Learn from good and bad writing out there and develop one’s own style, he says. As I learn the art of writing, I admit to imitating a style I’ve enjoyed to see if it might add to my own in some measure. One of my current works in progress seeks to emulate one of my newest author discoveries. She would be tickled that I’ve taken her style on board. Thing is, it’s not easy, it’s possibly not me, so I’m looking at a huge rewrite! That’s fine by me. Early days in a new manuscript mean lots of daring try-outs.

4. Read, read and read some more

Without reading one cannot learn. It is breath to the page as air is to lungs. Find any and every excuse to read: in bed, queues, travelling with audio books, waiting for kids, doctors surgeries – you name it – read! I’ve no issue with this tip, however, the one place I refuse to read is the loo! Comics and cartoon books in the paper rack in that tiny room belong to my partner!

5. Forget plot!

What a challenging statement! King claims that stories make themselves in much the same way as our lives happen. While I find this helpful – it frees one to go down rabbit holes of creativity – I sense the need for structure in a created story. King doesn’t deny this, in fact states there’s a sequential narrative in story. In response to this gemstone of advice, it feels quite freeing. Structuring contemporary fiction can be tricky. Story arcs and structure trickle from the pages as characters move forward in their search for resolution to their quest. Although I know I will need to re-order and most likely re-write sections, the essential story moves itself forward. I can only hope it works for the reader.

Of course, there are many more than five wonderful points in King’s The Toolbox and On Writing sections of his memoir. I’ll leave it to you to find out what he says about dialogue, description, theme, research, finding an agent, getting published – this list is not all-inclusive.

I’m about to re-read the ‘how to’ section which is wedged between his fascinating CV and shocking Postscript. It’s that darn good. Of course, I’ll not become a better writer by osmosis. I simply want his tips at my fingertips.

Finally, two quotes to finish with:

‘…when the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.’

and

‘…the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies…’

(Acknowledgement: All quotes from Stephen King, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, Simon & Schuster, NY, 2000.)

For a few quotes that add to and support my onw, check out Crafty House’s Review here.

 

ES Dunn - Susan is a writer based in Perth's Darling Range, Western Australia. Her love for writing began as a child and is a life-long passion. Susan is also passionate about reading and attributes much of her learning from the wonderful literature she keeps discovering.

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