Let's be honest. Stephen King probably wrote one of the books or films that terrified you as a child (or even, as an adult). The author, whose work includes over 50 novels and 30 film adaptations, has a knack for crafting stories that chill you to the bones. He also has a lot to say about writing. In 2000, he published On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which is a sprawling, beautiful, and incredibly honest half-memoir, half-manual on writing. Amidst recollections of his early life struggling to make ends meet, King provides useful and practical advice on becoming a writer. In celebration of his Sept. 21 birthday (he's turning 66), here are seven invaluable writing tips from his book.
Very few writers begin with immediate success, and if there's anything to be gained from King's book, it's that you start with rejection. King began submitting stories to magazines as early as middle school, and whenever he received a rejection, he would pin the letter on a wall. By the time he was 14, he had accumulated so many letters that the pin could hardly support their weight. Yet none of these rejections daunted him. In fact, King says he learned some of his best lessons from the notes scrawled on the slips. One note that told him to cut down on wordiness changed the way he wrote "once and forever."
King argues that if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all else: read a lot and write a lot: "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write." Every book has a lesson to teach. The bad books tell us what not to do, while the good books teach us about style, narration, plot development, and the elements that create a compelling story. More importantly, reading helps lead us into writing. It creates an "ease and intimacy" with writing, allowing us to dip into our creative processes without being self-conscious.
To be a good writer, you must master the fundamentals of vocabulary, grammar, and style. Use only the vocabulary that you feel most comfortable with. Know your grammar. Avoid adverbs and passive voice like the plague. Understanding these fundamental skills will enable you to build powerful stories unfettered by poor language and misplaced pronouns. As he reminds us, mastery of these basic skills can eventually lead to the magic of a full-fledged novel: "At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond your expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style … but as we move along, you'd do well to remember that we are also talking about magic."
King wrote non-stop. Whether he was washing maggot-infested motel sheets or teaching English with only a few hours to spare, he found the time to pen his one-reel horror movies. Though King describes the best writing work as akin to "inspired play," he also admits that writing isn't always easy. However, persistence is key: "… stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position." Writing requires commitment, and "... if you don't want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well."
One of King’s first pieces of advice is that there is no treasure trove of ideas waiting to be found. Good story ideas come from anywhere, and it's the writer's job to recognize them. Most of King’s ideas came from overhearing snippets of conversation and building scenarios around them. He found his inspiration for Carrie during a brief stint as a janitor at a high school. While scrubbing the rust-stains off the walls of a girls' shower, he imagined the book's memorable first scene: Carrie discovering her period as girls threw tampons at her in the shower. There's no need to wait for a muse when all you need is to keep your eyes and ears open.
King repeatedly returns to the necessity for writers to be honest with themselves and their interests: "Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work," he writes. In a variation of the "write what you know" rule, King encourages writers to write what they feel to be true. Using what you know and what is unique to you will bring an honesty and truth to your characters, dialogue, and scenarios.
Of the many stories embedded in King's book, perhaps one of the most heartwarming and inspiring ones is that of his relationship with his wife, Tabitha. King describes Tabitha as the person he turns to for support and advice. He considers her his ideal reader. When he decided to throw out his first few pages of Carrie, Tabitha fished out the pages the next morning and encouraged him to keep going, which he did. Carrie would go on to become King’s first major success. Support goes a long way, and King states it best: "Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don't have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough."