The famous contemporary horror writer Stephen King has written more than 50 enchanting books that have kept millions captivated by his work. And it comes as no surprise that he has some amazing advice to writers of all kinds – it doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction, children books, young adult or historic novels, nor if your book is the result of a lifelong work, it’s the attitude towards writing and your dedication to the craft that count.
In this memoir, he teaches the reader what it means to be a writer and what are the means to become such. In few lessons, he gives him a preview of the skeleton of the craft – or, to put it another way, he shows the milestones and the bruises a writer goes through in order to write. He defines the concepts “dedication”, “work” and “writer” in a new and inspiring manner. And, without further praises, here we would like to give you a small preview of these lessons – here, we have chosen eleven of them who shall be presented in the most simple ways.
There are only a few more important words to be said about the book – it is a must not only for writers but for all people who cherish words at their best – vivid words that can crack your heart open and stay there. In a heartbeat.
We’ve picked 11 of the most important lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer
Stop watching television. Instead, read as much as possible.
Refine and redefine your work, says King.
If you are decided to become a writer, the first thing on your “To Do” list should be “Throw out the TV”. You don’t want anything poisoning your creativity. What you need is to rely on and trust your imagination. And, of course, some introspection, or, in other words, you need to spend some quality alone time – just you and your thoughts.
Keep in mind that your creativity is always hungry and in order to keep it from starving, you should constantly read. Read as much as you possibly can and, take a book everywhere you go, read during meals, prioritize wisely – do two things above all others: read and write. And do them a lot.
Don’t waste time trying to please people.
King’s attitude towards rudeness is very healthy – he thinks it should be the least of your concerns. Because, first of all, people will always find something to pick on, to be irritated by or even be angry at. And second, “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway”. So, there is really no point in being ashamed of your work after receiving angry letters. King used to receive ones that called him bigoted, homophobic, murderous and psychopathic and it took him years to realize that most decent writers were not appreciated in their own time and all of them were accused of being a waste of talent. What every writer should do is come to terms with the hate of some people. And then, all that is left to do, is only shrug your shoulders when someone disapproves.
Because it is very important that we, people, no matter if writers or not, realize that we can’t please everyone all the time. So, do as King says – stop worrying
Write primarily for yourself
You should never write for someone else’s sake, but for your own. You should write because this is what moves you forward and brings you happiness and fulfillment. You should do it for the pure joy of it. “And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”
And write for a subject you care about because this is what will bring you joy. Find such subject that you feel others care about and you will have found the seductive element in your writing that Vonnegut talks about.
So, be like Hemingway – write the truest sentence you know. Start with it and make people care.
Don’t be pretentious.
And don’t give too much background information.
Big words are not necessarily good words. In fact, according to King, one of the really bad things you can do to your writing, is “dress up the vocabulary”. This may very well turn your story into a crooked cartoon. Are you really willing to risk that because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed by your short words? If that is true, keep in mind that sometimes they can be what builds your story emotionally. Let us give you an example – Ernest Hemingway – a master of the craft who can make you cry with six short words. And who can tell you the story of a lifetime in a few pages.
Sometimes long pretentious words are utterly inappropriate. King compares the mistake of using them to dressing up a household pet in evening clothes – nobody feels comfortable and everyone ends up being embarrassed because of this excursiveness.
And as to the background information – don’t lecture your readers. Nobody likes a “know it all”. So, be careful with it – don’t cross the line between spicing your story to enrich its meaning and bragging to your readers about how smart you are. Because if you overshadow your story with research, nobody will care about what you, personally, have to say. So, simply, keep the focus on the actual story and keep it real.
Master the art of description.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
The moral of the story is: the key isn’t writing enough, but limiting how much you say. Less is more, if you wish. Stop at the right moment, push where you have to, be still, but keep your story moving so that it keeps living in your readers’ imagination.
Visualize the experience you want your readers to have and be careful to not get lost in its translation. Describe your story so well that your readers recognize themselves in your words. But not so well – meaning too detailed – so as to bore them.
The key to doing so is clarity in observation and writing – using fresh images, simple but memorable words that create a floating and interesting story.
In a few words – don’t get enchanted by your powers as a writer because this makes you unaware of what the reader wants to read – a good story that will keep him turning the pages. If you bore him, you’ve lost sight of your priority which is, according to King, “keep the ball rolling”.
Just remember that movement is an important part of every story – it is what keeps it alive and kicking. If you get carried away, you lose the game.
Tell stories about what people actually do
It is not grammar that defines bad writing, but the writer’s refusal to tell stories about what people actually do, for example “to face the fact that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street” (S. King). The characters of your story are the reason the readers are intrigued by it, they are what keeps it moving and this is why every writer should acknowledge all possible dimensions and sights of his characters; he should talk about them with ease, make them real and keep them that way. Otherwise readers are simply not dragged into the story, in other words – they won’t buy it.
Take risks. Don’t play it safe.
“Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it.”
This is a recipe not only for an interesting story, but for a great life too. No one ever experienced an adventure for playing it safe. Risks are an important part and for a writer to be successful in what he’s doing, he should be willing to write the way a person should live – so that in the end he regrets nothing.
Risks in literature are all about eliminating the passive voice – it is safe but it keeps the readers away and it’s the biggest indicator of fear. And, according to King, fear is at the root of most bad writing. Put your writing in charge and keep your chin high – adventures are in the air, not on the ground. So is freedom. And so is great writing.
Don’t try to steal someone else’s voice.
Austin Kleon has written a lot about how to steal without actually stealing in his artistic guide “Steal like an artist”. And the main idea behind this special sort of stealing is that you don’t actually copy someone else’s work but you let it inspire you and then you create something similar. The tricky part is that it should be better. Now, this is enriching stealing that has nothing to do with stealing someone else’s thunder. Because, “when you try to mimic another writer’s style for any reason other than practice, you’ll produce nothing but “pale imitations,” says King. If you replicate someone else’s feelings and experiences, your story will not only sound fake, but also shallow and unrealistic. You will lose your authenticity.
Write every single day.
King’s attitude towards projects is what people nowadays call proactive and concistant. Once he starts working on a project, he neither stops, nor slows down unless he absolutely has to. He says he does that in order to not let his story slip away and his characters fade.
Writing, in most of its aspects, is a lot like every other thing in the world. For the writer it is as basic and natural as any human instinct. Especially when it comes to pure necessity – the writer absolutely has to write no matter what, no matter how.
It is a common belief among famous writers that there should be consistency in writing otherwise the story’s pace gets messed up and the story, itself, somehow lost and confusing. Furthermore, if you fail to write consistently, the excitement for your idea starts fading and the idea itself stops being as important. Meaning, the core of your work starts disappearing. However, consistency is very often connected with plans and schedules and when the work on an idea starts feeling like work, you should just take it “one word at a time.”
Have the guts to cut.
Writers become attached to their words. But what turns a page into a work of art is its’ simplicity – the art to have all the right words and not a single one more.
When revising, writers have a difficult time letting go of words and sentences, even whole paragraphs. What King advises all writers is to let that go – let yourself write the greatest story by cutting everything that may slow her down on the way to perfection. As king very wisely says, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
Don’t be a little scribbler. Be a great writer. Do as King says. Do as Vonnegut says: “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”
The key to brilliance are not always brilliant words.
Stay married, be healthy and live a good life
Or, in other words, do more of what makes you happy. Because your happiness is the key to your success, no matter how obvious this sounds. King attributes his success to two things: his physical health and his marriage. He had the greatest luck to marry a self-reliant woman who supports him and takes zero shit from him or anyone else, as he says. And he says that she is the one who had made the continuity of his working life possible.
And, to conclude, King believes it is important to have a strong balance in your life, so writing doesn’t consume you. You are a writer first, but a person even before that. All you have to do is prioritize well, as we have already learned. Because as Henry Miller says “Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.”
Or don’t – but always do the most human thing: be free in all you do and all you feel. Because this is what will keep you authentic and real. So, a sentence of gratitude to her. And to King, who may very well turn into the bard of contemporary horror.
NOTE: *All quotes in the text that have no author, are Stephen King’s.