On Writing is Stephen King’s memoir about how he came to be as a writer, what it takes to be a professional writer, and how to make every word you write count.
Book Title: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Author: Stephen King
Date of Reading: September-October, 2017
Table of Contents
What Is Being Said In Detail:
King divides his memoir On Writing into a couple of sections:
- C.V. This is where King presents us his backstory and how he came to be as a writer. From a lot of rejection slips on the stories he submitted to journals to the first money he made to his alcohol and drug problems— this part explains it all.
- What Writing Is. This part explains The Toolbox— a set of skills the writer needs to develop to tell a good story (plot, pace, story buildup, characterization, grammar, vocabulary).
- On Writing. This part is the meat of the book. Here, King describes what makes a good writer, provides examples of good and bad stories, gives us the Formula (second draft = first draft -10%), and provides exercises on how to become a good writer (omit needless words a.k.a. kill your darlings).
- On Living. The last part covers King’s life in the aftermath of his almost fatal car accident. King got hit by a car that left him sidelined in a hospital for six weeks. After that, he struggled to get back to writing, but over time, managed to do it.
Most Important Keywords, Sentences, Quotes:
First, Second, and Third Foreword
“One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style,by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book. (Of course it’s short; at eighty-five pages it’s much shorter than this one.)
I’ll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style. Rule 17 in the chapter titled Principles of Composition is “Omit needless words.” I will try to do that here.”
“Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine. Chuck Verrill edited this book, as he has so many of my novels. And as usual, Chuck, you were divine.”
“Most of that year I spent either in bed or housebound. I read my way through approximately six tons of comic books, progressed to Tom Swift and Dave Dawson (a heroic World War II pilot whose various planes were always “prop-clawing for altitude”), then moved on to Jack London’s bloodcurdling animal tales.”
“Four stories. A quarter apiece. That was the first buck I made in this business.”
“My story was rejected, but Forry kept it. (Forry keeps everything,which anyone who has ever toured his house—the Ackermansion—will tell you.)
About twenty years later, while I was signing autographs at a Los Angeles bookstore, Forry turned up in line . . . with my story, single-spaced and typed with the long-vanished Royal typewriter my mom gave me for Christmas the year I was eleven.
He wanted me to sign it to him, and I guess I did, although the whole encounter was so surreal I can’t be completely sure. Talk about your ghosts. Man oh man.”
“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.
Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
“S&H green. I thought how nice it would be if you could make those damned stamps in your basement, and in that instant a story called “Happy Stamps” was born. The concept of counterfeiting Green Stamps and the sight of my mother’s green tongue created it in an instant.”
“Algis Budrys, then the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction,who read a story of mine called “The Night of the Tiger” (the inspiration was, I think, an episode of The Fugitive in which Dr. Richard Kimble worked as an attendant cleaning out cages in a zoo or a circus) and wrote: “This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.”
“I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.
If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.”
“In the end, Miss Margitan settled for a formal apology and two weeks of detention for the bad boy who had dared call her Maggot in print. It was bad, but what in high school is not?”
”When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
“One day late in my final semester at college, finals over and at loose ends, I recalled the dyehouse guy’s story about the rats under the mill—big as cats, goddam, some as big as dogs—and started writing a story called “Graveyard Shift.”
I was only passing the time on a late spring afternoon, but two months later Cavalier magazine bought the story for two hundred dollars. I had sold two other stories previous to this, but they had brought in a total of just sixty-five dollars.
This was three times that, and at a single stroke. It took my breath away, it did. I was rich.”
“There were times—especially in summer, while swallowing my afternoon salt-pill—when it occurred to me that I was simply repeating my mother’s life. Usually this thought struck me as funny.
But if I happened to be tired, or if there were extra bills to pay and no money to pay them with, it seemed awful. I’d think This isn’t the way our lives are supposed to be going.Then I’d think Half the world has the same idea.”
“I managed to get the downstairs door open without dropping my daughter and was easing her inside (she was so feverish she glowed against my chest like a banked coal) when I saw there was an envelope sticking out of our mailbox—a rare Saturday delivery.
Young marrieds don’t get much mail; everyone but the gas and electric companies seems to forget they are alive. I snagged it, praying it wouldn’t turn out to be another bill. It wasn’t.
My friends at the Dugent Publishing Corporation, purveyors of Kavalier And many other fine adult publications, had sent me a check for “Sometimes They Come Back,” a long story I hadn’t believed would sell anywhere. The check was for five hundred dollars, easily the largest sum I’d ever received.”
“And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or a husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. 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.”
“This memory came back to me one day while I was working at the laundry, and I started seeing the opening scene of a story: girls showering in a locker room where there were no Urings, pink plastic curtains, or privacy. And this one girl starts to have her period.
Only she doesn’t know what it is, and the other girls—grossed out, horrified, amused—start pelting her with sanitary napkins. Or with tampons, which Harry had called pussy-plugs.
The girl begins to scream. All that blood! She thinks she’s dying, that the other girls are making fun of her even while she’s bleeding to death . . . she reacts . . . fights back . . . but how?”
“I’d read an article in Life Magazine some years before, suggesting that at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena—telekinesis being the ability to move objects just by thinking about them.
There was some evidence to suggest that young people might have such powers, the article said, especially girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first— Pow!
Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea. I didn’t leave my post at Washex #2, didn’t go running around the laundry waving my arms and shouting “Eureka!,”
“The most important is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s.
Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea”
“Before it occurred to me that I might actually need an agent, I had generated well over three million dollars’ worth of income, a good deal of it for the publisher.”
”You might,” he said. “The paperback rights to Carrie went to Signet Books for four hundred thousand dollars.” When I was a little kid, Daddy Guy had once said to my mother: “Why don’t you shut that kid up, Ruth? When Stephen opens his mouth, all his guts fall out.”
“I was still standing in the doorway, looking across the living room toward our bedroom and the crib where Joe slept.
Our place on Sanford Street rented for ninety dollars a month and this man I’d only met once face-to-face was telling me I’d just won the lottery. The strength ran out of my legs. I didn’t fall, exactly, but I kind of whooshed down to a sitting position there in the doorway.”
“I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.”
“Ten years or so later I’m in an Irish saloon with Bill Thompson. We have lots to celebrate, not the least of which is the completion of my third book, The Shining.”
“Alcoholics build defenses like the Dutch build dikes. I spent the first twelve years or so of my married life assuring myself that I “just liked to drink.” I also employed the world-famous Hemingway Defense.
Although never clearly articulated (it would not be manly to do so), the Hemingway Defense goes something like this: as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give in to their sensitivities.
Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.”
“I did think, though—as well as I could in my addled state—and what finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer.
I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided (again, so far as I was able to decide anything in my distraught and depressed state of mind) that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that.”
“It didn’t, of course. The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop intellectual myths of our time.”
“Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit.”
“Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn’t drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do.
Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we’re puking in the gutter.”
“Common tools go on top. The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary. In this case, you can happily pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and inferiority. As the whore said to the bashful sailor, “It ain’t how much you’ve got, honey, it’s how you use it.”
“The Steinbeck sentence is especially interesting. It’s fifty words long. Of those fifty words, thirty-nine have but one syllable. That leaves eleven, but even that number is deceptive; Steinbeck uses because three times, owner twice, and hated twice.”
“embarrassed. Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip” and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit.”
“vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.”
“You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t annoy me with your moans of exasperation or your cries that you don’t understand grammar, you never did understand grammar, you flunked that whole semester of Sophomore English, writing is fun but grammar sucks the big one.”
“Bad grammar produces bad sentences. My favorite example from Strunk and White is this one: “As a mother of five, with another one on the way, my ironing board is always up.”
”Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.”
“Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails. Rocks explode. Jane transmits. Mountains float.
These are all perfect sentences. Many such thoughts make little rational sense, but even the stranger ones (Plums deify!) have a kind of poetic weight that’s nice.”
“Verbs come in two types, active and passive. With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.
The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in The Elements of Style.”
“The timid fellow writes” The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, “Put it this way and people will believe you really know.”
Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write The meeting’s at seven.There, by God! Don’t you feel better?”
“The adverb is not your friend. Adverbs, you will remember from your own version of Business English, are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.”
“He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me . . . but what about context?”
““Put it down!” she shouted. “Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.” “Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said. In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:”
”Put it down!” she shouted menacingly. “Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.” “Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.”
“Don’t do these things. Please oh please. The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.”
“All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said she said is divine.”
“They build some of wood a plank at a time and some of brick a brick at a time. You will build a paragraph at a time, constructing these of your vocabulary and your knowledge of grammar and basic style.”
“The next level is much smaller. These are the really good writers. Above them—above almost all of us—are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys.”
“The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair.”
“Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this!”
“This sort of stylistic blending is a necessary part of developing one’s own style, but it doesn’t occur in a vacuum.
You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true.”
“I’m probably being snotty here, but I am also, believe me, honestly curious. If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”
“I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie.
I told them that because if you agree to an interview you have to say something, and it plays better if it’s something at least half-clever. Also, I didn’t want to sound like a workaholic dweeb (just a workaholic, I guess).
The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday (at my age you try to ignore your goddam birthday anyway).”
“When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.”
“comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all . . . as long as you tell the truth.”
“What you need to remember is that there’s a difference between lecturing about what you know and using it to enrich the story. The latter is good. The former is not.”
“In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.”
“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”
“I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story.”
“The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next.”
“I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. And why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.”
“It had been Rudyard Kipling’s desk, he told me with perhaps justifiable pride.”
”Kipling died there, actually. Of a stroke. While he was writing.”
“A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question: What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (‘Salem’s Lot)”
“Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.”
“what you see in your mind into words on the page. It’s far from easy. As I’ve said, we’ve all heard someone say, “Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny) . . . I just can’t describe it!”
If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this, you will be paid for your labors, and deservedly so.
If you can’t, you’re going to collect a lot of rejection slips and perhaps explore a career in the fascinating world of telemarketing.”
“Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images.
The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.”
“And if you are honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths, you’ll find that you’ve let yourself in for a fair amount of criticism.
Not a week goes by that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foulmouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or downright psychopathic.”
”Oh sugar!” for “Oh shit!” because you’re thinking about the Legion of Decency, you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader— your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a madeup story.”
“For me, what happens to characters as a story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along— how they grow, in other words.
Sometimes they grow a little. If they grow a lot, they begin to influence the course of the story instead of the other way around.”
“always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.”
“Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story. T
he only possible exceptions to this rule that I can think of are allegories like George Orwell’s Animal Farm(and I have a sneaking suspicion that with Animal Farm the story idea may indeed have come first; if I see Orwell in the afterlife, I mean to ask him).
But once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions. To do less is to rob your work (and eventually your readers) of the vision that makes each tale you write uniquely your own.”
“If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.
It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps.”
“Pace is the speed at which your narrative unfolds. There is a kind of unspoken (hence undefended and unexamined) belief in publishing circles that the most commercially successful stories and novels are fast-paced.
I guess the underlying thought is that people have so many things to do today, and are so easily distracted from the printed word, that you’ll lose them unless you become a kind of short-order cook, serving up sizzling burgers, fries, and eggs over easy just as fast as you can.”
“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts.
This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings).”
“You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”
“Still, the Formula was surely part of it. Before the Formula, if I produced a story that was four thousand words or so in first draft, it was apt to be five thousand in second (some writers are taker-outers; I’m afraid I’ve always been a natural putter-inner).”
”Hello, ex-wife,” Tom said to Doris as she entered the room. Now, it may be important to the story that Tom and Doris are divorced, but there hasto be a better way to do it than the above, which is about as graceful as an axe-murder.
Here is one suggestion: “Hi, Doris,” Tom said. His voice sounded natural enough—to his own ears, at least—but the fingers of his right hand crept to the place where his wedding ring had been until six months ago.”
“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.”
“You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi, post office.
Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills, or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels.
I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”
“There have been times when for me the act of writing has been a little act of faith, a spit in the eye of despair.
The second half of this book was written in that spirit. I gutted it out, as we used to say when we were kids. Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.
That was something I found out in the summer of 1999, when a man driving a blue van almost killed me.”
ON LIVING: A POSTSCRIPT
“On July twenty-fourth, five weeks after Bryan Smith hit me with his Dodge van, I began to write again.”
“That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes, by far the longest period I’d spent sitting upright since being struck by Smith’s van. When it was over, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up straight in my wheelchair.
The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic. And the first five hundred words were uniquely terrifying—it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me.”
“There was no miraculous breakthrough that afternoon, unless it was the ordinary miracle that comes with any attempt to create something.”
“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
“The reasons for the majority of the changes are self-evident; if you flip back and forth between the two versions, I’m confident that you’ll understand almost all of them, and I’m hopeful that you’ll see how raw the first-draft work of even a so-called “professional writer” is once you really examine it.”
“I have cut with Strunk in mind—”Omit needless words”— and also to satisfy the formula stated earlier: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.”
Book Review (Personal Opinion):
There’s soo much you can learn from one of the most prolific writers out there.
King writes like he speaks—fun, short sentences, but they pack a punch. He explains how to craft strong sentences that make strong stories, shows why you shouldn’t use adverbs in descriptions, and tells us how to become better writers.
This is one of the rare books on writing I would recommend to people.
This Book Is For (Recommend):
- An aspiring writer looking for a rolemodel in the publishing industry
- A young professional working in marketing who needs to write a lot of emails or sales copies
- A millennial who wants to start their blog
If You Want To Learn More
Here’s a discussion between the fastest (Stephen King) and the slowest (George R.R. Martin) writer out there.
Discussion at the Kiva Auditorium
How I’ve Implemented The Ideas From The Book
I used to write a lot of adverbs when I just started out. If I implemented anything from this book, it’s not to write adverbs, but use an appropriate verb!
One Small Actionable Step You Can Do
To write is human; to edit is divine.
Pick any sentence from this summary and rewrite it to sound better. Once you do, email the before/after sentence to [email protected] and I’ll make sure to
incorporate include it into this summary.