What I Learned from Reading the Master of Suspense’s Memoir
“What is writing? Telepathy, of course.” — Stephen King
When I was young I was infatuated with the book Misery. Annie Wilkes haunted me in my nightmares.
Stephen King is one of the most read authors in the world. So, if he shares his insights on writing, you listen. It took me a while to finally pick up his memoir and start reading. This summer I finally got to it.
It gives the reader great insight into the author’s mind and journey. He’s blunt but in a fatherly way. He doesn’t like to waste time, and neither do I. Let’s move on to the lessons I learned from the master of suspense.
#1: Write for Yourself First
“When you’re writing a story, you’re telling yourself a story. When you rewrite, you’re taking out all the things that are not the story.”
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
Stephen actually learned this lesson himself from his boss and editor John Gould at his job writing for Lisbon’s Weekly Newspaper.
Don’t let anyone or anything interfere while you first channel and write down your story. Let it come to you on its own without judgment, without even looking through a particular lens. Be objective. Then, when you’ve finished the first draft of any story, it’s time to put on some different glasses and rewrite with an open mind.
#2: Write Every Day
“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind — they begin to seemlike characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.”
This has proven to be one of the most important pieces of advice I ever received. I knew about this before I read the book, but this time it felt more pressing. Reading this book came at the right moment for me (as usual).
I’m working on a novel and I aim to write on it every day. A few weeks ago I was doing volunteer work with mentally challenged kids and during that week I didn’t write.
Stephen King was right. I lost grip on my story, on my characters. Another thing I noticed was doubt creeping in.
On the other hand, when I got back, it was also a great moment to have an in-depth look at what it was exactly what I was aiming for. So, I decided to implement a structure week. Re-reading, working out details about the world my characters live in, plot, structure, the things I want to say. It proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Now, I’m back on track, but it did cost me a more than a week to get back into the flow.
#3: Let go of Your Fear to Impress
“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation, Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sort of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad’, is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”
Fear is at the root of most bad writing. Readers are smarter than you think, don’t over-explain out of fear of misunderstanding.
“The hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.”
I couldn’t have said it any clearer. Go. Leave this article now (if you must ;)). Write!
Thinking about writing. Reading about writing. Before you know it you’ve cleaned your kitchen (while thinking about writing). Procrastination happens to the best of us.
Even when I face the black page with a blinking cursor, every inch of me sometimes thinks of something else I could do. But once I’ve written down the first few words, and crossed the fearful threshold, I enter a different kind of zone. It’s not entirely comfortable, but it’s fascinating and I usually don’t want to leave.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.”
There are so many reasons why reading is good in order for you to become better at your craft. Reading can be purely entertainment, or to quench your thirst for knowledge.
When you write fiction, you can study the greats. Learn from others. Learn how to describe, build the plot, build a character. Recognize patterns, study the tone of voice and pace. Steal and make it your own.
Usually, when I’m reading a book in a genre similar to what I’m writing at the moment, I feel extra inspired. Especially when I read just before I start writing.
#6: Write a ‘Crammy’ First Draft
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
King is very structural when it comes to writing. His schedule is brutal. But hey, you don’t become Stephen King by slacking.
He sets himself the goal of writing 2,000 words a day. Every day. That way, he argues, he can finish a 180,000-word book in three months. Just by cramming the story on the pages. Without judgment, with the door closed, only writing for himself.
These goals are ambitious, and for me not manageable. I’m no full-time writer. But I do love his habitual and structural sense. Therefore, I aim to write 1,000 words a day (in the morning when I wake up, before work) only on my novel. I’m satisfied with 500. This way, I might be able to finish the first draft in six months’ time.
And boy will it be shitty. Not necessarily the story or the idea. Coherence would be an issue, grammar surely too, rusty dialogue, consistency, etc. But that’s ok. The words are out! I’m writing, not doubting. I can rearrange, rewrite and polish later.
#7: Accept Your Vocabulary Level
“When it comes to a writing tool such as vocabulary, pack what you have without the slightest bit of guilt and feeling of inferiority.”
English is my second language and although I’ve been studying it for years, I’m still not a native speaker. And that’s ok.
Don’t try to polish your vocabulary too extremely, don’t overreach. Use your own voice.
“Use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful.”
#8 Create a Good Writing Environment
“Eliminate every possible distraction.”
Set up your writing space where you can receive your inspiration every time you sit down.
King is an advocate for creating your own writing sanctuary. A place where you will always write. Ideally in one location.
There should be no distractions like your phone, a TV, video games. Close the curtains.
Write at the same time in the same place every day. Make it a habit.
For me, this is difficult because I work too, and sometimes I’m on the road, I write everywhere. On the train, in a coffee shop (no not those, even though I’m from Amsterdam), on a terrace, at my desk, on the couch. I’m quite flexible because I have to be. However, every morning when I wake up I sit at my desk (when I’m home at least) and write.
#9: Be Yourself
“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.”
What you know makes you unique. Be brave enough to be yourself in your writing. It will resonate the most, it comes natural, and it can even be therapeutic in my opinion.
Chances are you begin by writing what you love to read. Go from there and explore.
#10: Show, Don’t Tell
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
As a writer it is essential you’re good at describing characters, scenery, objects, situations, you name it.
King believes that good description consists of a few well-chosen details, that’ll stand for everything. Don’t overdo it. Leave some to the imagination as well. That way you leave room for the reader to fill in the rest.
If you read a lot of fiction yourself, analyze how other writers describe things. What do you like? What don’t you like? The best lessons are in reading other people’s work.
Good description starts with seeing things clearly as a writer and then to put it on the page in an equally clear manner. And the most important thing is: you must show it, don’t tell.
#11: Take Some Distance Before You Edit
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”
What did you write, what did you try to convey? What’s your book really about?
Let the book rest for a bit, take your mind off of it. (King recommends at least 6 weeks).
Then, when you rewrite and work on your second draft make it even more clear what it is your book is about.
#12: Advice on the Editing Process
“For me the answer has always been two drafts and a polish.”
When you’ve finished your first draft and let some time pass, go back to it. Now it’s time to work on your second draft.
Stephen King asks himself the following questions:
Is this story coherent?
What are the recurring elements? Do they form a theme?
What is it all about?
Formula: Second draft = First draft — 10%. Gulp. Time to kill your darlings.
Make the cuts, answer your questions, take out mistakes, and then polish.
When you’ve applied the polish, it’s time to open the door and show your work to people close to you (about 5) and who are willing to give feedback.
That’s it! Well, I could probably write 5 more, but these are the most important lessons to me.