Notes on Stephen King’s On Writing

Apologies. I know Reid brought this up before but until I get the old content back online, I have to create this from scratch. Feel free to repeat anything that comes to mind.

As I wrote on IG, I generally stay away from books about writing because I don’t want to be one of those people who reads about writing and talks about writing more than he actually writes. But I need a bit of inspiration, and I’ve owned this copy for four years, so I’m going through it during Camp NaNoWriMo. “We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.”

16 thoughts on “Notes on Stephen King’s On Writing

  1. King has what one book critic called an “invisible style,” and mostly I agree. He’s good at coming up with a comical situation, then relating the situation without getting in the way of it with his language. He lets you experience the absurdity or humor just by telling you what happens. It’s one reason his style translates so well to films, or at least why so many filmmakers think they can translate the work to film. You don’t have the writer’s voice in film; you only have the visual report of what’s happening, a kind of cinematic style the same critic also tagged him with.

    I’m only on page 40, in the first section of the book called “C.V.” Trying to read five pages per day.

    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 empy 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.

  2. Hmm, I’m not sure I agree that King has an invisible style. If someone gave you started reading a Stephen King book, without knowing it was written by him, could you tell it was? I tend to think so. I haven’t read a King novel for a while, but his style comes out in the dialogue. For example, some of his psychotic villains, when they get mad, say things like, “Oh, no you won’t do that, Mr. Poopy-pants!” (That’s not a direct quote, but something Annie Wilkes, the monster in Misery, would say.)

    I agree about the cinematic style, although I’m not sure I’m thinking of term in the same way as others. For me, I think King’s writing is very visual, one of those writers were you can clearly see in your mind’s eye what’s going on. It’s one of the reasons one of his books ignited my interest in reading novels for fun.

    By the way, both Larri and I enjoyed On Writing. I also think King’s interviews are engaging and entertaining.

  3. In Stephen King’s On Writing, of which I am now on page 50, the author tells a couple of stories about how his writing got him in trouble at school. Although I will never glimpse success like King’s, I did a quick rewind to see if this wannabe writer, like that astronomically popular writer, had ever been busted at school for the content of his writing.

    I immediately remembered The Song.

    In eighth grade, I rather suddenly decided the only kind of music that mattered was the kind of stuff they played on our local FM rock station, 98 Rock. I’m glad I became more open-minded in college, but I do not regret my dogmatism about rock at that age. For one thing, it connected me to some of my best friends in school, including Derek and Jeff.

    We were playing around with songwriting then. The other guys would later take it much more seriously than I ever would, playing in bands and writing like seven million songs each. I’m pretty sure they’re both still playing in bands and writing songs.

    “I Love Disco” wasn’t the first song I created out of nothing. In seventh grade, I had painstakingly transcribed the lyrics to Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” as a model love song, and spent a whole day or two during Spring Break trying to compose my own love song, scribbling lyrics in a composition book and trying them out on the family piano, which I never really learned to play. That silly effort, which I still look back upon with some fondness for its spirit, was called “I’m Sorry.”

    Nearly a year later, I gave it another try. I decided that the earnestness of “I’m Sorry” was entirely the wrong approach for rock and roll. I wanted to write something rebellious. So I settled on satire.

    “I Love Disco” was meant to be shouted from the point of view of someone who’s all the persecuted demographics I could think of in a few minutes. It was meant to be starkly ironic. It was a ROCK song, you see, about loving DISCO. Fourteen-year-old Mitchell thought this was genius.

    The chorus was basically the line “I love disco!” shouted and echoed multiple times. The first line of the song was “I’m black, I’m gay, and I live in Frisco / I’m a ‘vestite and I love disco.”

    I know. You can almost hear Ronnie James Dio hitting himself on the forehead (in his grave) and saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

    The few friends I showed it to got a stupid laugh out of it. Jeff took it home for some reason, where his mom saw it in his folder.

    Jeff’s mom called me at home. Have you ever been called on the phone to be scolded by a friend’s mom?

    “I think this writing is disgusting,” she said, “and you shouldn’t be wasting your time in school with garbage like this.”

    I was so shocked I didn’t have time to think of something diplomatic, so I said the first thing that came to mind, which was, “I didn’t write it at school. I wrote it at home.”

    The phone was passed to my father, and he never really told me what Jeff’s mom said to him, but he did thank her politely for her call. When he got off, I didn’t give him a chance to yell. I just said it was a satire, and that it was meant to be ironic, and I wouldn’t do it again, although in my head I was thinking I was pretty vague about what “it” was that I would never do again.

    “You just need to be careful who you show that stuff to,” he said. “And if it gets you in trouble at school, it obviously needs to stop.”

    That was it from Dad.

    The next day at school, I was called in to Mr. Harris’s office. He was the Dean of Students at the time; his title was changed later to Vice Principal. My classmates will probably remember that Mr. Harris and I were very, very, very familiar with one another.

    “It was satire,” I explained to him. “It was a rock song about loving disco. It was poking fun at the way we treat people who are different.”

    Okay, I’m pretty sure I didn’t say that last sentence, because I wasn’t smart enough, but I know today that’s what I wanted to say. Mr. Harris didn’t say much except that he would just write down that he’d been called by a concerned parent and that he’d spoken to me about it.

    There was no grounding or detention or suspension, but to an eighth grader, this was still getting in trouble, so I’m counting it.

  4. Cool story, although I must say that I felt annoyed by Jeff’s mother’s reaction for some reason–and the adults in general, although your father’s and Mr. Harris’s reaction is pretty reasonable. Maybe you’re telling this in a way that favors you, but I guess a part of me would want to hear some support for you in this situation. I mean, the song may not be great, but I think it’s pretty cool for a teenager to write a song, and the concept is pretty cool.

    Have you ever been called on the phone to be scolded by a friend’s mom?

    Yeah, it’s horrible. Derrick Ganiko’s mom called my house. We were horse-playing, and I accidently broke his gold chain the process.

    Wai-Kang’s mom also got annoyed at me when I called Wai-kang. (We were in 7th grade, but it wasn’t that late–8:00 PM or so.)

    1. I don’t think a friend’s mom has ever called to scold me. It could be selective memory, though. Or just a bad memory.

  5. I’m on page 87.

    King relates the story of how he came up with the idea for Carrie and how it was published. He had two young children already, and a job teaching high-school English. His wife Tabitha worked at Dunkin’ Donuts. They were pretty darn poor.

    The advance on Carrie was $2500. It’s not very much, but it came at a critical moment when his daughter was ill and needed to see a doctor, and the couple couldn’t afford one.

    When King finally got the word that the Carrie had been optioned to a paperback mass-market publisher, the deal was for $400,000, of which half went to the Kings. I love when authors talk about either the moment they broke through or the moment they learned they’ve won the Newbery Medal.

    I took her by the shoulders. I told her about the paperback sale. She didn’t seem to understand. I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.

    Man, that teared me up a little too. Great story. And he worked so hard for so many years to get to that moment. $200,000 just doesn’t seem like enough, although I suppose he made up for it later.

  6. Ah, man. I feel soooo validated. I’ve been telling people for years that “I said” “he said” and “she said” are really all you need when writing dialogue. I came to this around 1992 when I was reading Larry McMurtry for the first time and noticed how clear his writing is.

    The one thing I could point to back then was how clean his dialogue was, pointing specifically to his nearly exclusive use of “said,” as opposed to “interjected,” “replied,” or “shouted.”

    On page 127 of On Writing, in a section titled “Toolbox,” King writes:

    The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said. If you want to see this put stringently into practice, I urge you to read or reread a novel by Larry McMurtry, the Shane of dialogue attribution. That looks damned snide on the page, but I’m speaking with complete sincerity. McMurty has allowed few adverbial dandelions to grow on his lawn. He believes in he-said/she-said even in moments of emotional crisis (and in Larry McMurtry novels there are a lot of those). Go and do thou likewise.

    Honestly, I can’t tell you how stoked I am that an observation I made by myself is cited exactly for exactly the same thing by a writer of King’s stature. It gives me hope that maybe I’m not floundering in complete blindness at these stupid keys.

  7. Honestly, I can’t tell you how stoked I am that an observation I made by myself is cited exactly for exactly the same thing by a writer of King’s stature. It gives me hope that maybe I’m not floundering in complete blindness at these stupid keys.


  8. You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair — the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

    My writing partner is one of those rah-rah, you can do whatever you set your mind to kind of people. She psyches herself up before she sits down to write. She envisions the finished product. She imagines what it’s going to be like the day she opens the box that contains her first published novel. She’s already got plans for a book unwrapping party.

    I (usually) do the opposite. I psyche myself down to write. You’re forty-nine years old and what have you done with this so-called ability? The clock is ticking on your supposed gifts. Don’t you have anything meaningful to contribute to the world?

    When I am sufficiently self-loathed, I can have a decent writing session. I appreciate King’s reminder that “You can approach the act of writing … with despair.” Desperation so far has worked for me these past few years.

  9. At the peak of King’s alcoholism (or perhaps its nadir), his wife Tabitha gave him an ultimatum. It was the booze or the family.

    I was afraid 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 woud 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.

    I had a friend in Hilo, an artist. You know those hand-written signs in Longs for stuff that’s on sale? Big, yellow signs that say, “In-store special! Spam $1.25 (all varieties)?” He used to write those. It’s how he paid the rent. When he wasn’t writing signs, he was drawing or painting. I asked him about smoking weed and creating, because I knew he did both. He said that weed opened up a whole different corner of his mind, and let him create stuff he know he couldn’t have produced without it.

    It’s always been a mystery to me. Something I didn’t plan to try, but not something I could swear I never would. My body is capable of fighting a headache, but sometimes my body could use a little bit of help, so I pop a few ibuprofens. If my right brain needs a little bit of help, why not some other chemical I can ingest?

    I’ve never really answered the question except with some sheer determination not to need it. Who does it serve, not taking drugs in order to open my creativity? Only some weird pride I don’t even think I’m entitled to.

    King’s take, which I do not accept necessarily as gospel, is refreshing, especially since he’s been there. He doesn’t even remember writing Cujo, and while he looks at it now and likes it, he says he absolutely could have written it without the influence of drugs.

  10. It’s easy to become careless when making rough comparisons, but the alternative is a prissy attention to detail that takes all the fun out of writing. What am I going to say, “on the table is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high”? That’s not prose; that’s an instruction manual.

    (page 106)

    A good little section here about descriptive writing. Get the important image in the reader’s mind. Let him or her decide the details that aren’t important to your narrative purpose. It’s a cage. It’s the size and shape of a dormitory microwave oven. In it is a bunny with the number 8 painted in blue on its back. The reader can fill in the rest.

  11. So far, this is my second-favorite takeaway from this book, a continuation of the thought two comments up from this one.

    This isn’t a popularity contest, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church. But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.

    Wash the car, maybe.

    (page 107)

    Not because I need to be told any of this, but because it’s nice to be reminded that the seriousness with which I take this is warranted and justified. Whether I ever realize my ambitions or not, I want to die knowing I took this seriously. I know I’ll likely never take it as seriously as a human possibly could, and maybe that will keep me from reaching the excellence I aspire to. I also know, though, that this isn’t something I merely play at. One of the reasons it’s extremely difficult to find a good writing partner is there are too many people who merely play. When it comes to someone’s looking at my work, and my showing my work to someone, I do not have time for someone who is merely playing. I need someone who does not have time for my merely playing as well.

    Yet the irony in this passage is that there’s a lot here in this book for everyone who aspires to writing better, even those who merely play, even those who use writing merely on a day-to-day, functional level. King breaks down some of the very basic practical concepts of communicating in words, and even a casual read will bring some of this up. Of course it’s up to the reader to take any of it to heart and to put any of it into practice, but it’s there for the reader who wants to.

    It’s a very accessible book. At the same time, it’s for serious writers. That’s quite a trick to pull off and it makes me want to read more Stephen King novels.

  12. The next section of the book is called TOOLBOX and it examines a writer’s tools. King suggests four levels of tools:

    “You could have five or six, I suppose, but there comes a point where a toolbox becomes too large to be portable and thus loses its chief virtue. You’ll also want all those little drawers for your screws and nuts and bolts, but where you put those drawers and what you put in them . . . well, that’s your little red wagon, isn’t it?

    The commonest of all, he says, is vocabulary, “the bread of writing.” He offers a few quotes from writers who use their vocabulary well (“It ain’t how much you got, honey, it’s how you use it”), including two of my faves, Cormac McCarthy and John Steinbeck.

    “Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.”

  13. “…and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.”

    Is that a misquote? If not, did he expand on this? I’d guess he means don’t read the dictionary or thesaurus to try and expand your vocabulary, but attempting to expand your vocabulary by reading a lot would be acceptable.

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