Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

A Few Awesome Quotes from “On Writing” by Stephen King

leave a comment »

Some time ago I came across Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which is often recommended reading for would-be writers. I finally picked it up a few weeks ago and enjoyed every page. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel, although I’m familiar with a number of movie adaptations of his novels like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redeption, which are some of the best films I’ve ever seen. Just great storytelling and acting throughout.

Below are some of my favorite quotes from On Writing. There is some PG language in the book, so I’ve blanked out those below:

“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” (37).

Quoting an editor from one of King’s first writing jobs (as a local sports writer): “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story… When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story… Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it” (57).

“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” (74).

On lessons learned from his first big success (the novel, Carrie), King came to the realization “that 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 [explicit] from a sitting position” (77–78).

“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 [explicit] 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” (106).

“Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. (You’ll be doing that as you read, of course … but that comes later.) One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more 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 [explicit]. If you believe ‘take a [explicit]’ would be considered offensive or inappropriate by your audience, feel free to say John stopped long enough to move his bowels (or perhaps John stopped long enough to push). I’m not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct. Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word—of course you will, there’s always another word—but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean” (117–18).

Must you write complete sentences each time, every time? Perish the thought” (120).

“The adverb is not your friend… I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops” (124, 125).

“I am convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing… Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is a fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with” (127, 128).

“I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing—the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words” (134).

The two theses of On Writing: “The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while 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” (142).

“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” (145).

“You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you” (146).

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that” (147).

"Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a music instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already. If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor" (150).

“When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy (at least until a van knocked me down by the side of the road in the summer of 1999), and I stayed married” (154).

“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing” (173).

“Murder your darlings” (197).

“I most often see changes to add the grace-notes and ornamental touches after my basic storytelling job is done. Once in awhile it comes earlier; not long after I began The Green Mile and realized my main character was an innocent man likely to be executed for the crime of another, I decided to give him the initials J.C., after the most famous innocent man of all time. I first saw this done in Light in August (still my favorite Faulkner novel), where the sacrificial lamb is named Joe Christmas. Thus death-row inmate John Bowes [as King originally conceived him] became John Coffey. I wasn’t sure, right up to the end of the book, if my J.C. would live or die. I wanted him to live because I liked and pitied him, but I figured those initials couldn’t hurt, one way or the other” (197, in a footnote at the bottom of this page, King writes, “A few critics accused me of being symbolically simplistic in the matter of John Coffey’s initials. And I’m like, ‘What is this, rocket science?’ I mean, come on, guys.”)

“2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck” (222).

“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” (269).

Advertisements

Written by Josh Philpot

January 21, 2014 at 8:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: