May 9: Author Stephen King talks about becoming a writer – and tricks of the trade

May 9, 2024

Whether or not you’re his fan, Stephen King’s On Writing gives you great insight into the ins and outs of becoming a writer – and a clear, concise overview of the basic tools in the writing toolbox.

He begins the book by saying he wrote it “as an attempt to put down, briefly and simply, how I came to the craft, what I know about it now, and how it’s done. It’s about the day job, it’s about the language.”

As a young boy, his first little stories were based on comic books he liked. His mom loved what  he was doing, but advised him “write one of your own, Stevie. Those Combat Casey funny books are just junk. I bet you could do better.”

On finding what to write about, he notes that “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.”

After a tough life – he and his brother were raised by their single mom, and the family moved around a lot before settling in Maine – King found his talent was in writing. He and his older brother even put out a little local newspaper as schoolboys, buying a small copying machine to churn out copies more quickly.

In high school, he edited the school paper but also an underground one, which got him in trouble with the administration. However, the school’s solution was to get King working part-time as a sports reporter for the local paper. Protesting that he didn’t know much about sports, he was told by his editor “these are games people understand when they’re watching them drunk in bar. You’ll learn if you try.”

His editor taught him that “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.”

King completed college, got married, had kids, and struggled, teaching English part-time and working at a laundromat. His wife worked at a doughnut shop. But in the background, he began work on the novel Carrie, which eventually became a life-changing monster hit.

King talks about how he feels when he writes.

“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,” he notes. “Come to it any way but lightly…. You must not come lightly to the blank page.”

Vocabulary is a top tool in any writer’s tool kit. Don’t dress it up, “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.”

Next comes grammar. “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not,” he says. “If you don’t know, it’s too late.” He moves on to sentence structures – nouns and verbs – and suggests avoiding passive verbs. You throw something – you don’t say “it was thrown by” someone, he explains.

King sees writers in a large pyramid – the bad ones are at the bottom, the next level contains “competent” writers, a “large and welcoming” group. Next comes a small group of “really good writers,” and at the top, geniuses like “the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys.”

While anyone can achieve good writing by mastering “the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style),” King maintains 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 helps, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

If, he continues, “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.”

Another tip from King is keeping the pedal to the metal. “Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to.” He says that otherwise, “characters begin to stale off in my mind – they begin to seem like characters instead of real people.”

He sees stories and novels consisting of three parts: “narrative, which moves the story form 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.”

“The key to writing good dialogue is honesty,” he continues. “You need to be ‘honest about the words coming out of your characters’ mouths.”

Length of an article, story or novel is also important. Early on, when he was working on an article, he got a comment that changed his writing forever. “Not bad,” the editor wrote, “but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft minus 10 per cent.”

He concludes the book by encouraging any of us who want to write. “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will,” he tells us. “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

This is a terrific book. It’s a great autobiography in and of itself, but as a text on how to write, it’s much more readable and direct and helpful than other books we’ve seen on the topic. Highly recommended.

Writing is something many of us take up in retirement – or perhaps, return to. If you’re saving up for life after work, a great partner is the Saskatchewan Pension Plan. SPP does all the hard work for you, investing your savings in a low-cost, professionally managed pooled fund. When it’s time to dust off the keyboard in retirement, you can choose such options as a lifetime monthly annuity payment or the flexible Variable Benefit option. Check out SPP today!

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Written by Martin Biefer

Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. A veteran reporter, editor and pension communicator, he’s now a freelancer. Interests include golf, line dancing and classic rock, and playing guitar. Got a story idea? Let Martin know via LinkedIn.

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