Summary of Stephen King’s book
This is not a book that attempts to explain writing from a technical point of view, although King details the principles in a dedicated section. It is a rather intimate book that approaches the art of writing from the perspective of the author’s personal life. You’ll learn about some of the techniques, but you’ll also get to know the author’s family and much more. You will learn more about him, his life before and after his success and also what contributed to his great success.
About the author
He looks back on his childhood, his life, his first great success and his worldwide recognition. He portrays himself with humor and a certain distance. He manages to tell the story of his accident that almost cost him his life and that upset his daily life to the point where he almost considered giving up his art. The first sections of the book may seem confusing if you bought it only with the idea of improving your writing. However, this personal introduction is a good appetizer for those who know how to wait, and it gives a better understanding of the author and his relationship to writing. Writing has always been a passion for him, but it took him a long time to make a living out of it. In the first part of his life, he leads a rather ordinary life where his jobs are only food, to support himself and his family. He will face many rejections at the beginning, which is normal when one aspires to a career as a writer. His wife played an important role in his career as she always supported him in his passion for writing.
His first success, Carrie, allowed him to pocket a large sum of money, about 400 000 dollars which is much more than what he earned as a teacher at the time. This success takes a bad turn as he begins to sink into addiction to drugs and alcohol. This period will mark by the darkness of some of his novels of the time.
What we retain from his biography is that the life of a writer is a long road, harsh and even sinuous.
How to know how to write?
This is the reason why we read “On writing” (“Écriture” in its non-English versions). Note that these recommendations apply especially to the writing of novels. For anyone wishing to express themselves in the nonfiction genre, some of these tips also apply.
For style, he advises us to read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk & White. It’s a sort of prerequisite, and one that every writer worth his or her salt should have read.
Characters play an important role for King. He reveals their facets as he goes along, like peeling an onion, layer after layer.
Good writing is based on syntactic construction, where not all words have the same importance. Let’s look at these words and their place in Stephen’s style.
Adverbs are to be avoided as much as possible. They should only be used as a last resort. For King, adverbs weigh down the style.
The passive voice
He recommends using the active voice as much as possible.
Use grammar that conforms to the standards of your language. Don’t break grammatical rules to appear different or creative.
Remove unnecessary words
Many aspiring writers overload their pages with cumbersome words (I am one of them). Be satisfied with only useful words, get to the point.
Use only words you know. Take the first word that comes to mind. Avoid using fancy language. If you want to expand your vocabulary, read more. When writing, use only the bare minimum: be simple and direct.
According to the author, the three pillars of good writing are narration, description and dialogue. The plot is omitted from this triptych. So here again, stick to the basics: let the characters discover themselves over time.
They are there to introduce a work of imagination in the reader, so it is necessary to dose the details well at the risk of leaving no room for the creative work of those who read you. A book is really a work for two. It is a door to the imagination of each reader. You have to choose the details that will serve the narrative and the imagination without saying too much.
They are there to make the characters speak honestly and thus to be able to give a realism to the story in the head of the reader.
Showing instead of telling
The idea is not to tell a story or a scene. You have to show things so that the work is done with everything in the reader’s head. You have to accompany people like a museum guide who describes a work of art to a blind person. Then you have to let people’s imaginations run wild.
They are there to give rhythm to your text. Choose a rhythm that suits you, and stick to it.
Avoid retrospectives and flashbacks as much as possible.
Close the door
To enter a state of flow, you need to close the door to your room. Eliminate all distractions so you can focus on writing.
Reading and writing: the two pillars of continuous improvement
There are only two ways to improve as a writer: read and write. Through writing, you become better at your craft. Through reading, you learn from other writers, their styles, their worlds. You also expand your vocabulary. You learn from the bad as well as the good, about what not to do and what to focus on.
What to do after the first draft
King recommends that you write the first draft of your book within 3 months. You should then wait several weeks (about 6) to get a fresh look at your work. Don’t wait more than 6 weeks so you don’t forget the plot or characters. When you reread your work, you will become aware of inconsistencies, flaws or details that need to be added. You will take the opportunity to do a first skimming to remove unnecessary adverbs.
The second draft
At the second rewrite, he recommends deleting about 10% of the text, always in the spirit of getting to the point.
Show your work only after at least a second writing.
Writing classes: avoid them
According to him, they interrupt the work of writing. It is better to read and write.
Find the right reasons
Writing should be motivated by the act of writing (joy or enthusiasm), not the results of writing. If you are writing for money or fame, you have the wrong vocation.