On Writing: A Memoir
Buy it at BOL
'I like to get 10 pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words," says Stephen King in his new memoir, On Writing. "That's 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book." When he's working on a book, which is most of the time, he writes every day of the year, and that "includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday".
King is a not a writer, in the usual sense; he's an industry. According to Forbes, he makes in excess of $50,000,000 a year (and I didn't accidentally add a few zeros). It all began in 1974 with his first novel Carrie, about a teenage girl with supernatural powers. Some 30 novels and half a dozen story collections later, the man has never looked back, pounding out blockbusters in a way that redefines the word. Not since Dickens has a writer had so many readers - I confess to being one of them - by the throat. Much of his fiction has, of course, been turned into films. As if this weren't enough, King has also written five novels under the name of Richard Bachman and spun out nearly a dozen screenplays or teleplays. On top of which, he's a nice guy.
The niceness comes through in his books, encoded in the voice itself: a loud but down-to-earth, friendly and innocent voice that might be America (or America's vision of itself) talking. The fact is, King has got more of postwar America into his fiction than almost any other writer now at work. That he has chosen to write in a particular genre - horror - has, unquestionably, worked against his critical reputation. Perhaps rightly, critics have wondered about his seriousness. The novels are terribly uneven, and even the best of them - The Shining, Pet Sematary, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, Bag of Bones - tend to puff and wheeze after a while like an overweight man on a treadmill. Only his most recent novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, is tautly written. Nevertheless, King's imagination is vast. He knows how to engage the deepest sympathies of his readers, and they have rewarded him handsomely.
Lately, King has been on the literary equivalent of a rampage. Bag of Bones was a big, distorted yet wonderfully entertaining novel that rode high on the bestseller lists in 1998. Hard on the heels of that success came a fine collection of stories, Hearts in Atlantis (1999). That same year, he also published The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - a chilling, often beautiful novel about a young girl lost in the woods. For almost the first time, reviewers sat up respectfully, noting the depth and shapeliness of this work. One could no longer dismiss King as just another bad writer proffering cheap thrills to the multitudes.
That same year, he brought out his first electronic book, Riding the Bullet. This novella was the world's first mass-market e-book, released through his conventional publisher, Scribner. Half a million downloads later, the publishing industry had to face up to something new under the sun. Soon the idea occurred to King that he might try e-publishing without a conventional publisher in the background. He would simply post a book on his website and request a dollar from anybody who downloaded it. Instead of writing something fresh, however, he rooted through his bottom drawer and found a long-abandoned piece of fiction called The Plant. It's a revenge fantasy about a frustrated author who sends a man-eating vine to devour his publishers. "My friends," King wrote on his website (www.stephenking.com), "we have the chance to become Big Publishing's worst nightmare." Although not as successful as Riding the Bullet, the new work did well enough to please King. (For the record, I sent him a dollar.)
Now comes On Writing: A Memoir. It is part biography, part collection of tips for the aspiring writer. In the final chapters, King tells, in graphic detail, the story of his recent accident. In June 1999 he was near his home in Maine, taking his usual four-mile stroll along a rural route. Unexpectedly, a blue Dodge minivan lurched over the hilltop, totally out of control. It was driven by a local man called Bryan Smith. King notes, casually: "Smith wasn't looking at the road on the afternoon our lives came together because his rottweiler had jumped from the very rear of his van into the backseat area, where there was an Igloo cooler with some meat stored inside." Smith thought at first that he had hit "a small deer".
It was King he hit. After bouncing off the windscreen, the author found himself at the side of the road with his lap turned the wrong way. One of his legs was broken in nine places, "like so many marbles in a sock", as his surgeon later explained. He had a collapsed lung and lacerations on his scalp.
His devoted wife Tabitha (herself a novelist) stayed by him through several agonising weeks during which it was not clear whether King would ever walk again. His three grown children - Joe, Naomi and Owen - were by his side as well. King's gratitude shines through this memoir. One comes away from it liking King a great deal and admiring his family.
Understanding her husband's compulsion to write, Tabitha established the wheelchaired King at a makeshift desk in a hallway of their rambling Victorian house only five weeks after the accident. That King could possibly summon the will to work in this situation is nothing less than astounding. He wrote a little at first, then a lot. Soon, it was business as usual: the author as locomotive, charging down the tracks of narrative, rock music blaring in the background. The pages gathered on his desk. In the 15 or so months since his accident, he has poured out the e-novella, Riding the Bullet, most of a teleplay in six hour-long parts for American television, and a 900-page novel, Dreamcatcher. Oh, yes, and he added the memoir of his accident to a book about the craft of writing that he'd already finished.
King has nothing much to say about writing that isn't obvious. "In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts," he explains with professorial solemnity: "narration, description, and dialogue." He warns us: "The adverb is not your friend." He advises writing behind a closed door: "It is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk." Oh dear. King is infinitely better at writing than talking about writing, though fans will doubtless find moments of interest here, especially when he talks about his own extraordinary writing habits.
The best part of the book remains his account of how writing - and the primitive urge to write - saved his life after the accident. It's a bizarre and absorbing story, told brilliantly by one of the great storytellers of our time. One only hopes he lives to write many more books, however uneven. I would not begrudge him a single item on his bibliography. He is, after all, the King.
Jay Parini's novels include The Last Station and Benjamin's Crossing.
"Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully- in Ten Minutes"
by Stephen King
(reprinted in Sylvia K. Burack, ed. The Writer's Handbook. Boston, MA: Writer, Inc., 1988: 3-9)
I. The First Introduction
THAT'S RIGHT. I know it sounds like an ad for some sleazy writers' school, but I really am going to tell you everything you need to pursue a successful and financially rewarding career writing fiction, and I really am going to do it in ten minutes, which is exactly how long it took me to learn. It will actually take you twenty minutes or so to read this essay, however, because I have to tell you a story, and then I have to write a second introduction. But these, I argue, should not count in the ten minutes.
II. The Story, or, How Stephen King Learned to Write
When I was a sophomore in high school, I did a sophomoric thing which got me in a pot of fairly hot water, as sophomoric didoes often do. I wrote and published a small satiric newspaper called The Village Vomit. In this little paper I lampooned a number of teachers at Lisbon (Maine) High School, where I was under instruction. These were not very gentle lampoons; they ranged from the scatological to the downright cruel.
Eventually, a copy of this little newspaper found its way into the hands of a faculty member, and since I had been unwise enough to put my name on it (a fault, some critics argue, of which I have still not been entirely cured), I was brought into the office. The sophisticated satirist had by that time reverted to what he really was: a fourteen-year-old kid who was shaking in his boots and wondering if he was going to get a suspension ... what we called "a three-day vacation" in those dim days of 1964.
I wasn't suspended. I was forced to make a number of apologies - they were warranted, but they still tasted like dog-dirt in my mouth - and spent a week in detention hall. And the guidance counselor arranged what he no doubt thought of as a more constructive channel for my talents. This was a job - contingent upon the editor's approval - writing sports for the Lisbon Enterprise, a twelve-page weekly of the sort with which any small-town resident will be familiar. This editor was the man who taught me everything I know about writing in ten minutes. His name was John Gould - not the famed New England humorist or the novelist who wrote The Greenleaf Fires, but a relative of both, I believe.
He told me he needed a sports writer and we could "try each other out" if I wanted.
I told him I knew more about advanced algebra than I did sports.
Gould nodded and said, "You'll learn."
I said I would at least try to learn. Gould gave me a huge roll of yellow paper and promised me a wage of 1/2¢ per word. The first two pieces I wrote had to do with a high school basketball game in which a member of my school team broke the Lisbon High scoring record. One of these pieces was straight reportage. The second was a feature article.
I brought them to Gould the day after the game, so he'd have them for the paper, which came out Fridays. He read the straight piece, made two minor corrections, and spiked it. Then he started in on the feature piece with a large black pen and taught me all I ever needed to know about my craft. I wish I still had the piece - it deserves to be framed, editorial corrections and all - but I can remember pretty well how it looked when he had finished with it. Here's an example:
(note: this is before the edit marks indicated on King's original copy)
(after edit marks)
When Gould finished marking up my copy in the manner I have indicated above, he looked up and must have seen something on my face. I think he must have thought it was horror, but it was not: it was revelation.
"I only took out the bad parts, you know," he said. "Most of it's pretty good."
"I know," I said, meaning both things: yes, most of it was good, and yes, he had only taken out the bad parts. "I won't do it again."
"If that's true," he said, "you'll never have to work again. You can do this for a living." Then he threw back his head and laughed.
And he was right; I am doing this for a living, and as long as I can keep on, I don't expect ever to have to work again.
III. The Second Introduction
All of what follows has been said before. If you are interested enough in writing to be a purchaser of this magazine, you will have either heard or read all (or almost all) of it before. Thousands of writing courses are taught across the United States each year; seminars are convened; guest lecturers talk, then answer questions, then drink as many gin and tonics as their expense-fees will allow, and it all boils down to what follows.
I am going to tell you these things again because often people will only listen - really listen - to someone who makes a lot of money doing the thing he's talking about. This is sad but true. And I told you the story above not to make myself sound like a character out of a Horatio Alger novel but to make a point: I saw, I listened, and I learned. Until that day in John Gould's little office, I had been writing first drafts of stories which might run 2,500 words. The second drafts were apt to run 3,300 words. Following that day, my 2,500-word first drafts became 2,200-word second drafts. And two years after that, I sold the first one.
So here it is, with all the bark stripped off. It'll take ten minutes to read, and you can apply it right away ... if you listen.
IV. Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully
1. Be talented
This, of course, is the killer. What is talent? I can hear someone shouting, and here we are, ready to get into a discussion right up there with "what is the meaning of life?" for weighty pronouncements and total uselessness. For the purposes of the beginning writer, talent may as well be defined as eventual success - publication and money. If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn't bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.
Now some of you are really hollering. Some of you are calling me one crass money-fixated creep. And some of you are calling me bad names. Are you calling Harold Robbins talented? someone in one of the Great English Departments of America is screeching. V.C. Andrews? Theodore Dreiser? Or what about you, you dyslexic moron?
Nonsense. Worse than nonsense, off the subject. We're not talking about good or bad here. I'm interested in telling you how to get your stuff published, not in critical judgments of who's good or bad. As a rule the critical judgments come after the check's been spent, anyway. I have my own opinions, but most times I keep them to myself. People who are published steadily and are paid for what they are writing may be either saints or trollops, but they are clearly reaching a great many someones who want what they have. Ergo, they are communicating. Ergo, they are talented. The biggest part of writing successfully is being talented, and in the context of marketing, the only bad writer is one who doesn't get paid. If you're not talented, you won't succeed. And if you're not succeeding, you should know when to quit.
When is that? I don't know. It's different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, nor after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it's time you tried painting or computer programming.
Further, almost every aspiring writer knows when he is getting warmer - you start getting little jotted notes on your rejection slips, or personal letters . . . maybe a commiserating phone call. It's lonely out there in the cold, but there are encouraging voices ... unless there is nothing in your words which warrants encouragement. I think you owe it to yourself to skip as much of the self-illusion as possible. If your eyes are open, you'll know which way to go ... or when to turn back.
2. Be neat
Type. Double-space. Use a nice heavy white paper, never that erasable onion-skin stuff. If you've marked up your manuscript a lot, do another draft.
3. Be self-critical
If you haven't marked up your manuscript a lot, you did a lazy job. Only God gets things right the first time. Don't be a slob.
4. Remove every extraneous word
You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can't find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.
5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right - and breaking your train of thought and the writer's trance in the bargain - or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don't have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it ... but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don't do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.
6. Know the markets
Only a dimwit would send a story about giant vampire bats surrounding a high school to McCall's. Only a dimwit would send a tender story about a mother and daughter making up their differences on Christmas Eve to Playboy ... but people do it all the time. I'm not exaggerating; I have seen such stories in the slush piles of the actual magazines. If you write a good story, why send it out in an ignorant fashion? Would you send your kid out in a snowstorm dressed in Bermuda shorts and a tank top? If you like science fiction, read the magazines. If you want to write confession stories, read the magazines. And so on. It isn't just a matter of knowing what's right for the present story; you can begin to catch on, after awhile, to overall rhythms, editorial likes and dislikes, a magazine's entire slant. Sometimes your reading can influence the next story, and create a sale.
7. Write to entertain
Does this mean you can't write "serious fiction"? It does not. Somewhere along the line pernicious critics have invested the American reading and writing public with the idea that entertaining fiction and serious ideas do not overlap. This would have surprised Charles Dickens, not to mention Jane Austen, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Bernard Malamud, and hundreds of others. But your serious ideas must always serve your story, not the other way around. I repeat: if you want to preach, get a soapbox.
8. Ask yourself frequently, "Am I having fun?"
The answer needn't always be yes. But if it's always no, it's time for a new project or a new career.
9. How to evaluate criticism
Show your piece to a number of people - ten, let us say. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot. Then review what was said very carefully. If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story - a plot twist that doesn't work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibles - change that facet. It doesn't matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with you piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I'd still suggest changing it. But if everyone - or even most everyone - is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.
10. Observe all rules for proper submission
Return postage, self-addressed envelope, all of that.
11. An agent? Forget it. For now
Agents get 10% of monies earned by their clients. 10% of nothing is nothing. Agents also have to pay the rent. Beginning writers do not contribute to that or any other necessity of life. Flog your stories around yourself. If you've done a novel, send around query letters to publishers, one by one, and follow up with sample chapters and/or the manuscript complete. And remember Stephen King's First Rule of Writers and Agents, learned by bitter personal experience: You don't need one until you're making enough for someone to steal ... and if you're making that much, you'll be able to take your pick of good agents.
12. If it's bad, kill it
When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.
That's everything you need to know. And if you listened, you can write everything and anything you want. Now I believe I will wish you a pleasant day and sign off.
My ten minutes are up.
So you thought Stephen King was only good for some giggle-in-the-graveyard, dark-o'-night shivers, eh? Well, keep in mind he used to teach English composition to high school kids his own darned self while struggling to write a little novel called Carrie - as well as work part time at a steam laundering industry and help his wife Tabitha raise their first child. Learned a thing or two while among those school kids, I'd say. So if you want a little friendly advice from the person who has probably made the single best living of anyone who has ever tapped finger to keyboard, this is your guy.
The biggest problem I have with King's essay is that business in #5 about throwing away your thesaurus. Throw it on the floor - till after the first draft, I say. While you're first-drafting, however - and that's really what #5 is about - ol' Steve is exactly on the proverbial money (and he knows something about money, gentle reader).
For our present purposes, however, I recommend that we all pay particular attention to what our hyperrich storytelling friend has to say about other/self-evaluation, the elimination of (shall we say) "filler," and having fun during the writing process. By the bye, despite what King says about writers not having to "work anymore," he - likely more than most professionals in the business - truly knows better. In his Danse Macabre (New York: Everest House, 1981), King states something to the effect (I'm paraphrasing a bit here) that, unlike most visions of chubby little cherubic Muses who are thought to gracefully float about the ether while whispering inspiration into an author's ear, his has a Marine-style crewcut, wears bib overalls, and has a voice like Jack (Dragnet) Webb shouting, "Time to get to work, you sonofabitch."