On the writing wisdom of novelist Stephen King
Stephen King writes spooky thrillers, horror, and fantasy. His many books, short stories and screen plays enjoy a hugely popular following. King began writing novels in the 1970s and is still going strong, with one shattering interruption. His novels tend to have provocative titles that ring with macabre images derived from a vivid imagination (and your own worst nightmares): The Shining, Rage, Night Shift, The Dead Zone, Dans e Macabre, Creepshow, PetSematary, Cycle of the Werewolf, It, Misery, Insomnia, Bag of Bones and others.
One afternoon in June 1999, King was accidently hit by a car while walking along a road absent-mindedly reading a book. In the hospital he was diagnosed with a collapsed lung, multiple fractures of one leg, and a broken hip. His doctors almost amputated the leg, but managed to save it with five operations in a period of 10 days. His hip was so badly shattered that the pain became nearly unbearable. The accident put a serious dent into his writing career. But not for long.
Some months earlier he had prepared the draft of a book about his craft. He called it On Writing, but he had put it aside unfinished. While recuperating from the accident, King went back to the book manuscript and whipped it into shape.
I may be biased, but of all of his writings I think King’s On Writing is the best. I recommend it to all aspiring writers for its wisdom about writing, and to his avid fans for its autobiographical insights.
Here is a sampling of King’s wisdom:
“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine, if you like, Frankenstein’s monster on its slab. Here comes lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. Maybe it’s the first really good paragraph you ever wrote, something so fragile and yet full of possibility that you are frightened. You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare [body] parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes. Oh my God, it’s breathing, you realize. Maybe it’s even thinking. What in hell’s name do I do next?”
Did that paragraph hook and keep your attention by alluding to the Frankenstein monster? Why not? Stephen King likes horror and fantasy!
Near the middle of the book King posits two simple theses: One is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals – vocabulary, grammar, and the elements of style. The other is that while it’s not possible to make a competent writer out of a bad one, it is possible – with hard work, dedication, and timely help – to make a good writer out of a merely competent one. So, if you are competent there’s a chance that, with due diligence, you can become “good.”
King also has a rule that I firmly believe in: “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..., no shortcut.” Since he is so successful he must be a good writer, so it’s probably a good idea to advise merely competent writers who aspire to become good ones to read some of King’s novels, too, to see how he does it.
In a Postscript entitled ‘On Living’, King reflects on the meaning of life (after his accident). Writing isn’t about making money or getting famous, or a whole lot of other personal ambitions, he says:
“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...”
“Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So Drink.”
Good reading and writing!
Don Messerschmidt is a contributing editor to ECS Nepal magazine. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.