My Thoughts on Stephen King's Writing Advice
Updated: Jan 11
Stephen King is one of the most popular--if not the most popular--writer of our time. In addition to his impressive catalog of horror novels, he's got quite a lot to say about fiction writing, too. In fact, he has a whole book about it called On Writing. I haven't read it, but I stumble across quotes from it all the time. I'd like to share a few and dissect them a bit to see how much I actually agree with King.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
I tend to agree with this one. I addressed adverbs in a recent post, but suffice it to say that adverbs can really, heavily, immensely weigh down your prose (see what I did there?). There is a time and place for adverbs, and they can be quite effective when you use them sparingly, but King's advice here is sound.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
What a great way to put it. I agree with it wholeheartedly. What King means here is that you need to use description to establish the setting and the context of the scene, but don't overdo it. Give readers bits and pieces of details and let them fill in the rest. The reading experience will be more immersive if the readers get to engage their imagination based on what they glean from your well-timed descriptors. If you over-describe, your readers will read the same sentence four times over just so they don't miss any details, which will then remove them from the story.
“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.”
Yup. Writers often-time spend too much time daydreaming or watching TV but never actually writing. Don't get me started on writers who don't like reading.
“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.”
I love the analogy King uses to describe searching for big words when the little ones already pull their weight. I agree with him mostly here. You shouldn't try to impress people with your huge vocabulary. You shouldn't have to prove how good of a writer you are. Readers will see right through that.
However, I also don't think you should dumb down your writing. You can make it accessible, but don't oversimplify it. That being said, use a big word every once in a while. Dare that reader to pick up his phone and download the dictionary app. Let's enrich the common American vocabulary. Let's get smarter.
“I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months…Any longer and — for me, at least — the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.”
I can't agree with this one because I've never finished a first draft in less than three months. In fact, my first two books took two years. I broke a record with this third book, completing the first draft in just ten months. I must have a longer attention span than King, because I don't really identify with that "odd foreign feel." I'm in love with this book now as much as I was last January (which is when I started drafting). I might even love it more now than back then as the story has evolved and made itself known to me.
I don't necessarily think this is bad advice, though, especially if you happen to have a shorter attention span. Try to keep the momentum going best you can.
“I’m not particularly keen on writing which exhaustively describes the physical characteristics of the people in the story and what they’re wearing… I can always get a J. Crew catalogue… …So spare me, if you please, the hero’s ‘sharply intelligent blue eyes’ and ‘outthrust determined chin’.”
I see what King is saying here, but I'm quite fascinated by physical description, including clothing choice. You can glean personality by observing what characters wear. Are they dressed shabbily or lavishly? Do they have twenty pairs of shoes? Do they dress scantily or modestly? Are their clothes understated or attention-grabbing? You don't have to go overboard, but a few selective details can really make your writing shine.
“But none of them taught me the things I learned from Carrie White [the protagonist of King's first book]. The most important is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. Running a close second was 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 shit from a sitting position.”
I feel with King on this one. It's much the way I felt about my first book. I contemplated giving it up, but something (maybe stubbornness) kept me coming back to my seat with the laptop open. The story changed drastically after that, but it's a project I'm extremely proud of--especially because I didn't give up.
“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). If you can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably. If, on the other hand, you decide I’m crazy, that’s fine. You won’t be the first.”
This one resonates deeply with me, seeing as I'm certainly a character-driven writer, rather than a plot-driven writer. Sometimes I'm writing and I think, well what dramatic thing needs to happen next? I think this is the wrong question to ask. I really need to be asking, what needs to happen next as a result of the protagonist making a certain decision rather than another? What does the character do next? How does he react to what's just happened?
King is right. Our lives are largely plotless.
There is an endless number of King quotes I could have chosen, but I'd be here all day writing about it. It looks like we generally agree!
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