On writing: A Memoir of the Craft | Stephen King

Published in: 2010

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We have read this book in Swedish; some nuances may have been lost in translation. This book, with the Swedish title ”Att skriva” is Stephen King’s biography intertwined with tips on how to become a better writer. King believes that anyone who wants to become a writer must read a lot and write a lot. Just like with exercise and training, it is best to start with simple goals, so that you will not be disappointed. Writing is at its best when it is inspiring. But sometimes you have to write out of pure will. King believes that it is possible, through hard work, perseverance, and the right advice, to make an excellent writer of someone who is just decent writer.

WRITE WITH THE DOOR CLOSED, EDIT WITH THE DOOR OPEN. Beginners should go through their script at least twice – first with the door closed (for themselves) then with the door open (with help of others). The first draft, the whole story, should be written without the help of anyone as the concentration is then the best. When it is time to share with the first reader, it may be wise to take some time off – fishing, paddling, putting together a puzzle – and then working on something else. A script should lie dormant for at least six weeks. Then you are receptive to feedback.

KEEP IT SIMPLE. In an explanatory text, paragraphs must be well-disposed and useful. The text should begin with a key sentence followed by sentences that develop and deepen the first. A thought is easier to absorb if it is divided into two: “Our first kiss will always be remembered by me as the moment when my affair with Shayna began”. Straighter and also more powerful: “My affair with Shayna began with our first kiss. I will never forget it”.

CUTTING. For the most part, you have to cut out pieces of the text to pick up the pace (kill your darlings). Only a lazy person says that this is something the editor can take care of. Below is the editor’s opinion on a newspaper article King wrote as a youth (example translated from Swedish):

In Lisbon High School’s beloved old sports hall, both the home team’s supporters and the Jay Hill side’s fans witnessed a sporting achievement that beat everything else in the school’s history. Rob Ransom, both for his size and his dot security otherwise known as cannon Bob, took home thirty-seven points. Yes, you heard right. But he [He] also performed his feat impressively fast and with perfect balance… and also with style as he only committed two missteps during his chivalrous struggle for the record that has eluded Lisbon’s sporty masters since the days of the Korean War [1953].

ON VOCABULARY. The most important tool is your vocabulary, but do not try to expand it on purpose (it happens automatically when you read). One of the worst mistakes is to dress up your own language, i.e. do not say “John stopped long enough to defect” when you mean “John stopped to shit”. Do not use crude expressions for that matter, but use the first word you come up with if it is appropriate and vivid enough. Avoid fear and flirting.

SKIP CLICHÈS. When parables and imagery do not work, the result is embarrassing. The most common mistake many people make – it’s easy to fall into that trap if you haven’t read enough – is to reuse worn-out clichés, images and metaphors, such as “he ran like crazy” or “she was as beautiful as a summer day”. The person who writes this is either lazy or ignorant. King prefer the saying from the 50’s hard-boiled detective genre: “it tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief”.

AVOID PASSIVE. Verbs can be used in active or passive form. The active form tells that someone is adding something. In the passive form, it is someone or something that is exposed to something. King believes that prudent writers like passive forms for the same reason that a shy lover prefers a submissive partner. The passive feels safe. Insecure writers feel that passive gives authority to their words (if you now think that instructions for use and legal texts are majestic). The inhibited person writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock”. Write “The meeting is at seven”.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT. Writing is about seduction where words are an important part of the seduction. If you want to write well, you must also learn to master the paragraph division. You have to get a feel for the rhythm. Words are based on sentences; sentences become paragraphs; sometimes pieces come to life and begin to breathe. One should also understand the difference between an adverb and an adjective. Without one or the other it is not possible to form sentences, because a sentence by definition contains a subject (noun or pronoun) and a predicate (verb). Such threads of words form a coherent thought that begins in the author’s brain and moves to the reader.

BAD GRAMMAR LEADS TO BAD SENTENCES. Take any noun and put it together with a verb. All of a sudden you have an opinion. Although Strunk and White warn against using too many simple sentences in a row, a string of simple sentences can also be a way away from the intricate nooks and crannies of rhetoric. Even the best writers sometimes deviate from the laws of rhetoric. But if the author is not entirely sure that the results will be good, he is probably wise to stick to the rules.

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