"On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" by Stephen King

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open

"Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right - as right as you can, anyway - it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you're very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould's, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter." (#2 p.47)

Describing in terms of rough comparison

"Look - here's a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8."
"it is described in terms of rough comparison, which is useful only if you and I see the world and measure the things in it with similar eyes."
"We all understand the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don't care. The most interesting thing here isn't even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It's an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it."
(#2 p.97-98)

One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary

"Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don't make any conscious effort to improve it. (You'll be doing that as you read, of course ... but that comes later.) 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." (#2 p.110)

The adverb is not your friend

"Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It's by no means a terrible sentence (at least it's got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you'll get no argument from me ... but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn't this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn't firmly an extra word? Isn't it redundant?" (#2 p.118)

Fear is at the root of most bad writing

"I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one's own pleasure, that fear may be mild - timidity is the word I've used here. If, however, one is working under deadline - a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample - that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn't need the feather; the magic was in him." (#2 p.121)

Stories and novels consist of: Narration, Description and Dialogue

"In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech." (#2 p.159)

Plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible

"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."
"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)."
(#2 p.159)

Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground

"I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn't believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do."
"Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered preexisting world. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible."
(#2 p.160)

Based on situation rather than story → ...

"I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau. I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn't to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety - those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot - but to watch what happens and then write it down." (#2 p.160-161)

The use of simile and other figurative language

"Both are okay, but I like the figurative stuff. The use of simile and other figurative language is one of the chief delights of fiction - reading it and writing it, as well. When it's on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does. By comparing two seemingly unrelated objects - a restaurant bar and a cave, a mirror and a mirage - we are sometimes able to see an old thing in a new and vivid way." (#2 p.176)

The key to writing good dialogue is honesty

"As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty."
"You must tell the truth if your dialogue is to have the resonance and realism that Hart's War, good story though it is, so sadly lacks"
"The point is to let each character speak freely, without regard to what the Legion of Decency or the Christian Ladies' Reading Circle may approve of. To do otherwise would be cowardly as well as dishonest, and believe me, writing fiction in America as we enter the twenty-first century is no job for intellectual cowards. There are lots of would-be censors out there, and although they may have different agendas, they all want basically the same thing: for you to see the world they see ... or to at least shut up about what you do see that's different."
(#2 p.184-185)

Character-driven story

"I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven. Once you get beyond the short story, though (two or four thousand words, let's say), I'm not much of a believer in the so-called character study; I think that in the end, the story should always be the boss." (#2 p.189)


"Symbolism (and the other adornments, too) does serve a usefull purpose, though - it's more that just chrome on the grille. It can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work. I think that, when you read your manuscript over (and when you talk it over), you'll see if symbolism, or the potential for it, exists. If it doesn't, leave well enough alone. If it does, however - if it's clearly a part of the fossil you're working to unearth - go for it. Enhance it. You're a monkey if you don't." (#2 p.200)

Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme

"When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you're done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y'know), but it seems to me that every book - at least every one worth reading - is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft - one of them, anyway - is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails." (#2 p.201)
"I should close this little sermonette with a word of warning - starting with the questions and thematic concerns is a recipe for bad fiction. Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story." (#2 p.208-209)

It's always easier to kill someone else's darlings than it is to kill your own

"If you've never done it before, you'll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It's yours, you'll recognize it as yours, even be able to remember what tune was on the stereo when you wrote certain lines, and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps. This is the way it should be, the reason you waited. It's always easier to kill someone else's darlings than it is to kill your own." (#2 p.213)

If there's a gun on the mantel in Act I, it must go off in Act III

"There's an old rule of theater that goes, "If there's a gun on the mantel in Act I, it must go off in Act III."" (#2 p.290)