On Writing by Stephen King

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This is a great read. Easy to pick up and reenter almost anytime. A nice mix of no-bullshit, heartening advice and autobiography. Not to mention, King is extremely quotable.  I'd recommend the book to any writers, especially younger ones who are interested in fiction. However, anyone with a longstanding affair with words, ideas, and stories will read this book quickly and with pleasure. 



  1. First hundred pages:  memoir. This kid loved stories, this man writes at all costs. 
  2.  Writer’s toolbox: The tools and skills you need to be a writer. Advice wrapped in no-BS tone and amusing stories. Goes down smooth.
  3.  On Writing:  The meat of the book


Quotes & Notes

While the book is on writing, King spends a lot of time talking about ideas where they come from, how they are made, how they feel, and how he hates being asked about where he gets his ideas. Several times, he claims not to know, that it’s magical, but he gives a handful of good accounts. 

First Forward

“We do it for the music, but we also do it for the companionship. We like each other, and we like having a chance to talk sometimes about the real job, the day job people are always telling us not to quit. We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don’t know.” vii


On what it feels like to have an idea for a story when he was 8 years old. 

“I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea, as if I had been ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked. There were more doors than one person could ever open in a lifetime, I thought (and still think).” p.28


“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers.; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right tout of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” 

The genesis of his first good idea

“On the day this particular idea—the first really goodness—came sailing at me, my mother remarked that she needed simmer books of stamps to get a lamp she wanted to give her sister Molly for Christmas, and she didn’t think she would make it in time. “ I guess it will have to be for her birthday, instead,” she said. “These cussed things always look like a lot until you stick them in a book.” Then she crossed her eyes and ran her tongue out at me. When she did, I saw her tongue was S&H green. I thought how nice it would be if you could make those dammed stamps in your basement, and that in that instant a story called “Happy Stamps” was born. The concept of counterfeiting Green Stamps and the sight of my mother’s green tongue created it in an instant.”   p.38

Talking about John Gould, His first editor at the Lisbon Newspaper

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said, “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” 

"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 — right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.” 


On the genesis of coming up with Carrie (a long one)

“While he was going to college my brother Dave worked summers as a janitor at Brunswick High, his old alma mater. For part of one summer, I worked there, too. I can’t remember which year, only that it was before I met Tabby but after I started to smoke. That would have made me nineteen or twenty, I suppose. I got paired with a guy named Harry, who wore green fatigues, a big keychain, and walked with a limp. (He did have hands instead of hooks, however.) One lunch hour Harry told me what it had been like to face a Japanese banzai charge on the island of Tarawa, all the Japanese officers waving swords made out of Maxwell House coffee cans, all the screaming enlisted men behind them stoned out of their gourds and smelling of burned poppies. Quite a raconteur was my pal Harry. 

One day he and I were supposed to scrub the rust-stains off the walls in the girls’ shower. I looked around the locker room with the interest of a Muslim youth who for some reason finds himself deep within the women’s quarters. IT was the same as the boy’s locker room, and yet completely different. There were no urinals, of course, and there were tow extra metal boxes on the tile walls— unmarked, and the wrong size for paper towels. I asked what was in them. “ Pussy-plugs,” Harry said. “For them certain days of the month."

I also noticed that the showers, unlike those in the boys’ locker room , had chrome U-rings with pink plastic curtains attached. You could actually shower in privacy I mined this to Harry, and he shrugged. “ I guess young girls are a bit more shy about being undressed."

This memory came back to me one day while I was working at the laundry, and I started seeing the opening scene of a story: girls showering in a locker room where there were no U-rings, pink plastic curtains, or privacy. And this one girl starts to have her period. Only she doesn’t now what it is , and the other girls—grossed out, horrified, amused—start pelting her with sanitary napkins, Or with tampons, which Harry had called pussy-lugs The girl begins to scream. all that blood! She thinks she’s dying, that the other girls are making fun of her even while she’s bleeding to death…she reacts…fights back.. but how..?  

I read in an article in Life magazine some years before, suggesting that at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena— telekinesis being the ability to move objects just by thinking about there. There was some evidence to suggest that young people might have such powers, the article said, especially girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first--

Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea. I didn’t leave my post at Washex #2, didn’t go running g around the laundry waving my arms and showing Eureka!,” however. I’d had many other ideas as good and some that were better. Still I thought I might have the basis for a good yarn … the story remained on the back burner for awhile, simmering away in that place that’s not quite the conscious but not quite the subconscious, either.” p.76


Lessons on learning and perseverance

But none of them taught me the things I learned from Carrie White. 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 of 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."

Part II: The Writer’s toolbox

Top Shelf—Common Tools

     Vocabulary- “Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your tool box, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it.

     Grammar- Remember this is from a high school English teacher. His main take away is to chill, but learn the basics.

Middle Shelves: Form & Style

- “Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails. Rocks explode. Jane transmits. Mountains float.” Beauty of the simple sentence p 121

     - Avoid the passive voice

     - Abolish adverbs

     - Break complex sentences down to two sentences

     - Simple attribution “she said.” 

“Good writing is about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.” P.128

Chapter 4: this section is all about the paragraph and worth reading if you’re into that sort of thing. 

King doesn’t really deliver on the 4-level toolbox he promised us at the beginning of the section, but we get the point.

Part III: On Writing


How to be a good writer

“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.” (King, a self-proclaimed slow reader reads 70 fiction books a year)  p. 145

“Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. “  p. 147


Anti-plot philosophy

“ Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Gameboys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered, pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tolls in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as possible."

Situational questions

“A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot, which is fine with me. The most interesting stains can usually be expressed as a “What-if” question:

   What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem’s Lot)

   What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight ? (Desperation)

   What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer)? (Dolores Claiborne)


Real life fuel, dialogue

“everything I’ve said about dialogue applies to building character in fiction. The job boils down to two things: paying attention to how the real people around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.” 189


Ideas, flash of insight

“At one moment I had none of this; at the next I had all of it. IF there is anyone thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects. I have heard it called “thinking above the curve,” And tit’s that; I’ve heard it called “the over-logic,” and it’s that, too. P. 204


Writing & Showing process

   Write your first draft with the door shut as fast as you can with no help or interference from anyone. Resist the impulse to show it, either b/c you’re prod or doubtful. Finish and celebrate.

   "If someone’s been impatiently  waiting to read your novel — aspouse, let’s say, someone who has perhaps been working9-5 and helping to pay the bills while you chase you dream— then this is your time to give up the goods…if, that is, your first reader or readers will promise not to talk to you about the book until you are ready to talk to them about it.

   mind needs time to rest. take days off. let it rest like bread dough between kneading. Get deep enough into another project, or your life,  that you’ve forgotten about it. Then take a pen and go at it, ideally in one sitting. Look for glaring holes in plot and character development. Do not feel depressed. Look for character motivation. Clean up language

   “I think every novelist has a single ideal reader; that tat various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, “I wonder what he/she will think when he reads this part? “ For me that first reader is my wife , Tabitha”  215

Then, give it to your first reader and 4-8 other people. You’ll get back lots of highly subjective opinions. You should care about what the audience things. You are writing for an audience. 



“Formula 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%"



“In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is after all, the dam of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pedal , not pearl-making  seminars with other oysters.” p.232  


“writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”