From humble beginnings as a creative kid raised by a single-mom, Stephen King takes us along through his struggles — from not being able to pay the bills to not remembering writing ‘Misery’. And teaches us the lesson most writers find difficult to grasp: How to give yourself permission to be one, unapologetically.
What I love about this book are the anecdotes from his childhood, his insights on the craft and the teachings on writing, many of which include comparisons to all things basic and primal. His advice either made me say “Yes! Yes! Exactly!” or it made me pull out my pink highlighter and make wild notes that I promised myself I would never forget. Consider Stephen King the feather to your Dumbo the Flying Elephant – the magic is inside you if you believe you can. He reminds us that we don’t have to buy into the over-complication of writing and overwhelming rules put out by academics. Writing as I know it, and Stephen knows it, is mostly instinct. Trust it and you will have fun.
Here are 16 King Tips (some of them direct quotes from his book) for keeping your sanity as a writer and how to be shameless if and when you lose it:
- Ideas come from the empty sky. Your job isn’t always to go looking for these ideas but recognize them when they show up. Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground.
- When you first write the story you are telling yourself the story, as if it’s just for you. When you rewrite, your main job is to take out all the parts that are NOT the story so that it can belong to anyone.
- Writing is a lonely job but having someone in your life who supports it and who believes in you makes a lot of difference.
- Don’t give up on your story when you feel it’s going nowhere. You are doing good work even if it feels like you are “shovelling shit from a sitting position”.
- Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around. So when arranging your writing room, put your desk in the corner. NOT in the middle of the room.
- Basic rules of vocabulary – Use the first word that comes to mind if it is appropriate and colourful. The adverb is not your friend. Remove as many as you can. They are like dandelions.
- Avoid the passive voice. Just so we’re clear, the passive voice is when something is done to someone. “Amanda was fired by her boss” as opposed to the active voice which is: “Amanda got fired”. The problem with the passive voice is that it is dull and timid. “Timid writers like the passive voice for the same reasons timid lovers like passive partners”. (Well said. Agreed).
- The reader must always be your main concern. Without the constant reader you are just a voice quacking in the void.
- Fear is the root of most bad writing. Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.
- Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. If not, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?
- Tell the truth. Write anything you damn well want. Anything at all…as long as you tell the truth. Honour the characters. If they swear, if they kill, if they do everything you never would. But don’t hold back so that you will please people or so that you don’t appear crazy. “If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
- Sanity includes insanity: The writing can be carefully crafted and both deliriously intoxicating at the same time. Often we are told our writing style must be one or the other – functional or creative. King compares it to having wild sex when we are stone-cold sober. So why can’t writing be like that?
- If you have to force yourself to make time for it you’re probably not a writer. Stephen tells us: “Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down until I absolutely have to”. I can personally relate– when you love writing, it’s a compulsion. You can’t stop the juices from flowing. You want to spend every second of your free time doing it. However there’s a luxury King has that I simply do not; a partner (his wife, Tabitha) who seemed to take care of all the domestic duties and child-rearing so that he could dedicate his time to his craft.
- Read, read, read. If you want to be a good writer you have to be a good reader. Read anything you can get your hands on. Turn off your TV. I’ve been saying this for years.
- Have no shame about the subjects you choose to write about. We can’t exactly help what interests us or where our mind wanders. We write what we know and we write what we like. You can never please everyone all the time but you should aim to please some of the people some of the time. You as a writer hold all the power.
- Give yourself permission. Writers, readers, musicians, artists — we are made to feel guilty by society for these “self-indulgent” hobbies of ours, aren’t we? So Stephen gives us the permission and validation we’re all hopelessly longing for: “If you feel permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.” (Love ya, Stevie).
Stephen King has a quote in the book which resonates and gives the most comfort to me as a writer, a single-mom, a reformed people-pleaser and a general flying Dumbo in the universe:
“If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It’s what I have.”