My (sort of) interview with Stephen King Part II
If you read part one of my interview with Stephen King, you would have learned about how King became the writer he is today (which -- spoiler alert -- includes rejection and fear...very relatable!) and what writing means to him personally. In part two, King will teach us about the writing tools every writer should have in their toolbox and provide technical ways to sharpen our writing skills.
Like I said in part one, the material for this interview comes from King’s On Writing. I highly recommend you read the entire book. Yes, put it on that giant book list of yours...towards the top. That’s it.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
In your book, you told a story about your Uncle who carried his entire toolbox with him when he only needed a screwdriver. You mentioned this taught you to avoid discouragement by being prepared for the unexpected. Similarly, what kind of tools should writers always have with them?
“Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it...Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it appropriate and colorful...One of the really bad things you can do to your writing it to dress up your vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones.”
“You’ll also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox...One who does grasp the rudiments of grammar finds a comforting simplicity at its heart, where there need be only nouns, the words that name, and verbs, the words that act.”
Avoid passive voice. “I think timid writers like [passive voice] for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe...I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty.”
Also, “The adverb is not your friend…[and] the best form of dialogue attribution is said.”
What other tools should writers include in their toolboxes?
“Lift out the top layer of your toolbox--your vocabulary and all the grammar stuff. On the layer beneath go those elements of style upon which I’ve already touched…”
“I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing--the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words. If the moment of quickening is to come, it comes at the level of the paragraph. It is a marvellous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run on for pages...You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.”
“Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent. In expository prose, paragraphs can (and should) be neat and utilitarian...In fiction, the paragraph is less structured--it’s the beat instead of the actual melody…Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story...to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.”
“We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style…[but] you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic...Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.”
How do you define good writing?
“Writing is refined thinking.”
“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing...Good writing is often 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.”
Do you believe that anyone can become a great writer?
“No matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers...Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity. At the bottom are the bad ones. Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large and welcoming; these are the competent writers...The next level is much smaller. These are the really good writers. Above them--above almost all of us--are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain.”
“...while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
How do competent writers become good ones?
“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.”
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
“If you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well--settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”
How can writers recognize if they have enough talent?
“Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you are the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic...The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate--four to six hours a day, every day--will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already. If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.”
You mentioned the importance of reading a lot. How many books do you read in a year on average?
“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read...Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”
In your experience, what kind of lessons can books teach writers?
“One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose…[Besides] what could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff?”
“Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.”
“So we read to experience the mediocre and the ouright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.”
“Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life....The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing...Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.”
What is your advice for writers who struggle to find time to read?
“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. Waiting rooms were made for books--of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john. You can even read while you’re driving thanks to the audiobook revolution...There’s always the treadmill...I try to spend an hour doing that every day, and I think I’d go mad without a good novel to keep me company.”
“TV...really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs...Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it...I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing.”
You said in addition to reading a lot, writers need to write a lot. What constitutes a lot?
“That varies, of course, from writer to writer...My own schedule is pretty clear-cut. Mornings belong to whatever is new--the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letter. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait. Basically, mornings are my prime writing time. Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind--they begin to seem like characters instead of real people...The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death...For me, not working is the real work. When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.”
How long does it take for you to finish a draft?
“I used to be faster than I am now; one of my books (The Running Man) was written in a single week...I believe the first draft of a book--even a long one--should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and--for me, at least--the story begins to take an odd foreign feel...I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book--something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh...Only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.”
What kind of writing routine would you recommend to other writers?
“You can read anywhere, almost, but when it comes to writing, library carrels, park benches, and rented flats should be courts of last resort...The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”
“By the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal. As with physical exercise, it would be best to set this goal low at first, to avoid discouragement. I suggest a thousand words a day...I’ll also suggest that you can take one day a week off, at least to begin with. No more; you’ll lose the urgency and immediacy of your story if you do. With that goal set, resolve to yourself that the door stays closed until that goal is met...The door closes the rest of the world out; it also serves to close you in and keep you focused on the job at hand.”
“For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. If you continue to write, you will begin to filter out these distractions naturally, but at the start it’s best to try and take care of them before you write...But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to the basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse….You job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘ til noon or seven ‘til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.”
Sometimes the blank page can be overwhelming. Where should writers start once they close the door?
“Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.”
The big question is: “What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all...as long as you tell the truth.”
Is there anything you shouldn’t write about?
“What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like...in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing--the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also...it doesn’t work.”
What do you think draws readers into stories?
“Book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.”
What is the anatomy of a good story?
“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.”
I’m curious why plot isn’t included in your list.
I plot “as infrequently as possible. 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…[stories] pretty much make themselves. The job of a writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).”
“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing 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...Plot is [the writer’s jackhammer which] is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”
So how do you approach a story instead?
“[I] put a group of characters...perhaps 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.”
“The situation comes first...The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question...The characters--always flat and unfeatured, to begin with--come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected.”
So what about the second part of a story: description. How do you write good description?
“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a questions of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.”
“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary….Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
“For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.”
“You must be able to describe...in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition...Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.”
What type of details contribute to the story the most?
“I think locale and texture are much more important to the reader’s sense of actually being in the story than any physical description of the players. Nor do I think that physical description should be a shortcut to character.”
Let’s move to the final part of story: dialogue. Why is dialogue so important?
“Dialogue...gives your cast their voices, and is crucial in defining their characters--only what people do tells us more about what they’re like, and talk is sneaky: what people say often conveys their character to others in ways of which they--the speakers--are completely unaware.”
What are your tips for writing great dialogue?
“Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others--particularly listening, picking up the accents, rhythms, dialect, and slang of various groups.”
“As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty...the only question is how it rings on the page and in the ear. If you expect it to ring true, then you must talk yourself. Even more important, you must shut up and listen to others talk.”
So how does this all relate to building good characters?
“Everything I’ve said about dialogue applies to building characters 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.”
So should you base your characters on real people?
“Obviously not, at least on a one-to-one basis--you’d better not, unless you want to get sued or shot on your way to the mailbox some fine morning.”
Then what do you use to create good characters?
“Every character you create is partly you. When you ask yourself what a certain character will do given a certain set of circumstances, you’re making the decision based on what you yourself would...do. Added to these versions of yourself are the character traits, both lovely and unlovely, which you observe in others...There is also a wonderful third element: pure blue-sky imagination. This is the part which allowed me to be a psychotic nurse for a little while when I was writing Misery.”
“The characters [should be] determined by the story...by the fossil...My job (and yours, if you decide this is a viable approach to storytelling) is to make sure these fictional folks behave in ways that will both help the story and seem reasonable to us, given what we know about them (and what we know about real life, of course)...if you do your job, your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own. I know that sounds a little creepy if you haven’t actually experienced it, but it’s terrific fun when it happens. And it will solve a lot of your problems, believe me.”
What is your opinion about using other story tools like interior dialogue, change of verbal tense, back story, theme, pacing, etc.?
“It’s all on the table, every bit of it, and you should use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way of your story.”
When do you worry about all of the other elements of story?
“I most often see chances to add the grace-notes and ornamental touches after my basic storytelling job is done.”
What do you look for in your draft when you’ve jotted down your basic story?
“Two examples...are symbolism and theme...[Symbolism] 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…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.”
“The same things are true of 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….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 something yours is about. Your job in the second draft...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.”
“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.”
What is the best way to include back story?
“As a reader, I’m a lot more interested in what’s going to happen than what already did...The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest.”
What about research?
“When you step away from the ‘write what you know’ rule, research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story. Just don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first...Research is back story, and the key word in back story is back.”
How many drafts do you typically write?
“For me the answer has always been two drafts and a polish...You should realize that I’m only talking about my own personal mode of writing here; in actual practice, rewriting varies greatly from writer to writer.”
“If you’re a beginner, though, let me urge that you take your story through at least two drafts; the one you do with the study door closed and the one you do with it open.”
What is the difference between a closed door and open door draft, and when does revision come into play?
“With the door shut...I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable...If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in. This first draft--the All-Story Draft--should be written with no help (or interference) from anyone else.”
“Now let’s say you’ve finished your first draft...You’ve done a lot of work and you need a period of time...to rest...I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.”
“When you come to the correct evening….take your manuscript out of the drawer….Sit down with your door shut...a pencil in your hand, and a legal pad by your side. Then read your manuscript over. Do it all in one sitting, if that’s possible...Make all the notes you want but concentrate on the mundane housekeeping jobs, like fixing misspellings and picking up inconsistencies. There’ll be plenty….Underneath, however, [ask yourself] the Big Questions. The biggest: Is this story coherent? And if it is, what will turn coherence into a song? What are the recurring elements? Do they entwine and make a theme?...What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart)...Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant.”
“When I’ve finished reading and making all my little anal-retentive revisions, it’s time to open the door and show what I’ve written to four or five close friends who have indicated a willingness to look.”
When those readers give you feedback, how do you know when you should change something based on what they said?
“Subjective evaluations are...a little harder to deal with, but listen: if everyone who reads your book says you have a problem...you’ve got a problem and you better do something about it...if what you hear makes sense, then make the changes. You can’t let the whole world into your story, but you can let in the ones that matter the most. And you should.”
Choose your “Ideal Reader,...and pay very close attention to that person’s opinion.”
Once you receive feedback, how much do you typically change your first draft?
“In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High...I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%. Good luck.’ What the Formula taught me is that every story and novel is collapsible to some degree. If you can’t get out ten percent of it while retaining the basic story and flavor, you’re not trying very hard. The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing--literary Viagra.”
Once you’ve revised your manuscript, how do you recommend getting published?
“The fact is that agents, publishers, and editors are all looking for the next hot writer who can sell a lot of books and make lots of money...You should have an agent, and if your work is salable, you will have only a moderate amount of trouble finding one. You’ll probably be able to find one even if your work isn’t salable, as long as it shows promise.”
“You must begin as your own advocate, which means reading the magazines publishing the kind of stuff you write. You should also pick up the writers’ journals and buy a copy of Writer’s Market, the most valuable of tools for the writer new to the marketplace...the most important thing you can do for yourself is read the market...Submitting stories without first reading the market is like playing darts in a dark room--you might hit the target every now and then, but you don’t deserve to.”
10 Free the Writer takeaways:
Your writer’s toolbox consists of vocabulary, grammar, and the elements of style.
The paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing.
The root of bad writing is fear.
Although it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad one, it is possible to make a good writer out of a merely competent one with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help.
To be a writer, you must read a lot and write a lot. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.
Write your first drafts in under three months and shoot for ten pages a day (about 2,000 words).
Write a closed door draft, take at least a 6 week break, then read your draft in one sitting, taking notes. Only then do you open the door to your first readers.
You can write anything as long as you tell the truth.
To create quality narration, description, and dialogue, place the characters in a situation and let them drive the story, avoid overloading your reader by letting the description end with the reader instead of the writer, and spend time listening to how people speak.
Remember the revision formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%.
I’ve enjoyed my time with Stephen King. Among all of the aforementioned gems, one of my other favorite lines from his book is: “The hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.” Isn’t that the kick in the gut you needed?
Now that you’ve learned some writing strategies, close your door and put your pen to the page.
Which strategy are you going to apply first? Feel free to leave a comment below.
Onto freeing the writer by writing,