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On Writing by Stephen King.
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On Writing is Stephen King’s musings on his craft—about how he discovered writing, what he learned about it, and his advice to you as a writer. Part memoir and part practical advice, it’s a personal look at one of the bestselling authors of all time

King’s Early Life

Born in 1947, King was raised by his mother—his father disappeared when he was two. He had a brother, older by two years, who involved him in boyish hijinks. They were working class, his mother working jobs as a baker, then as a launderer as they moved around New England. Eventually they settled in Maine, living with their ailing grandparents.

King Starts Writing

King began writing when he was six. Because of several rounds of medical issues—measles, ear infections, and tonsillitis—he spent most of his time at home and was held back from finishing first grade. With plenty of free time, King devoured comic books and fiction books.

He started writing by imitating: he copied stories from comic books word for word. When he showed the copies to his mother, she urged him to write his own stories—he could do better than the crude comic books.

The idea of creating his own stories felt like an open world of possibilities. He soon wrote a four-page story about four magic animals adventuring to help children. He showed it to his mother, who laughed while reading it and declared it was “good enough to be in a book.” This remains King’s favorite praise.

King Endures Rejection

As a teenager, King wrote stories and submitted them to magazines. Whenever he got a rejection slip, he’d stick it onto the nail, like a stack of receipts at a diner.

By the time he was 14, he’d gotten so many rejection slips that the nail couldn’t hold up any longer. He hammered a sturdier spike into the wall and continued writing.

By the time he was 16, his rejection letters began sounding warmer. Said an editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, “This isn’t for us, but it’s good. You have talent. Try again.”

Trying to Make It

After graduating from college, King worked at a laundry for $1.60 an hour. His wife Tabitha, a fellow writer whom he met at college, worked at Dunkin’ Donuts.

King continued writing during his breaks at the laundry and after work. It was tough going. He’d only occasionally sell his stories, and they were on the brink of needing to accept welfare. He was mortified that he might simply be reliving his mother’s life (she, too, worked in a laundry to support her family), and thought that surely their lives should be going better.

King soon found a job teaching English at a nearby high school. It paid $6,400 per year, which was a temporary relief. But it soon exacted a large cost on his writing energy. Between the teaching, after-school meetings, and grading homework, he was too exhausted to write. He began despairing for his future as a writer—might he become one of those disillusioned English instructors, always claiming to work on that breakthrough novel but never having the courage or perseverance to really get something real done?

The Breakthrough

During summer months when school was out, King continued working in the laundry. One day, he recalled a memory from college when he cleaned the girls’ shower room as a janitor, and now he envisioned an opening scene: a group of girls showering in the bathroom, when one of them starts bleeding from her period. The girl has no idea what’s happening to her; the other girls start jeering and throwing tampons at her, and the girl starts screaming.

At the same time, he remembered reading a mazing article about telekinesis (manipulating objects with your mind). The article suggested young people might have powers, especially girls around the age when they had their first periods. Right there, out of nowhere, from the fusion of two distant and unrelated memories, King stumbled upon the idea for Carrie. (King admits that his story ideas often come out of nowhere, the sudden collision of normal ideas.).

It didn’t stand out as a particularly good idea, but one night he worked on three pages of his draft. He didn’t like it, and he threw the pages into the trash. His wife, eternally supportive, uncrumpled the papers, read it, and thought there was something there. She encouraged him to push through, and as he continued writing dozens of pages, he began feeling that there was something there too.

In 1973, he sent the manuscript off to Doubleday and forgot about it. One day, while he was teaching, Tabitha phoned the office with news—they’d bought Carrie and would send an advance of $2,500, a sizable fraction of his annual salary.

The book took a year to get published, coming out in the spring of 1974, and by that time King had mentally moved on. One day, while alone in the house, he got a call from his contact at Doubleday—Carrie’s paperback rights were sold for $400,000. King was speechless.

From this triumph, King’s writing career took off. From that point on, King published roughly one to two novels per year, including The Shining in 1977, Cujo in 1981, and Misery in 1987. He faced demons along the way, including alcohol and drug addiction (he became sober around 1986) and a car accident in 1999. Through it all, writing gave his life joy.

Writing Fundamentals

Improving as a writer requires hard work. There are no shortcuts. You need to read a lot and write a lot. A good sign of whether you’ll make it as a writer is whether you enjoy reading and writing for their own sake.

Talent and Hard Work

One sign of talent is enjoying the hard work. What seems like labor to other people is pleasure for you.

Stephen King reads 80 books a year, despite professing to be a slow reader. He doesn’t read to learn, he reads because he likes reading. And when he writes (2,000 words a day), it typically feels like playtime to him—it’s the rest of life, with the errands and the bills and the “relaxing” that feels like work to...

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On Writing Summary How King Started Writing

In the first part of the book, King shares vignettes of his early life, from childhood to his discovery of writing to his early career as a struggling author. While it’s full of entertaining anecdotes, we’ll focus on the events that seemed to have shaped him most as a writer.

Born in 1947, King was raised by his mother—his father disappeared when he was two. He had a brother, older by two years, who involved him in boyish hijinks. They were working class, his mother working jobs as a baker, then as a launderer as they moved around New England. Eventually they settled in Maine, living with their ailing grandparents.

King Starts Writing

King began writing when he was six. Because of several rounds of medical issues—measles, ear infections, and tonsillitis—he spent most of his time at home and was held back from finishing first grade. With plenty of free time, King devoured comic books and fiction books.

He started writing by imitating: he copied stories from comic books word for word. He showed his masterwork to his mother, who was amused. She asked if he’d come up with the stories himself. He admitted he hadn’t, and she looked disappointed. **She urged him to write his...

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On Writing Summary Writing Mindsets

From here, King focuses on his practical advice to writers, using his personal writing experience to illustrate the point. We’ll start with general mindsets on understanding writing.

Writing is Telepathy

Telepathy is the transmission of thoughts without any interaction. Telepathy has been the stuff of science fiction and also of vigorous scientific denial. Most people would confidently state that telepathy doesn’t exist.

Yet writing is telepathy. It is the magical beaming of ideas from one person, writing in some corner of the world at some time, to another person, without the two ever needing to be close enough to shake hands. Writing can take ideas from thousands of miles away and years in the past—even thousands of years—and implant them in your brain, as alive as they were when originally conceived.

To demonstrate this, King describes a scene. Imagine a table with a red table cloth. On it is a cage holding a white rabbit, which is happily eating a carrot. On the rabbit’s back is painted a blue number 8. See it?

All of a sudden, you and the author are imagining the very same thing. Never mind that he wrote this years ago in a place you’ve never been. At this...

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On Writing Summary The Toolbox

On the mechanical level, writing is made up of words, sentences, and paragraphs. How you choose words, in what sequence you use them, and how you divide them all affect the quality of your writing.

A writer is an artisan who has a number of tools in her toolbox available for use—diction, grammar, phrasing. You likely already have these tools, so don’t worry that you don’t understand them well enough to be a writer.

If you’re new to serious writing, examine each of these tools you have. If they’re rusty, clean them off. But don’t be embarrassed about the tools that you have; you likely have enough to start writing. And if you keep reading and writing without pause, as King recommends, you will polish your tools so that they do exactly what you want them to.

For dependable guidelines, look to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Vocabulary and Diction

Diction is the choice of words you use in your writing. It draws from the vocabulary you have.

Don’t feel ashamed if you feel your vocabulary is weak. “It’s not how big it is; it’s how you use it.”

There is good writing of both extensive vocabulary and pedestrian vocabulary. Here are two examples:

“The...

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On Writing Summary Writing Fundamentals

Improving as a writer requires hard work. There are no shortcuts.

Talent and Hard Work

One sign of talent is enjoying the hard work. What seems like labor to other people is pleasure for you.

Stephen King reads 80 books a year, despite professing to be a slow reader. He doesn’t read to learn, he reads because he likes reading. And when he writes (2,000 words a day), it typically feels like playtime to him—it’s the rest of life, with the errands and the bills and the “relaxing” that feels like work to him. He categorically denies ever having written for money—it’s all out of pure joy.

For King, writing is fun on a few levels. On a mechanical level, he relishes the feeling of arranging words in just the right order. On a higher level, he’s inspired by the idea of enriching the lives of his readers and how writing enriches his own life.

If you don’t feel the joy, you might not have the talent. King tells a story about his son getting inspired to play the saxophone. King gave him a saxophone and a teacher, and waited to see what would happen. His son became technically competent, but he didn’t show the exuberant spontaneity of talent. He diligently met his prescribed...

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On Writing Summary The Elements of a Story

Stories consist of three things:

  • Narration: telling what happens and moving the story along
  • Description: adding sensory details to enliven the story
  • Dialogue: how characters talk

Notably, plot isn’t on this list. (Shortform note: He doesn’t define “plot” explicitly, but he implies it means “planning what will happen in the story before you actually write it.”)

We’ll cover each element, starting with why King avoids plot.

Narration and Avoiding Plot

Arranging a plot before the story is written feels artificial. Our lives are plotless—we don’t know in advance what’s going to happen—and that gives life a constantly surprising, entertaining flavor. Writing a story shouldn’t be any different.

Instead, King believes the story reveals itself as he writes. He doesn’t force the action to move in a particular direction; the characters decide what to do, and he merely narrates what is happening as he observes it.

He analogizes writing like this to archaeology: The story already exists, buried in the dirt like a fossil. Your job is to unearth it delicately.

What does this mean, in practice? **King typically starts his stories with a situation, then discovers...

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On Writing Summary Writing and Revision

We’ve now covered the three main elements of a story: narration, characters, and dialogue. You also now know to write a story by putting the characters in a situation and then observing how they work themselves out of the situation. This core work of storytelling will culminate in your first draft.

After your first draft comes revision, where you polish the story you’ve created. After several rounds, you’ll end up with the final draft. We’ll cover the overall stages of writing.

Write With the Door Closed, Rewrite With It Open

When you write your first draft, King suggests that you close your door. This is both literal and metaphorical. Literally, closing your door helps you focus and block out the outside world.

Metaphorically, write the first draft of your story just for you. By and large, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. There is no outside world. The story belongs to you. (As we’ll cover soon, there’s one exception—your ideal reader.)

When you rewrite, you need to open your door. You’ll think about your readers and how to make at least some of them happy. You’ll take in feedback from people you trust and grapple with reconciling their feedback with your...

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On Writing Summary The Business of Writing

Now you know how to produce writing that tells the truth. How do you survive on this writing? King ends his advice with practicalities of getting an agent, getting published, and writing programs.

Getting an Agent and Getting Published

Novice writers think that getting an agent is their golden ticket to getting published. Complementary to this is the idea that getting an agent is difficult, and that publishing is just an exclusive old-boys’ club.

King thinks this is totally fiction. The writing world is always looking for the next bestselling author they can make money off of. These writers can come from anywhere, from the struggling single parent of J.K. Rowling to Frank McCourt, who was 66 when he published Angela’s Ashes. There is no secret club.

In turn, it’s not that hard to find an agent. But not all agents are good, and getting an agent is not a magic wand.

Here are tips on publishing and making your way in the business:

  • Start by building up your writing credentials. Get published wherever you can and work your way up. You need to be your own advocate before anyone else becomes your advocate.
  • Study the places where you want to publish. *...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • How King Started Writing
  • Writing Mindsets
  • The Toolbox
  • Writing Fundamentals
  • The Elements of a Story
  • Writing and Revision
  • The Business of Writing