Notes From the King
In The Outliers, Malcom Gladwell theorizes that practicing anything for over 10,000 hours will yield success. Judging by Stephen King’s ridged work schedule and volumes of successful novels, I’d say he reached his 10,000 hours sometime in the early ‘70s. Although horror novels aren’t my style, I couldn’t resist a peek at King’s blueprint for success. As an aspiring novelist, I am fascinated by the work routine of other writers. Do they write at a desk, on the front porch, in bed? And since there’s no Inside the Actors Studio for writers, a memoir is the closest we book-lovers will get to an inside look at King’s process. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King examines his life as a writer and uses his experiences as a teaching tool for young writers.
But On Writing isn’t your traditional creative writing textbook. King’s book is a dual-layered educational memoir, complete with homework assignments and examples from other texts. The author guides would-be authors through the process of writing a novel, starting with the incubation of that first, small idea. If you get stuck on the plot, King recommends switching the sexes of the two leads. Turn the cheating husband character into the cheating wife, for example. “When you finish your exercise, drop me a line at www.stephenking.com and tell me how it worked for you,” he writes. King encourages his pupils to think of writing as fun, and to continue working through any rough patches.
Ironically, one of King’s lessons is that he does not believe in writer’s retreats or classes. He is, except for a few college courses at the University of Maine, a self-taught writer, and he warns readers against trying to look for “a magic bullet or secret ingredient or possibly Dumbo’s magic feather, none of which can be found in classrooms or at writing retreats.” Instead, King’s style is more hands-on. There’s no magic to it. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” he writes.
King is a practicing example of his own teaching, but his daily routine seems surprisingly light on hard work. “Mornings belong to whatever is new—the current composition,” the author writes about his schedule. “Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait.” Hang on a second. The formula to becoming a best-selling writer is to watch TV and take naps? Sign me up!
There’s one catch to King’s system, however. “I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie.” Yes, the author writes 365 days a year, no matter what. “I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words.” If I devoted four solid hours every morning to writing fiction, could I be as prolific and successful as Stephen King? Probably not, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.
In his novels, King doesn’t make plot diagrams or outlines before he begins writing. This is also apparent in On Writing. Although the book does include a loose structure, beginning with approximately 100 pages of stories about his childhood and young adult years. In this section, the author transforms from the son of a single mother in Maine printing a newspaper for his friends into an underpaid schoolteacher, and finally, a celebrated, best-selling author. King doesn’t pretend that his ascent was easy—it took hours of writing in the cramped corner of the laundry room and years of factory work to support his young children.
King speaks candidly about his years as an alcoholic in these first pages. “At the end of my adventures I was drinking a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night, and there’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don’t say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book.” Like Jack Torrance, the frustrated writer in The Shining, King’s alcoholism affected his writing, although King hadn’t admitted to himself that he was an alcoholic at the time. King continued writing throughout his ordeal. “Some of the stuff that came out was tentative and flat, but at least it was there,” he writes. Thanks to his wife’s intervention, he no longer uses drugs or alcohol.
The final 200 pages of On Writing serve as short lessons for young writers about dialogue, character and plot. Although these passages are nothing most writers haven’t already heard, King incorporates invaluable examples from his own writing. He even includes four pages from the original draft of his short story, “1408.” He shows a second copy of the draft, edited by hand and accompanied by a written map detailing why he made each change. Although it features some awkwardly phrased passages and a few typos, King gives the reader the opportunity to see “the story undressed, standing up in nothing but its socks and underwear.”
As King wrote the first draft of On Writing, he never expected that his biggest writing lesson was waiting right around the bend. While taking his daily walk along the shoulder of a main road in western Maine, King was struck by a Dodge van . He was rushed to the hospital by helicopter, where the doctor discovered his leg had been broken in nine places. “I don’t want to die,” King writes. “I love my wife, my kids, my afternoon walks by the lake. I also love to write; I have a book on writing that’s sitting back home on my desk, half finished.” Thus, finishing On Writing becomes a central plot point in the book itself. And the ordeal gives King another chance to offer guidance: How do you find the strength to continue writing, even when life makes it nearly impossible? “All I know is that the words starting coming a little faster after a while,” King writes. “Then a little faster still. My hip still hurt, my back still hurt, my leg, too, but those hurts began to seem a little farther away.” King finished On Writing simply by continuing to write.
In On Writing, the author strikes a balance between an encouraging cheerleader and a stern parent. Maintaining discipline is tricky, but it’s not so difficult when you truly love to write. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends,” he writes. “In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well.”
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.