In the end, writing is like any other endeavor.  Sure, there is a significant and compelling creative aspect to it, almost mystical at times.  It doesn’t just happen, though.  The magic comes through sweat and rigor.  King lays this out in his final section of On Writing.

His opinion is that there are 4 classes of writer: Bad, Competent, Good, and Genius.  He states that there are 2 theses to his book:

The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of the toolbox with the right instruments.  The second is that 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.

The fundamentals of writing are covered in the prior section.  So, what does it take to make a competent writer into a good one?

King cuts us down to the reality of writing.  It doesn’t come from dreaming, theorizing, or speculating. It comes from sitting down in the chair and whittling away at the story one word at a time.

I won’t pretend that I found a lot of new advice in here.  Much of what King recommends is pretty common; but, as I’ve said before, if so many writers repeat the same advice, there must be truth in it.

Most writers will find the following advice familiar. However, King continues throughout to provide excellent examples, so while the advice is common, the book is worth reading for the additional clarity he provides.

Read a lot. Both good writing and bad writing can teach us a lot.

Write a lot.  “A lot” is a subjective measure, and varies from writer to writer. Each writer must discover this on their own.

Develop a Work Ethic.  Have a schedule, have a place.  These two things help to build the habit by providing a comfort zone in which to work and a target to work towards. King shoots for 2,000 words per day. I shoot for 500, but expect to increase to 1,000 after the first of the year. Do I make my mark? Not always. But I am improving.

Regarding the place, King suggests one with a door the writer is willing to close. I agree. Shutting the door is a way for the writer to show commitment and dedication, both to themselves and the people around. It should be simple and free of distraction.

What to Write?  Whatever the writer wants, but he/she must be truthful. King says to interpret “write what you know” as broadly as possible. King also warns against writing for the wrong reasons: to impress people, to make money, etc.

According to King, novels consist of 3 parts: narration, description, and dialog.

  • King works from a situational root, letting plot develop organically as he works through the narration of a first draft.  In his mind, stories are things we uncover, and we have to take care in unearthing them, making sure they are extracted as complete and intact as possible.

  • Description should be done in moderation.  Trust the reader to fill in the gaps and provide their own meaningful context and details where appropriate.  “…good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.”  Keep the ball rolling, tell the story.  Good description is clarity, fresh images and simple vocabulary.

  • Dialog is essential to defining character.  We get to know them through how the talk.  Good dialog is partially how it sounds.  It must be honest. It must go beyond the page and ring true to the ear.

The writer builds character by paying attention to real people and telling the truth about what he / she sees.  King believes the best stories are character-driven, ties back to his belief in plot coming from the process, not an outline created ahead of time.

Description, dialogue, and character are foundational.  The rest is available, it’s up to the writer to discover what improves the writing and doesn’t inhibit the story. I can appreciate this. It’s clear that King has his own preferences and biases when it comes to writing, but here gives other writers the same license. Once a writer masters the fundamentals, they are free to use the remaining tools at their own discretion, to leverage them as they see appropriate for the work.

King elaborates further on symbolism and theme as demonstration of what’s available for use. In themselves, neither is essential to the writing process, but he shows how he has used them successfully in his own revision process. He demonstrates problems each one helped him resolve, and how they can provide a useful framework for revision.

King recommends that all beginning writers go through at least 2 drafts; one with the door closed, one with the door open.

The first draft and revision, the one with the door closed, is an outpouring onto the page.  Tell the story, get it all down in black and white.  Let the story sit, King recommends, for 6 weeks.  Let is sit long enough to forget about it, to get immersed in a new project.  Then revise, concentrating on the mechanics. The writer should ask if the story is coherent, figure out what they meant, and take notes on these. The writer will use them in the second draft. This is internal feedback.

The second draft is done with the door open. This is the point where the writer shares the story with a select few people to get external feedback. King doesn’t use the term, but these are the beta readers. King stresses the importance of listening to these people, but to balance out the feedback each gives against the others. If every Beta Reader says the story has a certain problem, then pay attention and do something about it. However, if the response is mixed, any ties are up to the writer.

The beta readers are also the best way to gauge the story’s pacing. King brings out a formula he received early on in his career: 2^nd^ Draft = 1^st^ Draft - 10%. He learned from this to collapse a story during revision, to cut out the ‘boring’ parts. He focuses on back story as one keep place to collapse a novel. Essentially, don’t bore the reader.

Research is something far in the background, as far as King is concerned. It’s something that can happen after the first draft and should never get in the way of telling the story. It’s another place to trust the Beta Readers, too. Do it to keep small details from distracting the reader, but it can come towards the end of the revision process.

King goes on to express his doubts about the usefulness of writing classes. He finds a couple redeeming qualities for them: they are one place where writing is taken seriously, and they provide another source of income for the working writers who lead them. But, by and large, he feels they contradict with the idea of writing with the door closed, that all-important act of getting the story out unhindered.

King addresses other topics such as agents, whether he does it for the money (no), and provides a more personal account of how writing helped him through recovery after being struck by an automobile. All worth the read, but not essential to what I found most useful from this section.

For me, this section read like a set of instructions on where to account for each fear a writer encounters. I find it easy to get overwhelmed by all the different concerns a writer must address as part of the creation process, and I firmly believe that fear lies at the core of “writer’s block”. I realize now that each concern has its place and time. The first draft should be carefree, an outpouring of the story itself in an act of discovery. Stop worrying about the details. The mechanics are addressed in the first revision, along with note taking on all the stuff that little voice inside wanted to say during the first draft. Other concerns can be addressed on subsequent drafts, and at least one draft should be dedicated to what other people have to say. Good writing comes from good rewriting. That’s not an unfamiliar concept either, but I have to reiterate that the unique thing King provided is excellent demonstration of all these concepts.

In part two of On Writing, King gives an overview of what he considers the essential tools for every writer’s toolbox.  The analogy is interesting, and the story he provides at the start demonstrates an excellent point: Always have all your tools with you so you can tackle any unexpected situation.

So what goes in this metaphorical toolbox?

The first layer consists of common tools.  The most common tool, per King, is vocabulary.  It’s something we all have to varying degrees.  I really appreciate King’s take on vocabulary, which is essentially, learn to use what you have and don’t worry about developing more.  Your vocabulary develops as a by-product of reading.  All writers are readers first, right?

The other common tool is grammar, and it goes on the top along with vocabulary.  He covers two fundamental issues in grammar: passive voice, and use of adverbs.  These are pretty common topics in discussions of grammar.  His reason for the mistakes really got me thinking.  He attributes both mistakes to a form of fear.  For passive voice, King thinks that timid writers use passive voice because it’s safe and because it lends some sort of authority to their writing.  Adverbs, on the other hand, come from the writer’s fear of being unclear.  King believes that “fear is at the root of most bad writing.”  Good writing is about letting go of fear.

The second layer in the toolbox contains style.  Aside from the usual reference book recommendation, King concentrates on the paragraph as a good measure of style.  How the writer uses it to break up the page and follow the beats of the story can show the difficulty of reading the work.  Easy reading has short paragraphs and white space, hard reading looks dense.  In fiction, the paragraph requires less structure than in other writing.  He compares it to talking, and its use can be an act of seducing the reader.  It’s the music the writer hears in his/her head.  He says that the paragraph is the basic unit of writing, and that to learn it well is to learn the beat.

King also talks about commitment throughout this section, and how a writer’s first goal should be to help the reader out.  Words have weight, they take a lot of work to put together, and can demand a lot from a reader to digest.  In writing, we must be considerate and mindful of the reader, always working towards clarity and  brevity, to keep the reader from drowning in a sea of words.

King wraps up by talking about the third layer, which is to write real fiction.  Stop the fear, build your works as a carpenter builds a house, one brick or board at a time.  Build your writing with the basics, and you can build whatever you like.

That’s it for the toolbox.  I think King does an excellent job of reminding us as writers just how far basic skills will take you.

Learn the basics, lose the fear.

It’s wonderful how much we can learn from stories, particularly when well told.  Stephen King spends the first part of his book, On Writing, by walking the reader through a series of ‘fogged-out’ memories.  The book itself is about writing.  But he sets the stage by doing what he does best, and tells the story of what made him what he is today.

I can’t say if it was intentional on his part, but in telling what he considers his “C.V.”, King demonstrates a series of important lessons that were critical in shaping him.  Notice I said demonstrate.  I think this is, perhaps, one of the first aspects he teaches us.  His book is about writing, but instead of listing out a series of lessons, he shows us what he learned and how he learned it.  It is a vehement adherence to the old adage of “show, don’t tell”.  I’ve read too many books and articles on writing that do little more than list out rules or guidelines or maxims or adages or aphorisms or whatever word you want to use.  But, in the end, they’re nothing more than a handful of words on a page that leave the reader with little more than a sense that there’s something to memorize.  There’s no feeling in the lessons they impart, no connection to the reader.  Just rules.

I also think that each person who reads his book will come away with different insights based on how they relate King’s stories to themselves.  I’ll recount what I learned from this, but by no means is this an exhaustive list of lessons to be found.  It’s one of those things that you simply must read for yourself in order to get at the real value.

Humor and Horror are very close cousins.  As writers, we don’t necessarily need to avoid one in favor of the other.  King emphasizes that having a sense of humor is important.  Rather, we need to be aware of both and conscious of when we cross the line between the two.  He learned this (sort of) early on from his experience with a baby sitter who would fart on his face.  Boy could I relate - for me, it was my brother.  He also tells the story of how he was cut off the list for being in Honor Society due to his sense of humor, and how he’s happy to have humor over prestige any day.

Good ideas don’t come from some common place that we must learn to tap.  For him, they come from taking two unrelated things and putting them together.  He demonstrates this by discussing how the ideas for several of his stories appeared.  This is pretty common advice anymore, but I think he does a really good job of demonstrating it.

Even Stephen King felt shame about his writing.  I just can’t imagine this guy ever being ashamed of his writing, but he lays it out.  Early on, there were people in his life, authority figures, who thought that writing horror was a waste of his talent.  That shame stuck with him for a while.  There’s always going to be someone who will try to make you feel bad about your ability to create and how you choose to use it.  Don’t let it keep you down.  That’s a tough one to deal with.  I know I’ve experienced shame, I even tried to set my desire to write aside, chalk it up to some sort of childish endeavor.  But it caught up with me.  There’s misery in letting other people manipulate you through shame.

The first draft of a story is you telling it to yourself.  The second draft and beyond are you telling it to someone else.  This is one I personally struggle with.  The perfectionist in me wants to do it right the first time and be done with it.  I have no idea why that’s part of my personality.  I suppose, if I look at my parents, there’s something of a perfectionist in each of them.  But it’s also not fair for me to attribute that to them at my age.  I think part of it is also living in the 9 to 5 culture.  When someone is paying you by the hour, they’re not inclined to just let you try until you get it right.  I’ve also read that perfectionism is a form of fear, a way of delaying the end of something.  Sounds weird, but okay, I guess it’s possible.  Whatever the reason, the important thing is that I’m aware of it now, and I can work on giving myself permission to use the first draft to tell myself the story.  Then I can go back and rewrite it for everyone else.

King gets into this idea of work ethic, which is not something I’ve every really heard directly associated with writing (or any creative endeavor).  It’s more than just perseverance.  He talks about a poem his wife wrote when they were still in school.  Part of what made the poem so appealing to him was that, in a time when people were just writing crap out of thin air (my words, not his), she constructed a poem with intent and full understanding of what she was trying to accomplish.  I can really relate to this.  My undergraduate work involved several poetry writing classes.  I saw my fair share of words thrown together with disregard to craft.  I did my fair share, as well.  In the long run, it’s unsatisfying for everyone involved.

During a rough period in his life, when he was working hard and felt like he was just repeating his mother’s life, King finds himself thinking that that isn’t what his life was supposed to be.  I suppose at one time or another we may all think this, and he admits as much.  The difference, and this isn’t anything unique to writing, is that King did something about it.  Even when the writing was hard, when it came infrequently, and the day-to-day drained his life away, he never gave up.  This is a quality most successful people share, and I think it also relates to work ethic.  Never give up.

Even from the start, King had emotional support.  His mother encouraged him, and later on, his wife encouraged him.  This isn’t advice for the writer, but for those around him or her.  King sums it up: “Just believing is usually enough.”

King gives background on the story of Carrie.  He drafted three single-spaced pages of the novel, and then threw them away.  His wife recovered them later, and encouraged  him to work on it (there’s the support), but what I found really interesting is why he threw those pages away in the first place.  He gives four reasons, and provides them in order from least important to most important:

  1. It didn’t move him emotionally.
  2. He didn’t like the lead character.
  3. He wasn’t comfortable with the setting or the all-female cast of characters.
  4. The story wouldn’t pay off unless it was pretty long - longer than what the men’s magazine market supported at the time.  He didn’t think he could sell it.

Look at that list again - it speaks volumes about King’s work ethic and his sense of writing as a business.  The least important thing on his list was that it didn’t move him emotionally.  The most important was whether or not he could sell it.  It turns out that he was wrong about #4, but the point is, it was at the forefront of his mind when writing.  He treated it as a career, it was a source of income for him and his family, not some esoteric activity he did on the side.  I suppose some might think these priorities aren’t in the right order, but I think they are.  In order to be an author, one must recognize and engage in writing as a business as well as a creative endeavor.  Writing a book is easy.  Sit down and bang away at a keyboard until you’ve produced somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 words.  That doesn’t make you an author, although it’s good practice and a necessary part.  Sit down and do the same thing with all the awareness and intent of one doing business, producing something that has market value, and now you’re an author.  It doesn’t have to be a big market, but in the end, authorship comes through sales.  Okay, so I guess the first time through is for yourself, as discussed above.  But, it must be refined into marketable material.

King wraps up his C.V. with the story of his battle with drugs and alcohol.  Through it all, he kept writing.  In retrospect, it’s clear that many of the works he produced were related to this battle.  Some are more direct than others.  Part of writing fiction is developing metaphors for life, revealing truths through lies.  But in discussing his drug abuse and how his works relate to it, King gives a spectacular demonstration of fiction as a metaphor.  More importantly, though, is that King shows us that his fiction contains metaphors for his life.  That, I think, is key.  It’s a combination of the idea of metaphor and the idea of writing what you know.  Your work will likely contain metaphors for your own life, and getting in touch with those personal metaphors can help develop both your work and you.

There’s a little section after his C.V. called “What Writing Is”.  Kings spends just a few pages on the subject, but they provided an immense amount of clarity to me.  One of my problems is getting caught up in details.  I think it must be related to the perfectionist in me, but at times I think it’s also a form of procrastination.  Somewhere I read that writing is about the half-described gesture, and King says as much.  King describes writing as a form of telepathy, and that what’s important is the message, not the details.  Trust the receiver / reader to know what you’re talking about, that a cage need only be described as a cage if it’s not the core of the message.  He closes the section with some noteworthy advice:

Come to [the page] any way but lightly.  Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

…If you can take it seriously, we can do business.  If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.

I’m here to take it seriously.

The last section of “On Writing Horror” is all about the business aspect of being a writer.  It provides a nice overview of the current markets, good resources for research and promotion, and some worthwhile advice from editors and writers alike.

Here’s the advice I’m taking right now, given by Night Shade Books:

Write what you think is your best book.  Put it in a trunk and write another one.  Do this four times.  Then start sending your novels out for submission.

So, while it’s never to early to build awareness about the market, right now I’m focusing on building my writing skills.  If there’s nothing to sell, there’s nothing to market.

Oh, and the afterword by Harlan Ellison - quite cool.

I’m done with this book, moving on to the next.

Part 7 of On Writing Horror is titled “Genre and Subgenre”, but the 10 articles also cover concerns with medium as well (screenplay, theater, audio).

Archetypes and Fearful Allure: Writing Erotic Horror, Nancy Kilpatrick

I really struggled with this one.  Kilpatrick seems to rely heavily on the concept of Archetypes, and the just of her advice can be summed up in the following quote:

This means that the energy embedded in the image resonates with all readers because it taps into and stirs up the collective unconscious.

I don’t see anything practical in that sort of advice.  I mean, conceptually, it’s a neat way of thinking about it - Archetypes as a framework for developing characters can be useful.  But, I didn’t find any truly functional advice in here.

A few other things bothered me.  She makes a pretty bold statement when she addresses the balance between Erotic and Horror in a single story: “The story needs to perform on both levels equally.”  My problem is, this is a black and white statement.  The story works if it achieves and appropriate balance, not by achieving 100% equality on each side.

The rest of the article reiterated a lot of the same things as the other.  Reinforcement of good ideas, but nothing really new or useful to me personally.

Writing for the New Pulps: Horror-Themed Anthologies, John Maclay

This one interested me.  I always thought Anthologies were ‘invite only’ publications.  Goes to show how little I know about the publishing world.  Anyhow, Maclay and the editors he interviewed make some good cases for working with anthologies.

  • They are geared to sell, although not necessarily in a way that authors make significant money.
  • They are an opportunity for new authors to get published next to established authors.
  • They have taken the place of the old pulp magazines, many of which are dwindling or defunt.

Never considered it as an accessible market, now I will.  I guess that’s what I got from this.

Freaks and Fiddles, Banjos and Beasts: Writing Redneck Horror, Weston Ochse

Great introduction to Urban Horror.  Honestly, I’ve never really given much serious consideration to what exactly it is, but I really think Ochse gets to the heart of the matter.  Urban Horror is about isolation, not locale.  Urban Gothic, Brian Keene’s latest novel, is a great example of this concept.  It’s a standard Cannibal Clan story, along the lines of Wrong Turn or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it takes place in a New Jersey ghetto.  Intoday’s world, that ghetto in NJ is just as isolated as the solitary farm in Appalachia.

Ochse goes on to discuss what a Redneck is, and gives a comparison of the ‘stereotype’ with great examples from current works.  He boils it down to a perspective on the world that’s derived from the isolation, the lack of “book-learning” and a reliance on intuition.    He adds in this sort of fiction relies more heavily on dynamic characterization, but I think that’s a good target regardless of subgenre.

What really spoke to me in this piece is Ochse treatment of style.  He claims that Backwoods Horror is neither genre nor subgenre, but a style.  Maybe, maybe not.  The style he goes on to describe, though, is one I’ve found myself striving for as of late.  He says that “imagery fails as sentence structures expand”, and he cites Ed Lee as an example of strong prose through “active voice and transitive verbs.”  The writer still has to describe things to the reader, but:

This is done with short, declarative sentences and strong transitive verbs.  The reader gets the image in a one-two punch instead of a long visual wrestling match.

I’ve found that the more I focus on achieving this style of writing, the less my work wanders.  I guess in a way it forces me to get to the point, and I think it creates a fast pace for the reader regardless of the level of action.

Youth Gone Wild, Lee Thomas (aka Thomas Pendleton)

I’m not interested in writing YA stuff, but there are some interesting observations in here.  Thomas notes that teens are in a unique point in their lives, and I don’t think anyone can argue with that.  Teens are in a constant struggle, one that can serve as a metaphor for the human conditions of life and death, of movement and journey, and of loss.  These are all very powerful emotions that can serve as underpinnings for good horror.

The rest of the article covers usage of slang (sparingly, just like dialect), boundaries, and an overview of what editors look for in teen fiction.  Not interesting to me.

Writing Horror comic books - And Graphic Novels, David Campiti

This was another enlightening article.  As with anthologies, I personally never considered writing comic books.  Much of the actual writing advice in here is a rehash of ideas presented throughout with some focus on comics, but the gem is revealing how lucrative comic books actually be for a writer.

Acts of Madness: Writing Horror for the Stage, Lisa Morton

I have no interest in being a playwright.  Morton’s article covers the peculiarities of being a playwright, from working with a company to the mechanics of portraying visceral horror on the stage.  But, I personally found nothing in there that would help me be a better writer.  Not a shortcoming of the article, just a mismatch of interests.

Fear Spins Off: The Tie-In Novel Comes Into Its Own, Yvonne Navarro

Tie-Ins are a long way off for me.  If ever.  Actually, probably never.  I prefer to work in my world, not someone else’s.  Navarro makes it pretty clear that Tie-Ins are really only available to writers who have proven themselves, so experience and reliability are key to even getting a chance in this space.

I found it interesting that Tie-Ins are usually written just from the script.  It explains why the visualizations contained in the novel version often stray quite a bit from the movie.

The Play’s the Thing on the Doorstep: Writing Video and Role-Playing Games, Richard E. Dansky

Another one I’m not interested in at this point.  I’m just trying to be a better writer!  Anyhow, writing for rpgs and video games is clearly a team sport.  Dansky does a nice job of delineating the writer’s role in both processes.

Now Fear This: Writing horror for Audio Theater, Scott Hicky and Robert Madia

Another interesting medium to work with, one I might tackle some day.  What I found really interesting, although not surprising, is that dialog has to spell things out for the listener.  What makes for good dialog in print makes for terribly ambiguous audio scripting.

Hicky and Madia also make the claim that “…the time is ripe for a comeback of the genre in new and emerging media.”  Okay, yes, the Internet  certainly provides a readily accessible channel for setting audio theater.  But, having an accessible channel doesn’t mean this will make a comeback.  I’m not arguing against it, but I didn’t see anything in the article aside from “the internet makes it so” to support this statement.  Is there an audience for it?  In the face of competition from the likes of On-Demand cable and streaming video like YouTube, is there a contingent of folks other than the nostalgic few to make and keep audio theater horror as a viable market?  I don’t know, but it seems counterintuitive to me.

Good Characters and Cool Kills: Writing the Horror Screenplay, Brendan Deneen

What I got most from Deneen’s article is a sense of proportion.  He covers the issues of premise, protagonist, villian, kills, second act, and conclusion, much of it similar to what’s been said before.

In his discussion on Second Act and Conclusion, he gets at something not really covered.  The idea of timing (or pacing), and how it needs to be tracked and manipulated to meet audience expectation.  He talks in terms of screen time, but I think it’s an important notion.  In order to keep things moving along, to keep the audience engaged in the middle, the story must have layers.  And, it’s during the second act that those layers are explored and peeled back, momentarily leaving the prime horror element to explore the lives of the characters.  It’s a good framework, I think, for tackling the middle of any story, not just screenplays.  The conlcusion, then, serves to tie all the layers together.  He adds that in a screenplay, the conclusion should be open-ended enough for a sequel.

One other bit Deneed pulled out that I had not put any thought into is that the protagonist and villain should have a direct connection.  When I read it, I thought, “duh”.  But in considering my current work, I realized I had not made a direct connection yet between the two.  So, I got some work ahead of me.

NB: All in all, I didn’t get a lot out of this section.  I think that’s because it covers so much in such broad terms that there’s bound to be parts that aren’t of interest to all horror writers.