Stephen King and the
Copyright 2015 by Dale Fehringer
Stephen King didn’t want to go back to work. He was in pain, unable to bend his right knee, and restricted to a walker. Five weeks earlier, in June of 1999, Bryan Smith, a loner with a terrible driving record, reached behind him while driving and steered his minivan into King, who was out for his daily walk. The crash smashed King’s head into Smith’s windshield and threw King over the van and into a ditch. The impact cut a huge gash in King’s head, punctured his lung, broke his right leg in nine places, shattered his right knee, fractured his right hip and pelvis, broke four ribs, and chipped his spine in eight places. King survived, but he suffered. He faced five surgeries, three weeks in a hospital, massive pain, and a nearly-unimaginable recovery.
Now, more than a month after the crash King sat in his home in a wheelchair, facing a temporary writing station that had been set up by his wife, Tabby.
That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes; after which King was exhausted and dripping with sweat. There was no inspiration that afternoon, only undaunted determination and the hope that things would eventually get better.
Things did get better for King, slowly, and he did finish the book, On Writing.
In the book, which he calls “a memoir of the craft,” King describes a writer’s toolbox, choosing that metaphor because his grandfather and uncle were carpenters who used toolboxes for their work. His grandfather’s toolbox (a “big ‘un”) included all the implements needed to do his work. He carried it with him to every job, and he told Stephen, “It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”
King says a writer’s toolbox should have at least four levels of tools. “You could have five or six, I suppose,” he writes, “but there comes a point where a toolbox becomes too large to be portable and thus loses its chief virtue.”
Common tools go on the first level of a writer’s toolbox, including vocabulary. King advises that writers work with their existing vocabulary without feeling guilty or inadequate, and he recommends against trying to compensate for a small vocabulary, which “is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes,” he warns.
Grammar should also be on the top shelf of your toolbox, and King suggests the best way to improve grammar is to read. “If you don’t have time to read,” he argues, “you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Other tools on the top level of your toolbox should be nouns and verbs, which King calls two indispensable parts of writing.
Lift out the top layer of your toolbox and on the second level should be the elements of style, the basics of word usage and sentence structure. King recommends the book, The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, which is his go-to authority on style.
He also recommends adding tools at this level to eliminate passive voice and reduce the use of adverbs.
“You should avoid the passive tense,“ he advises. And he says adverbs “are not your friends.” He likens them to dandelions and tells us that “one on your lawn looks pretty and unique, but if you fail to root it out your lawn will soon be covered by dandelions.”
Paragraphs are another critical tool that all others build on. Carpenters build using one plank of wood or brick at a time, and King believes writers should build stories one paragraph at a time, constructing them by using vocabulary, grammar, and basic style.
King calls paragraphs “maps of intent,” which tell the reader whether your book will be easy or hard to read. He recommends taking a book down, opening it, and scanning a few pages. If you are looking at a wall of words it’s going to be hard to read. If, on the other hand, it has a variety of paragraph lengths and a lot of white spaces, the book will be easier to get through.
The third level of the writer’s toolbox should have tools that give the story shape and individuality; including description, dialogue, and character development.
Good descriptions, according to King, begin with clear seeing and end with clear writing, using fresh images and simple vocabulary.
Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted, but
Over description buries the reader in details and images.
The trick is to find a happy medium.
Dialogue is crucial to defining characters. The key to good dialogue is honesty, and King suggests you let your characters speak freely. “In the end,” he writes, “the important question has nothing to do with whether the talk in your story is sacred or profane; 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.”
King believes character development boils down to two things:
Paying attention to how people behave, and
Telling the truth about what you see.
He offers a hint to building characters: “… in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby.” He recommends adding that attitude to the characters in your writing. “If you do your job,” he promises, “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.”
The tools on your third level can all be learned through living. “Skills in description, dialogue, and character development,” he argues, “all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity.”
The fourth level of your toolbox should include tools to help with revisions; including character motivation, coherence, recurring elements, theme, and resonance.
Character motivation is the reason or reasons your characters do the things they do. Do their actions make sense? Have you explained to your readers why they do those things – in an understandable and interesting way? If not, King suggests going back to fix it.
Coherence is another tool King uses during revisions. Is your story intelligible? Is the plot consistent? Are ideas connected throughout? Does the story flow smoothly? Does the plot stick together?
Identify the recurring elements in your writing (e.g., colors, emotions, qualities) and make sure they are consistent.
Make sure you have a strong theme, to help get your message across to the reader. Without a theme, your reader will be lost, and so will your writing.
Resonance is probably the most important revision tool. It is also King’s most desired. His goal is to write something significant that will linger after the reader has closed the book and put it on the shelf.
There are other tools, too, and King would probably advise writers to put them in the little drawers of their toolbox – in case they need them. Among them he names onomatopoeia (using words to imitate sounds), incremental repetition (repeating a line with minor changes to the repeated part), stream of consciousness (showing a character’s thought processes through free-flowing narrative), interior dialogue (depicting a character’s non-verbal thoughts), changes of verbal tense (to indicate, for example, a time change from past to present), theme (the central idea or subject explored), alliterative phrases (a series of words with the same first consonant sound), and symbolism (using an object to represent something; e.g., a dove to represent peace).
Regarding those tools, King simply advises us to “use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way of your story.”
That’s it, four levels of basic writing tools and a few specialized ones. Together, they make up quite a toolbox; a “big ‘un.”
Most writers already have many of the tools needed for their toolbox, and King advises us to look at each of our tools again. “Try to see each one new, remind yourself of its function, and if some are rusty (as they may be if you haven’t done this seriously in a while), clean them off.”
Writing is a learned skill, but King contends that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations.
“We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style,” he summarizes. “But, as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”
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