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Stephen King's “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully” (aerogrammestudio.com)
175 points by takinola on Mar 2, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments

I really enjoyed King's On Writing. I was a huge fan of his fiction as a kid and into young adulthood, and kinda grew out of it. But, I read and then listened to On Writing as an adult, and really enjoyed it both times. King is extremely effective at his craft, whether one enjoys the resulting work or not, and I learned a lot from his process.

I think King (like Asimov and a few others) is proof that being prolific is at least as valuable as being great. If you do something enough, you're far more likely to have lightning strike and result in something like Shawshank Redemption; which is unarguably a beautiful work, in both prose and film form. Most of King's work isn't that good, but for most authors none of their work is that good, because they haven't produced enough to find that piece of brilliance (if they have such a piece of brilliance in them).

I've been working on being more prolific, lately, in all things I do. And being less of a social media junky, which conflicts with being a prolific creator.

I found On Writing extremely valuable, but like all King's writing on writing, it's about the way King writes. Which is great, but it's not the way I write. I appreciate his insights and I've learned a lot from reading and thinking about his work, but he's a fundamentally different animal from me.

He's intuitive and exploratory to a degree that I--and many others--are just not. He's willing to let his instincts guide him because he has great instincts, and more power to him.

But most people--including most writers--don't have great instincts, and can benefit from a more analytical approach. As someone tilted pretty far over on the analytical end of the axis, I found King's advice valuable because it pointed me toward alien alternatives, but for young writers in particular I'd advise being very cautious about taking King's or anyone else's advice too seriously (including mine, I guess.)

King et al do their best to teach you and show you how to write like them, and writers need to learn to write like themselves, which can only be discovered, not taught.

I'm a bit confused by your line of argument.

> He's intuitive and exploratory to a degree that I--and many others--are just not.

> King [teaches] you how to write like them, and writers need to learn to write like themselves, which can only be discovered, not taught.

If King encourages you to follow your instincts, isn't this a direct advise to learn to write like yourself?

Isn't the "analytical" way the exact oppisite, learning to write in a predefined style?

Writing is a bit like code. (Or perhaps that's the other way around.) The real work is not typing, but organisation of the material, creating a structure of exposition - what you could crudely call 'design'.

As I understand it, King's approach is to sort of design as you go, ie, he finds the plot and discovers characters just by writing one damn word after another until they sort of fall out of the manuscript page. It works for him.

On the other end of the scale, you have something like Robert McKee's book[0], which is all about meticulously drawing out plot arcs on index cards and sticky notes. (In fact, it's basically an academic introduction to formalist narrative theory, cunningly disguised as a screenwriting manual.)

You will find many evangelists for each of those approaches, and of course any and all points in between. YMMV. The point is: the alternative approaches are in the main about the high level problems of organising an extended piece of writing. 'Style' would be more a matter of word choices, syntax, rhythm - the quality of the prose. On that, everyone agrees that clichés are usually A Bad Thing, and not much else.

Anyone who claims to have discovered an objective standard of 'good prose' is selling you snake-oil; there is no definition of the former that includes both Dickens and Hemingway, never mind the whole history of all the literature in all the languages of the world.

[0] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Story-Substance-Structure-Principles...

EDIT: forgot footnote.

> Isn't the "analytical" way the exact oppisite, learning to write in a predefined style?

Nope. In my case "analytical" is the way I naturally write. King explicitly advocates throwing the kind of analysis that comes to me naturally overboard. He doesn't advocate exploration into how a writer best creates stories. He advocates a specific, narrowly defined method of creating stories, which involves intuition and instinct.

The important fact is this: I don't have any instincts in the sense that King means. Or so few that they are useless to guide my stories. This is true of lots of people, and I daresay that there are people who lack both "instincts" in the sense King means them and "analytical skills" in the sense I mean them, and find some other ways to create stories.

It's important to recognize that King means something very narrow and specific by "instincts" (in fairness, I'm not sure he actually uses that word, but he definitely talks a lot about intuition as a guide to story.) King is all about letting some inner emotional compass guide your story, and personally I hate the kind of stories he creates. I recognize the genius of his craft, but his stories are medieval emotionalist gibberish, and that is reflected by his process of creation: he lets the idiot darkness within tell him where to go next.

There is nothing wrong with this: by saying his stories are decidedly not to my taste is not to say they are "bad" in any objective sense. They move people and are meaningful to people; they are well-crafted and emotionally engaging. I find grapefruit repulsive as well, but would hardly condemn anyone for enjoying it.

But this does mean that King's method of creating a story is very restrictive. He is intuitive and exploratory with regard to creating stories, not with regard to the method of creating stories.

So my advocacy of self-exploration is on a different level than King's. He is telling writers: "Explore your story intuitively and emotionally." I am telling writers: "Explore your method of creating stories by any means you see fit."

Do you have any advise for highly analytical folks that get hung up on not knowing how people read things? My biggest frustration with writing is that I don't have an interpreter I can run over my work to test that it "works" and I have a voice of anxiety in the back of my head that someone is going to misinterpret what I write I horrible[1] ways. Less dramatically, when I sit down to write documentation, I don't really know how to verify that it is understandable and get hung up on trying to figure out how to do so.

[1] Like http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/12/mit-professor-explains-th..., but I've long decided to avoid writing anything public about anything that could relate to social justicey or gender-related topics.

On Writing was excellent. The bulk of it was his autobiography which was interesting, but included to support the 16 page chapter "Toolbox" which is a must read for all sporting writers. I recommended it for our book club, which inspired one of our members to write and publish several novels.

Get it. Read it.

> 4. Remove every extraneous word

This reminded me of Georges Simenon's (of Inspector Maigret fame) recollection of his former boss, Colette (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colette):

> Just one piece of general advice from a writer has been very useful to me. It was from Colette. I was writing short stories for Le Matin, and Colette was literary editor at that time. I remember I gave her two short stories and she returned them and I tried again and tried again. Finally she said, “Look, it is too literary, always too literary.” So I followed her advice. It’s what I do when I write, the main job when I rewrite.

> INTERVIEWER: What do you mean by “too literary”? What do you cut out, certain kinds of words?

> Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.

From here: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5020/the-art-of-fic...

Perfection is not when there is nothing more to add. It's when there is nothing left to remove. Because you have only kept the best.

It only took 6.5 minutes, including the story and double introduction.

My favorite quote, and quite applicable:

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Your quotation has distorted the original a bit. (Well, of course the original is in French, but Lewis Galantière’s translation into English is also lovely.) It’s from chapter 3 of the book Wind, Sand & Stars (in French, Terre des hommes). Here’s the full text of that chapter, which I highly recommend to everyone: https://gist.github.com/anonymous/cd950f8ac6d58349e9e6

And here’s the paragraph surrounding the quotation in question (if I remember correctly the paragraphs are arranged a bit differently in the French original, but anyway...):

It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship’s keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.

Thank you, I was just searching for the provenance of that quote.

Compare and contrast Stephen King's lessons with Elmore Leonard's "10 (really 11) Rules of Writing", and the difference is as stark as the author's respective works.

I'd never read that. That's wonderful. It literally is like the "Guide For Not Writing Like Stephen King". But, it's also like the "Guide For Not Writing Like Mark Twain", making it somewhat dubious advice.

I'd attempt to categorize it more as "How To Write Like Elmore Leonard", really. He tends to ascribe to Hemingway's terseness.

The other, real point there is that there's more than one way to do something well. Hemingway and Mark Twain don't write very much like each other, but both are worth reading.

Stark difference?

3. and 4. are identical to King's recommendations in "On Writing". King is pretty passionate about that.

5. is the same, I think.

7. is kind of a difference, although King laments that few writers can actually handle it.

8. and 9. are real differences.

Having read On Writing I can say that 8 and 9 aren't even real differences.

King is against detailed description of characters -- (paraphrased) "If I describe character too much, it conflicts with your view of them."

He's also against overly detailed description of places -- (paraphrased) "Keep it brief. You want to give a description of the room, it's not a travelogue."

I was primarily referring to presentation.

Zinnser's On Writing Well improved my writing. Alabama Power does not take internet points, however, and I remain talentless.


I second On Writing Well. It's an absolute must read for anyone writing non-fiction.

There are two other books I'd throw up with it—Revising Prose by Richard Lanham and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Those three books together are a fantastic course in writing.

This is good advice, as far as it goes. It will lead new writers to produce something readable, if not something great. Like a newspaper article, for example. IMO, Stephen King has not written anything great. I think this advice suggests one reason why: he doesn't focus on the material he's working with. Words themselves, rhythms, sentence structures -- all the figures of rhetoric that invisibly lead a reader into the story. Another major flaw in King's work is his inability to move beyond entertainment. Why does he write? Why do people read him? Those are questions I can't answer after finishing his books.

>IMO, Stephen King has not written anything great

In your opinion, who has? What should I read to see great writing? Genuinely interested.

Another great article on how to write is "How to Say Nothing in 500 Words" (http://www.mrgunnar.net/ap.cfm?subpage=348270)

> 8. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”

> The answer needn’t always be yes. But if it’s always no, it’s time for a new project or a new career.

I like this. It's realistic. It doesn't say "Pick a new career if you ever stop having fun," like too much of the follow-your-passion advice out there these days. It's normal and ok for work to suck sometimes.

I think Stephen King's early career (specifically the use of Richard Bachmann to increase output without tarnishing his main brand) was a brilliant example of marketing. This tactic maybe doesn't apply so well to publishing today, but it sure worked!!

I love it when a web site devoted to writing engages in blatant copyright violations like this. I mean, they acknowledge right up front that "copyright remains with Mr King" — and then proceed to violate King's copyright anyway. Brilliant!

Universally good advice:

  >> Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”

  >> The answer needn’t always be yes. 
  >> But if it’s always no, it’s time for a new project or a new career.

Oh really? Everything? In ten minutes? Well, I am reading this, then I will reply to this comment and you all can judge for yourself.


Edit: see my reply, in which I use the rules I just learned. This was a genuine experiment. Any feedback is appreciated. :)

You can learn most of what you need to know about weight lifting in ten minutes. Doesn't mean you can get strong in ten minutes.

Now, how to play the flute. (picking up a flute) Well you blow in one end and move your fingers up and down the outside.


Hell no. Crack, crack, knees and back.

I've now read the piece. In it, King starts by saying that it will really take me 20 minutes; but I looked and it's only been ten.

Surprisingly, a lot of this applies quite well to the start-up scene. Here are his main points:

1. You have to be talented. Writing is useless if there's nothing left after you've taken all the extra words out. But rejection is okay: six rejections are okay. So are sixty. Six hundred is pushing it. Six thousand rejections and you can give up on the startup scene. Er, I mean writing. And you'll know when you're getting closer, too. You'll receive notes back. Personal phone calls.

2. Be neat.

3. Be self-critical. If you're not reverting commits you're not committing enough. Er, drafts. if you're not marking up drafts of your writing you're not doing it right.

4. Get to the point and remove every extraneous file. I mean word. Cut the words out.

5. Never look at reference materials while writing, or you'll lose your train of thought! Just put in a dummy function. You can look it up later. That dummy code will still be there. (His example was misspelled words.)

6. Know the markets. You wouldn't publish a link to closed source iOS app on Github, would you? But I've seen people doing that.

7. Write to entertain. Like I'm doing. You can write serious things, but if you want to preach get a blog.

8. Ask yourself: am I having fun? If the answer is anything OTHER than "I don't even remember what fun is" your startup is in good shape. You don't always have to have fun, as long as you sometimes do.

9. How to evaluate criticism. This is a good one: show your work to ten people. Listen carefully. If everyone is telling you your thing sucks, and everyone is giving you a different reason, that's okay. People suck and you can ignore all of them. However, if they start mentioning the same reason, then you know what to change. It doesn't matter if you're attached to it: change it.

10. Observe protocol. Pitch decks and all that. Get introductions.

11. Salespeople? Forget it. They won't care about you or work for you on commission until you're big enough to steal from. Sell your product yourself. ("flog your stories around yourself... send around query letters one by one, and follow up with samples.")

12. If it's bad, kill it.

That's it. And this only took me ten minutes to write. Now let me edit for 5.


Done. I've now edited this for another 7 minutes. This is what it looked like before my edit if you're curious (right after I finished writing 'let me edit for 5'): http://pastebin.com/uD8YKxBh

I was thinking how this applies to programming/ startup's too.

I would say 5 is more about over-engineering, when a much more straightforward technique would work. Code is malleable, you can always come back to it.

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