Stephen King Writing Tip: Build Your Toolbox

I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.

What Stephen King means when he talks about constructing your own toolbox, is that writing like any other job has much to do with problem-solving. An organized worker has his tools, screwdrivers, hammers, wrenches, batteries, tape measurer, different nuts and bolts and so on, in their toolbox so that when they need to fix something, all they require to do is pick up that toolbox and approach the problem. At which point they can assess the issue and see what tools would resolve it quickly. Certain problems require a screwdriver with a flat head, another might require a Phillips head or something may just need hammering, another might require loosening the bolts with a wrench or measuring the exact diameters and so it’s the simple process of finding what tool fits right.

In this manner, a writer also requires his own toolbox. So, instead of helplessly and blindly attacking a problem that arises in your writing, you can find the proper tool and aim it at fixing your problem.

The next question is then, what tools does a writer require?

The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary.

The way this tool works is that when you are reading markdown passages that you really enjoy reading. This is a good practice because right away you will notice how it’s not the vocabulary that is important but rather how the words are used. James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway are both praised for their prose. Additionally, as you read, write down any word that you aren’t familiar with it. You don’t have to make a conscious effort to learn it and use it in your own writing but knowing that you have it in your toolbox, it can naturally come of use if you ever need it. Otherwise, it can just take up space like those random bolts that are never used but it’s better to have them there just in case.

After vocabulary comes grammar.

Vocabulary used in speech or writing organizes itself in seven parts of speech. Communication composed of these parts of speech must be organized by rules of grammar upon which we agree. When these rules break down, confusion and misunderstanding result. Bad grammar produces bad sentences. My favorite example from Strunk and White is this one: “as a mother of five, with another one on the way, my ironing board is always up.”

Grammar can be a complicated subject and also a boring one, however, it is essential to understand the basics because as Stephen King said “bad grammar produces bad sentences.” The last thing a writer wants is to write bad sentences. But at the same time getting bogged down by all the grammatical do’s and don’ts can be difficult. Which is why at the very least you have to understand how nouns and verbs work and interact with each other. Additionally, before you adopt the idea of “breaking the rules”, understand what the rules are and what you’re breaking.

Simple sentences are another way to ease the headache of grammar. So, if the sentence or paragraph starts to become overwhelming, just remember to simplify, return to your nouns and verbs.

The third tool comes in two parts: The verb and the adverb

Verbs themselves can be split into two.

With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. The subject is just letting it happen. You should avoid the passive tense.

If you re-read the passages that you love you’ll quickly see how almost all of them are written in the active tense. What’s compelling to read is a character attempting things rather than constantly reacting. What goes with passive is timid and that’s how the writing ends up if you use passive tense.

This is why compiling writings that you enjoy is so important. You need something to compare your writing with when an issue arises. This way, we can spot the differences between our own writing and someone else’s and use their structure to resolve our problem.

Think of other prose as how-to videos, things to learn from and apply to your own writing. Speaking of which, the other part of this tool is adverbs.

The adverb is not your friend.

Often times the overuse of adverbs robs the writing of its emotions. We end up telling more and showing less which is reason alone to be sparse with your adverbs.

The last aspect your toolbox should have is an understanding of how paragraphs are written. However, this is just the base of a toolbox, your foundation, after this you can add whatever it is that you find useful or informative that can help you be a better writer.

The ideal expository graf contains a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.

This pattern of a topic sentence followed by explanation and description of this topic sentence forces the writer to organize their thoughts, according to Stephen King.

However, that’s just one way of writing paragraphs. Once more, the more you read, the more examples you come across different ways of formulating what you’re trying to say.

The more fiction you read and write, the more you’ll find your paragraphs forming on their own. And that’s what you want.

Often, the flow of the story narrates the form of the paragraphs. Stephen King believes that it’s this natural flow that you should stick with.

My main takeaway from this exercise is simple: writing is a skill and it needs work. You’re not going to come out the gates writing perfect sentences, possessing the exact vocabulary you need to vocalize what you want, in proper grammar and creating beautiful flowing paragraphs and stories. Rather, all of this takes dedication and discipline.

To deconstruct writing to its rawest form and build something that is your own. That’s the goal and with the understanding of the basics, we can get close to this. The toolbox itself is a tool in improving as a writer.

Haruki Murakami On Writing

There are many articles written on the do’s and don’t’s of writing. I don’t know if such a thing exists for each person who wishes to write must write their own way. Through the act of writing, they will come to discover what they like and what they don’t like and in doing so, create their own do’s and don’t’s which may be contradictory to the public consensus. If that is the case then so be it. Contorting your writing in order to fit into how someone else thinks, takes away from the uniqueness of your own thought and style. So, one has to be comfortable with their own writing and write for the purpose of writing and not to become popular or to sell a bunch of books. At least that is how I view it. Writing for the sake of writing.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses similar notions. The book is a combined effort on his views on running and on writing and how the action of running has influenced his writing.

What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.

It is an inner standard that one must aim for and not some external validation. In running, you are trying to beat your previous time even if it is only by one minute or trying to go further than you have gone before. Similarly, with writing, you are trying to create something that is approved by your own standards and limitations. Text that pushes you slightly further than your comfort zone and it doesn’t matter if one person reads that or a million, the inner validation is all one needs.

Specifically, when it comes to writing itself, Murakami believes that there are three important factors. The most important being talent and below it are focus and endurance. Talent being innate, it is something you have or you don’t have. Focus and endurance are what one can build and increase with time and effort. These two factors are in your control.

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years.

Naturally, in order to increase one’s focus and endurance, you have to be patient. It takes time and effort to develop these two qualities. Murakami relates these factors to running throughout his text. The idea is that just how one works his or her way up from being able to run 1 mile and then 2 miles and then 3 miles as their muscles adjust and grow and their cardio improves and their running technique gets better and so on. Similarly, one has to slowly work the focus and endurance muscles for writing. Perhaps you may have to start with 30 minutes of pure focus where all you think about is writing and then after a week of that, you increase that to 45 minutes and once your body adjusts to that speed, you increase your focus time to an hour. Endurance works the same way. Three days out of the week for writing and then four days and then five days and you may keep the five days for a few months until your body and mind have adjusted to this new level and then you increase it to six days.

It is in the practice of your routine that you get better as a writer and also as a runner. Murakami shares a funny story about the writer Raymond Chandler who seemed to share Murakami’s belief in endurance and focus.

In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

In doing so, writing then becomes a form of manual labor and not some creative output that seeps out of your pores and that one just needs to write it all down and that’s it. Furthermore, it may be through the grueling task of focusing every single day for weeks on end that one may discover that they have some talent. Your talent may not be known to you until you start your work. Murakami himself is an example of this. It was not until he was in his late 20s that he even got the idea to write and it would not be for a few more years until he discovered his own writing style and understood what kind of novels he wished to write.

This discovery was simply aided by writing. The more effort he put into his work the better he understood it and clearer his vision became. He had an understanding that his talent was not enough and that he needed to supplement the talent he did have by building up his focus and endurance. Murakami gives credit to running for building these two qualities that could then aid the talent he did have.

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.

Talent may be out of your control but focus and endurance are not. You can set yourself up for success if you build up those two qualities. Furthermore, the action that aids in this growth will help your understanding of writing, what you wish to say, what you wish not to say, your own do’s and don’t’s and perhaps even discover that talent that is within. In fact, such an action will benefit you in all aspects of life and not just writing.

For me it is hard to say if I have a talent for writing or not, I just simply know that I enjoy it and that it brings a sense of fulfillment and achievement into my life. It is a freeing notion, knowing that focus and endurance are under my control. If I am able to improve these qualities perhaps then my writing will continue to live up to my own standards.

Simple Writing Advice From Stephen King

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

This is from Stephen King’s memoir On Writing.

The advice is straightforward and simple. A writer writes. You can spend all your time researching writing tips, habits, routines, reading lists and things of that nature but that is not writing. You can find writing exercises that make you describe some lake from four different perspectives but that is not writing. You can even spend weeks reading books on how to write and by doing all of this, give yourself this false notion that you are writing but you are not writing.

It may seem like you are working on your craft and improving your understanding as you try a new way of writing and learn through the habits of other writers, however, all of this can trick you into thinking that you are getting better as a writer but you really may not be. After all the hours spent on such activities, you may still be exactly where you started.

The reason being all of that is supplementary. Additional work to your core work. The core is the actual writing, your writing, no matter if it is good or bad, you must write your own writing. The easiest way to do this is either set a block of time which is dedicated to writing and nothing else or assign yourself X number of words that need to be written each day to consider that day a win. This makes up your core. After this is when all the supplementary work like reading books on writing, grammar, editing, biographies/memoirs, and writing exercises can be added to the routine.

I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.

Along with writing, comes reading. Just as with writing, you have to assign yourself a certain number of pages to read or a block of time dedicated to just reading. You don’t have to read with the purpose of studying fiction but you must read.

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

What does a character do when he is in a heated argument? What will the landscape look like from the view of someone who does not know who they are? What creates an emotional connection with a character? How do you write a good battle scene? A good love scene? How can inner monologue flow? How do you incorporate symbolic meanings into the text? Questions like these and many others have all been answered. You just have to pick up a book and see.

A useful way to read is to read with attention. Take notes, understand what the writer has included and what he or she has omitted. Pay attention to the words used and how they differ depending on the character. See how an emotional scene was set up or a violent one. Take note of the details that bring a scene to life and the lack of detail that makes it mundane. Watch how the character struggles internally or how the character acts externally.

All books can be seen as textbooks for writing.

One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose […] good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.

Although the advice is simple, write a lot and read a lot, the application of it must be done with commitment and attention. In that way, the simple advice is all you need to become a better writer for the rest of the writing journey you will learn innately and those lessons are hard to forget while no matter how many writing tips and lists you read, the lessons will eventually fade from your mind.