Stephen King (born in 1947) is one of the bestselling authors of all time, his novels having sold more than 350 million copies worldwide.
Here are a dozen inspiring quotes from Mr. King to help you write your novel!
1. Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.
Here’s the honest truth about writing, especially novel writing: you’ll never finish your projects if you wait around for inspiration. If you wait around for a visit from the muse. Some writing days are better than others. Some days the words fly off your fingertips and other days you sit there struggling to write a single decent sentence.
If you really want to write your novel this year, you need to think of the writing process like exercise, like a job. You can’t just write when you feel like it. You can’t revise your first perfect chapter to death. You have to keep writing, even on the days you don’t feel like it. You have to get up every day (or at least five days a week if possible), sit down at your computer, and put a significant amount of words down on the page. That is how you’ll reach THE END. That is how you’ll write many, many novels in the long run.
2. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
If you’re interested in writing novels, you should be interested in reading novels, too. You should want to kick your feet up after a long day and immerse yourself in a book for a while, not immediately want to put on some bad reality show and completely turn your brain off. Yes, sometimes it’s easier to scroll mindlessly on your phone, a lame TV show playing in the background, but if you’re serious about being a writer, you need to get serious about reading, too.
Honestly, if you have to force yourself every day to read even for ten to twenty minutes, you might be in trouble when it comes to your novel writing. Because reading and writing absolutely do work in tandem to grow your skills. You want to read everything you can get your hands on. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read in genres you’re unfamiliar with. Read authors you’ve never heard of before. It all helps, I promise you. If you do both long enough, your writing skills will improve, and you’ll come to enjoy reading more than ever.
3. Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
How convenient would it be to take a walk on down to Story Central, hand over a few bucks, and then come on home with a couple of exciting, original, nifty story ideas you can use for your next novel? Unfortunately ideas don’t work like that. Ideas really do come from anywhere. Sometimes you find a nugget of an interesting idea from a film or TV show you’re watching or a book you’re reading. Sometimes a real-life experience inspires a great idea. Sometimes ideas drop right out of the sky and hit you square in the face.
Stephen King is right: your job isn’t necessarily to find the ideas but to recognize them when they appear, especially the ones that come out of nowhere. Many writers have an idea journal exactly for this reason, although in my opinion the best ideas — the ones you should truly stick with for the long haul — stay put for good and practically beg to be put down on paper. One of the best things you can do if you’re strapped for ideas? Live your life to the fullest. Travel and be spontaneous. Get outside the house whenever possible. You’ll be shocked to find how many story ideas fall into your lap when you’re doing something out of the ordinary.
4. I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.
I’ve written twenty novels in ten years, and I still often pull a chair up to my writing desk feeling a little bit, or a lot, of fear. I’m not so much afraid that the writing I’m about to do is going to be bad — if any of the writing in your first draft is bad, you just make it better later during revisions — but I’m instead afraid I’m going to fail again. I’ve written so many books throughout the years that ultimately went straight into the drawer, never to be seen again. I’ve put my heart into projects that for whatever reason never worked out.
The truth is you should have a little bit of fear during the writing of a novel. A little bit of fear is normal. If you’re not afraid at all, and you’re completely confident every step of the way, your latest manuscript might actually not be everything you hope it to be. It might be too safe. Or it might be too similar to other things you’ve written before. You want to take chances in your writing always, for better or for worse. Have some fear about the latest novel you’re taking on, but don’t be afraid when it comes to the writing itself. Do your best, and fix what doesn’t work later.
5. When I’m working I work every day — three, four hours, and I try to get those six pages, and I try to get them fairly clean. So if the manuscript is, let’s say, 360 pages long, that’s basically two months work.
People are always in awe at how prolific Stephen King has been for going on fifty years now, but when you break his schedule down day to day, he’s not doing anything extraordinary. He’s not sitting at his writing desk from 8 to 5 writing dozens and dozens of pages. He’s prolific do to his consistency. His ability to write a specific amount of words and pages every day all year long. Not nine hours a day. Not five or six. Often three to four hours a day, sometimes less.
I always say this to people who want to write their first novels: decide on a word count, and stick to that word count every single day until you reach THE END of the first draft. My word count when I’m writing a new novel is always 2,000 words a day. Often I aim for 100,000 words for a new novel, and if I write five days a week, that’s 10,000 words a week for ten weeks. Yep, in just ten weeks (and often less) I have the completed first draft of a novel. King often writes his first drafts in about two months… and you know what? So can you! Aim for at least 1,000 words a day and stick to that schedule as long as you need to.
6. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
This happens almost every time you get deep into a new novel project. Sometimes it’s page fifty. Often it’s page 120 or 170 or something like that. For me it’s always a chapter near the middle of the manuscript when I feel I’ve lost my way… and the book is not coming together the way I was hoping for. I think to myself, this is shit, this is terrible, I should abandon this novel and start something else. Why, oh why, am I such an awful writer?
We all feel like this at some point during the novel writing process. It’s okay. It’s totally normal. The important thing is to keep going even when you feel your writing is terrible, even when you don’t feel like continuing. Because it’s absolutely true: sometimes you are doing good work even though you feel like it’s crap. I wrote a short story recently I thought was one of the worst things I’d ever written… and then it went on to sell to a prestigious literary magazine within weeks, much to my delight and surprise.
You just never really know. Often you’re too close to the material. Often what’s on the page doesn’t exactly match what you had in your head, so you think what you’re doing doesn’t work. But often, especially after you’ve completed a few revisions, those words on the page are working beautifully. You just don’t know it yet.
7. Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cut pages and pages of great writing from one of my novels for a single basic reason: the scene or scenes didn’t need to be there. As much you adore the language you use in a specific scene, as much as you love the pacing and the drama and the humor or whatever it may be, if the scene doesn’t further anything in the story, it oftentimes needs to go.
On my MFA thesis novel my advisor suggested I cut an extremely long 82-page sequence from the middle of the book. I refused at first. That was weeks and weeks of hard work I’d be throwing away. Pages and pages of solid writing. But within days I realized she was right, that this sequence slowed down the pacing and felt in many ways unrealistic, and so one terrible Monday morning I sat at my writing desk, selected all seven chapters, and deleted them. It was about 26,000 words of writing, much of which I liked a lot, completely erased from the novel, never to be seen again. This is an extreme example, of course, but if you’re going to make it as a novel writer, you need to make the hard choices at times. You need to kill your darlings, always, if doing so better serves the story you’re telling.
8. There’s nothing wrong with writing any of these things [sci-fi, romance, mystery, etc.]. What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing circle colleagues.
Stephen King is right about a lot of things, and he’s definitely right about this one: never write something, especially a novel, just to impress other people, whomever that may be. You might love young adult fantasy, for example, and want to write a wildly romantic and ambitious story in that genre, but you ultimately think people might look down on a story like that, so you write an adult literary novel instead about an aging couple dealing with a divorce. You write the second book because you feel it might impress more people, especially those important figures in the publishing industry.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What you want to learn sooner rather than later is that you should focus on writing the stories that fascinate you, that excite you, that make you want to sit down at the writing desk every day. I’ve written in a few different genres throughout the years, but what I’ve come to realize in the last five years is young adult suspense is my sweet spot. I offer some literary qualities in my work, I write a lot of LGBTQ characters, I sometimes write supernatural and sometimes write pure realism, but what I know for sure is if I’m going to spend a year or longer on a new novel, it has to be something I care about and want to have some fun with. So write what you want to write. Don’t ever write what you think you should be writing.
9. Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.
Stephen King has an excellent section in his 2000 craft book On Writing all about description, which I turn to often because, frankly, I’m not great at writing description. It’s one of my skills that year after year has only slightly improved with all the novels I write and all the books I read. I don’t know if it’s a matter of not having enough tools in my vocabulary or what, but when it comes to things like setting, I always struggle with description.
But one thing I do know for sure is you never want to overload your prose with too much of it. You don’t want to describe every detail of what your main character looks like. Don’t tell us everything he or she is wearing. You don’t want to be in the middle of a strong scene of drama only to pull back and give the reader a block paragraph of description all about the house your two characters are standing in. You want to sprinkle your prose with description here and there, but never too much. Remember that you want to leave some of the description to your reader’s imaginations. Give them enough for them to clearly picture the scene but often no more than that.
10. The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.
Like with description, backstory is something that’s necessary in your fiction, particularly in a novel, but, also like with description, you don’t ever want to go overboard. Yes, your characters have been through a lot in their lives before we meet them on page one. If you introduce a fifty-five-year-old female protagonist on page one of your novel, you’re going to need to sprinkle some backstory here and there throughout the manuscript to tell us who she is. It’s important we know where she’s been before in order to get us on board with what she’s going after now. Backstory serves an essential purpose of most forms of storytelling.
But King is right in that most backstory isn’t very interesting to your reader. What’s often much more interesting is the story you’re telling that’s taking place now and what’s going to happen in it next. Backstory should serve a role in helping flesh out your main characters and give us some necessary context as to the choices they’re making and what motivates them and why they feel the way they do, and so on. But don’t overload the reader with too much backstory, the same way you shouldn’t ever overload the reader with too much description. Give the reader a little bit of both throughout your novel when they’re needed, and you’ll have a better chance at success.
11. When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.
The simple truth is you’re going to make lots and lots and lots of mistakes in the first draft of your novel. You can’t expect perfection. And you shouldn’t along the way stop the writing process to go back to revise earlier chapters, no matter how much you want to do so. The best thing you can do is constantly look forward every single day and keep writing until you reach THE END. Feel free to make mistakes. Feel free to write a new scene that popped into your head the morning of. You can always cut it or change it later. Try to write the best first draft every time, but always keep in mind you’re going to make it better in revisions.
Because when you’re writing your first draft, you truly are just scanning and identifying the trees. It’s in the revisions that you finally are able to step back and look at the entirety of the forest. Finishing the first draft is a milestone, a huge achievement. It’s a time to celebrate. You should give yourself a month or longer away from the manuscript, so you can let it rest at the same time you’re resting, too. And when you come back to it, one of the best things you can do is read the entirety of the novel in one sitting. Finally, what’s working and what’s not working will become so very clear to you. And as you begin your revisions, you’ll have a stronger focus on what you need to do to make your work better.
12. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference.
Finally, it’s important to remember that writing can oftentimes be a lonely job, especially when there’s no one out there who believes in you. Yes, you might be a confident, motivated person who doesn’t need anyone else to be on your side. You might know for sure you have what it takes to write a novel and have that novel eventually be a success. A little bit of confidence is helpful in any line of work you do, and it’s especially helpful for novel writers.
But you still need to find one or more people out there who believes in you. Having people who believe in you keep you more on track with your writing, keep you staying strong on your worst days when you feel like a failure and feel you’ll never be able to finish your latest project, let alone ever see the day where the novel hits bookshelves. Hopefully your family believes in what you do, and the person you share your life with, too. If they don’t, find those people who do. Join a writing community, online or in person. Sometimes all you need is one great writer friend to keep you motivated. I have a few of them, and they continue to inspire me every day.
Writing is a lonely job, after all. It’s a lonely and difficult life, really. You’ll have weeks, months, years, where you feel like nothing is happening. Where all you see is rejection. Where you start to wonder if all of the hard work has been for nothing. Well, you know what? Tell yourself this, always: the hard work has been worth it, and you’re continuing to grow and improve with each passing day. You’ll find the right project eventually, and soon the whole world will see and appreciate your talent. Because you’re a writer, damn it. And you always will be.
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