Scary good: Stephen King on writing

April 28, 2023

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Do you have a favourite movie you watch over and over and over again?
My friend Michael does. Every Christmas Eve, after the stockings have been hung by the chimney with care, he insists on gathering the family around the big-screen TV for the annual viewing of A Christmas Carol. The 1951 classic with Alastair Sim in the title role of Ebenezer Scrooge, that is.
Michael’s been doing this for more than 30 years now, but he never tires of the film. “Sure, it’s a family tradition,” he says, “But it’s deeper than that. The writing is so witty and intelligent, and over the years, more and more lines have actually embedded themselves into our daily family conversations.”
My Christmas go-to movie for the past several years is Love Actually, the 2003 British romantic comedy that features a stellar ensemble cast:  

  • Bill Nighy as Billy Mack, the potty-mouthed, has-been rock star
  • Hugh Grant as the boyish, Tony Blairesque Prime Minister
  • Colin Firth as the bumbling writer proposing in broken Portuguese to the woman of his dreams
  • Rowan Atkinson as the fussy, pretentious store clerk taking much, much too long to gift-wrap the necklace Alan Rickman’s character is buying for his secretary, not his wife
  • And Emma Thompson as Rickman’s wife, tumbling, note-perfect, through a cloud of emotions when she learns the necklace is not for her.

Oh, and then there’s Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton, Kiera Knightly, Chiwetel Ejiofer, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Claudia Schiffer. As I said, a stellar cast who Richard, my partner, and I are happy to watch over and over and over again.  
At the other end of the movie spectrum is another classic, a film I found compelling on first viewing but one I could not get through a second time.
I’m talking about The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name.
Before Richard and I met, we’d both seen the film on our own (back in 1980, practically the Ice Ages). More recently, we’d watched Room 237, a documentary that presents a bunch of wacky theories as to the “real” meaning lurking behind Kubrick’s film. It’s about the Holocaust. No, wait, it’s about the cultural assimilation of native Americans. No, no, no, it’s actually Kubrick’s confession that he was hired by NASA to fake the moon landing.
What???? People—smart, educated, seemingly sane people—actually believe these things? Yes, they do, and to prove the truth of their particular theory, each proponent has meticulously assembled evidence from the film itself.
Intrigued, Richard and I decided to watch The Shining again to do a little investigative work of our own. We made it to about the three-quarter mark. It was getting late, and since neither of us was any wiser about any of those “hidden” messages, we agreed to call it a night and finish up another day.
Alas, neither of us had remembered just how f****ing scary The Shining is. Despite knowing the end (spoiler alert—wife and kid make it out safely), the film haunted us both. I, for one, was jolted awake at 2 am, sweating from a vivid nightmare that it was me, not Shelley Duval, Jack Nicholson was chasing through the big maze on the back lawn. That was enough. We abandoned the movie. 
While Kubrick was a brilliant (and enigmatic) filmmaker, let’s not forget The Shining’s source material—Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name. That scared the bejesus out of me too. I distinctly remember reading King’s book in bed. I couldn’t put it down, and yet, I couldn’t turn out the lights and go to sleep either. I was terrified. It was that psychologically disturbing.
Thinking about The Shining (the novel) turned out to be the push I needed to finally read On Writing, King’s “memoir of the craft.”
First published in 2000, On Writing includes interesting details about King’s life and how he came to be a writer. And while it’s primarily intended for the writer of fiction, anyone who writes anything can benefit from King’s advice. I was certainly heartened to learn that the stuff I’m always rabbiting on about is precisely what King cares about too. If Stephen King says it, it must be so.
Here are my top three nuggets of Stephen King wisdom:
On words
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes … Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip” and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a shit.” [emphasis King’s]
On paragraphs
“In expository prose, paragraphs can (and should) be neat and utilitarian … Even in the informal essay, however, it’s possible to see how strong the basic paragraph form can be. Topic-sentence-followed-by-support-and-description insists that the writer organize his/her thoughts, and it also provides good insurance against wandering away from the topic. … Writing is refined thinking.”
On editing 
“In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High—1966, this would have been—I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad. But PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.” … I wish I could remember who wrote that note. … Whoever it was did me a hell of a favor. I copied the formula out on a piece of shirt-cardboard and taped it to the wall beside my typewriter. Good things started to happen for me shortly after.”
And here’s one more reason to pay attention to Stephen King. On Monday night, King tweeted:   
Gordon Lightfoot has died. He was a great songwriter and a wonderful performer. “Sundown, you better take care/If I catch you creepin' 'round my back stairs."
From one great writer to another, the beat goes on.

Remember this: Take a cue from the prolific and highly successful Stephen King—keep your words simple, your paragraphs organized, and your editing mandatory. 

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