The Profile Dossier: Stephen King, the Master of Suspense
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
As one of the world’s most acclaimed writers, Stephen King has often been described as “the king of horror.”
His books have sold more than 350 million copies, and many have been adapted into films and mini-series. King is the only author in history to have had more than 30 of his books become No. 1 best-sellers with hits like Carrie, The Shining, Misery, Cujo, and It.
King says he’s been a writer all his life, starting at age six when he started copying panels out of comic books and making up his own stories to go with the images. And why horror? Because, he says, writers write about their obsessions. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
“The first movie I ever saw was a horror movie. It was Bambi,” he says. “When that little deer gets caught in a forest fire, I was terrified, but I was also exhilarated.”
His family grew up poor, although it’s a part of his life King doesn’t often discuss. When King was a child, his dad went out to buy cigarettes and never came back, leaving his wife and two children behind.
At age 26, King was a high school English teacher when he started writing the manuscript for the novel that would become Carrie. He and his wife Tabitha lived in a doublewide trailer and each had to work additional jobs to make ends meet, with King sometimes working at an industrial laundry and moonlighting as a janitor and gas pump attendant.
One day, Tabitha discovered the draft pages for what would become Carrie, a story about a high school girl who can control objects with her mind. But he had abandoned the manuscript because he became frustrated that he wasn’t able to write well from a female perspective.
So he crumpled up the pages and threw them in the trash can. When Tabitha was emptying the bin, she saw the papers and started reading.
Tabitha told him, “This is pretty good, you ought to keep it going." King remembers: “That was all I needed and she knew it.” Over the next few weeks, she helped him develop Carrie’s voice and inspired him to continue. The final draft was done in nine months only to be rejected by 30 publishers.
And then one day, an editor from Doubleday Publishing offered him a $2,500 advance for Carrie, and the rest is history. To this day, King credits his wife for urging him to keep writing and helping launch his writing career. King said:
“There is a time in the lives of most writers when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world. In short, there’s a time when things can go either way. That vulnerable time for me came during 1971 to 1973. If my wife had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness ... that the time had come to put my dreams away and support my family, I would have done that with no complaint.”
He dedicated ‘Carrie’ to Tabitha writing: “This is for Tabby, who got me into it—and then bailed me out of it.”
Personally, I’ve learned a lot by studying King’s writing career. He taught me that the “muse” isn’t real, the adverb is not my friend, and that “writing is refined thinking.”
King believes that idea-generation is an active process, not a passive one.
He says, "Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground ... Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world."
Above all, King believes in the notion of “selfish writing,” which means writing for the pure pleasure and enjoyment of the craft. He says he has never written a single word for money — no matter just how much his family needed that money.
”Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends,” he says. “In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy okay? Getting happy.”
On evoking fear: Fear seems to be the main subject of King's fiction. In this Paris Review interview, he goes deep on how he is able to evoke the feeling of terror inside his reader. "What are we afraid of, as humans? Chaos. The outsider. We’re afraid of change. We’re afraid of disruption, and that is what I’m interested in," he says. This is a must-read.
On the art of writing: On Writing is King's famous book on the craft of writing. Part memoir, part master class, it reveals the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. He takes the reader on a journey through a time when he abused alcohol and drugs, he details the accident that almost ended his life, and he explains why he's never done learning how to be a better writer. I just finished reading it, and I can say that it's a great one.
On the love of his life: King credits his wife Tabitha for inspiring him to pursue his writing and finish his novel ‘Carrie.’ In this speech, he details just how hard their early life was and just how instrumental she was in helping him during the most ‘vulnerable time.’ Just do yourself a favor and read this speech.
On why 2020 felt like a Stephen King novel: Life during the pandemic felt like something Stephen King dreamed up. About 40 years ago, in his novel "The Stand," King wrote about a virus that's 99% lethal and wipes out most of the population. That virus was accidentally released by a lab developing biological weapons. "I keep having people say, 'Gee, it's like we're living in a Stephen King story,' " he says. "And my only response to that is, 'I'm sorry.' "
On his writing process: King doesn't outline his novels before he begins the writing process. He often draws inspiration from a real-life situation and asks himself, "What if X had happened instead?" Little by little, he begins to add in and develop characters as he explores the situation. "A lot of the things sort of come together and work together — and you let them," he says. "You don't try to manage these people and push them around. You just sort of let them be who they're going to be."
On learning to think: King is a funny guy, and you get a sense of his personality in this speech. But there's one part that stuck with me: He says that books teach us to think. "Learning to think is the result of hard work and steady effort," King says. "The result of this disregard is too much illiteracy or semi-illiteracy in a national population where a large number of people are lazy thinkers without that nose for bullsh*t."
Think of your 'muse' as a guy who lives in the basement: Many writers believe in the myth of the muse. King is here to burst your bubble: “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer screen," King says. "He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there, you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in." In other words, don't hold back by waiting around for inspiration to strike. Get your butt in the chair and start typing. If you do all the grunt work, King says that the guy in your basement will give you "a bag of magic." He adds: "There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.”
Let go of your desire to impress: Trying to sound smart will fail you because it often comes off as inauthentic. The best communicators use clear, concise, and simple language. "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," King says. "Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful."
The adverb is not your friend: Want to become a better and more confident writer? Then stop using adverbs, which are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly (quickly, sadly, violently, etc). King has waged a war against adverbs, saying, "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops." He believes that adverbs were created with the "timid writer" in mind — the writer who is afraid to say, "He slammed the door," so she says, "He closed the door firmly." One sentence is strong, the other is weak. Fear is at the root of all bad writing, King says, and good writing is about letting go of that fear. Teach yourself to weed out the adverbs and choose the most effective active-voice verbs that propel your story forward.
Finish your first draft in 3 months: King has become one of the most prolific writers of our time by setting rules for himself. When writing a novel, he sets a daily goal of writing 2,000 words. This would come to a total of 180,000 words in three months of writing. Three months is how long King believes that it should take someone to finish a first draft because if it takes longer, you're bound to lose motivation and attachment to your work. He then prescribes six weeks of "recuperation time" after you're done writing, so you can let the work simmer in your brain and be able to more easily identify holes in your narrative. Remember, some of the most creative people create structure around their creative output.
Follow the 10% rule: After he's done with the first draft, King asks himself the following questions: 1) Is this story coherent; 2) What are the recurring elements? Do they form a theme; and 3) What is it all about? Below is the formula he follows in order to get to a second draft:
Second Draft = First Draft - 10%
"Gulp," he says. "Time to kill your darlings." You're not done until you've trimmed all the fat and left in just the good stuff.
Remember every scar: A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer, King says, but the real requirement is "the ability to remember the story of every scar." He adds, “Writers remember everything — especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he'll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones, you get novels." The best writers are unafraid to look at their scars, to examine them, to confront them, and most importantly, to discover meaning in them.
Secrets yearn for an understanding ear: Do you ever feel like what you want to say feels too big and heavy to put into words? That's because the most important things are the hardest to say. "The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away," King says. "And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” Although words can sometimes diminish how you feel inside, the key is finding the right ear that will help bring the words to life.
Focus on one word at a time: When you've hit a wall and it feels like you're embarking on an impossible journey, remember that it happens to every writer. When someone asks King, "How do you write," he always answers, "One word at a time." His answer gets dismissed because it may not be the sexiest, but it's the most truthful. King elaborates: "It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man. That's all. One stone at a time. But I've read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”
Take care of your health and marriage: King attributes his success to two things: his physical health and his marriage. "The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible," he writes.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
“Good books don't give up all their secrets at once.”
“The hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.”
“Humor is almost always anger with its make-up on.”
"Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.”
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”
“Only enemies speak the truth; friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of duty.”
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”