Stephen King’s Work Habits

One of the oldest battles in the arena of writing technique is the debate over outlining versus writing off the cuff. When I read Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I learned he had some unusual ideas about how to get the work done. In fact, his work habits are so different from my own that I took the time to write up a little summary of how he went about things. While I carefully keep notes and create outlines, King just heroically plunges right in. For years, I believed that outlining was the most common approach to writing longer works, but wider experience on the web has taught me that a great many people come at writing in somewhat the same way as the famous horror writer. While King has his detractors, his remarkable output and amazing success indicate that his methods warrant some consideration.

Jean-Leon Gerome's Famous Gladiator Painting (Pollice Verso) of 1872

Outline or extempore? Which writing gladiator do you favour? (Image: Wikimedia)

King does not use an outline, nor does he compile a set of notes on his chosen characters. He writes a rough draft in no more than three months, the time limit being entirely self-imposed. The draft then undergoes a modest revision and gets a thorough edit. King believes the rough draft must be essentially sound because an unsound draft cannot be saved by revision and editing. In other words, he sees major rewrites as a waste of time. The goal is to produce a finished book. It is quicker to start again from scratch with another work. The “toss it” tactic is ruthless, and I am not sure all writers could do this (I certainly could not), but it obviously does work for King.

Literary types will swoon at a comparison between Henry James and Stephen King, but one can be made. James believed that a novel should grow from its basic idea as an oak tree grows from an acorn. That is, every novel starts with a surprisingly small idea. King writes: “The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a what-if question: what if vampires invaded a small New England village…” For King, an interesting situation is the starting point for any story. With his situation as his only guide, he makes a start. This would be suicide for me (and for many who use outlines, I suspect), yet King turns out book after book as he demonstrates his amazing ability to improvise.

King writes that, for him, a story is “found,” and then excavated like a fossil. The nature of the story determines the character of the protagonist, antagonist, and so on. Here, he applies a few rules. Characters must behave reasonably, given what we know of them, yet in ways that further the interests of the story. The story always comes first. Astonishingly, even the theme is not determined until the first draft is complete. He examines his draft and discovers the theme, then revises the second draft to bring out the found theme and to highlight any symbolism that might have emerged. This is an admission that, for King, the writing process is either largely intuitive or quite haphazard. He starts with his situation, writes his story, and then has a look to see what it all might mean. Having settled on a meaning, he nudges his ducks into a row.

I know from personal experience that not all writers can work this way, but given the current popularity of the approach, I thought it might be worth examining Stephen King’s interesting version.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

18 thoughts on “Stephen King’s Work Habits”

  1. I write like Stephen King, but without the discipline, and it has its downside.
    Sometimes if the story is not coming I just walk away, never to return. Or sometimes as soon as I know the ending the joy of the project goes away and I never write it.
    I have recently be able to make myself finish several short stories, but the idea of writing a novel is so intimidating. I have started so many and then never finished.
    I have thought an outline would help, but when I try to do that I just stare at the page. Nothing comes, I don’t know these characters so I have no idea what they are likely to do.

  2. Hi, Thomas. Its been some years since I read “On Writing.” I need to pick that sucker back up. I find people’s writing process fascinating. I’m not sure what category I fit into, honestly–pantser, outliner. Maybe neither? Both? Still–the fact that King can walk away from something when he knows he’s just spinning his wheels says a lot. Its something we all can learn from. Thanks for the analysis!

  3. Glad you liked the post! I think most people who write are interested in the work habits of other writers. When reading books like On Writing, I’m always eager to compare my own methods and experience with those of the author. There’s usually something to be learned. Stephen King is so wildly successful many writers have borrowed his techniques as is and simply made them their own.

  4. Weaving Reality, what you say about endings is actually a common problem for writers. Many authors who don’t use outlines claim that knowing the ending too far ahead kills the whole project. In other words, they write extempore so they can savour the story and its characters as they unfold on the page. For them, this process of revelation and discovery is the joy of writing. If you are like this, then outlining is definitely not for you.

    For me, the secret to outlining is to make notes about my original idea. Any stray plot element, setting detail, image, or character trait will do. I collect these bits and pieces in a file and sort them by timeline. That is, I guess where material will fit in and place it there until I see some reason to move it. Over time, a shadowy outline appears. When I think it’s ready, I go in and edit the thing into some semblance of order. It’s amazing how the mind begins to tie everything together. With this method, you can easily go back and add outline material that hints at what comes later, or sets up for it more clearly. The result is a well-constructed story.

  5. Dan, I agree that King’s ability to walk away from books that aren’t working is an asset. This is the writer’s way of making like a stock market investor and cutting his losses! But it’s hard to ditch something you’ve put a lot of work into and probably invested in emotionally along the way. I get hung up. I know many other writers do as well. Maybe it all comes down to discipline. King has it. Many of us don’t.

  6. “Stand by Me” is a favourite of mine as well, Lucinda. I also like “Dolores Claiborne.” Critics say that great writers are often prolific, but are remembered for a few of their best works while the rest of their output is forgotten. Stephen King may yet end up in that category.

  7. He’s probably also got a good gauge on what will sell or not. I don’t. My first thought when I write something is,”Is this any good?” Never mind if it will sell. I just ain’t at that level yet. Heh. Would be nice to be able to, though.

  8. I think verbosity is a price often paid by those who write extempore. When a work is not planned and well-structured it’s more likely to ramble as the author feels his way forward, sometimes going down blind alleys. Oddly, many readers seem to enjoy all the beating around the bush. I don’t read King either (I watch the movies), but my ex couldn’t get enough of him.

  9. King undoubtedly has developed sound instincts, but don’t forget the “Carrie” story. His wife fished the manuscript out of the wastepaper basket after King had given up on it. That book launched his career. I think as a rookie you just write to the best of your ability and put it out there. The marketplace will tell you whether its sellable or not, and after a while you get a feel for what’s wanted and what’s not.

  10. I loved the fact that the short story he began as an example for “On Writing” (1408) of how to write a draft and edit it fascinated him so much that he had to complete it — and that it’s included in a collection of his short stories

  11. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Cathy. King’s work habits reveal him as both a master of imaginative improvisation and a superb exploiter of story situations and opportunities. I think the “1408” anecdote is a perfect example of these skills in action, one that sheds light on his phenomenal ability to produce. Few writers ever match his level of output so we can all learn something from studying Mr. King.

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