Stephen King Used These 8 Writing Strategies to Sell 350 Million Books
The best-selling novelist shares his secrets to selling so many books.
by Glenn Leibowitz
Stephen King is one of the most prolific and commercially successful authors of the past half century, with more than 70 books of horror, science fiction, and fantasy to his name. Estimates put the total sales of his books at between 300 and 350 million copies.
16 years ago, King shared everything he knows about writing in a book that instantly became a bestseller: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Part memoir, part codification of his best writing strategies, the book has become a classic among writers.
I discovered – and devoured – it a dozen years ago, when I was trying to take my writing to the next level. I recommend it to all of my writer friends.
You don’t have to be a fan of King’s writing to appreciate the wisdom within the pages of this book. Nor do you have to be a novelist: The book has highly practical strategies that writers of nonfiction can immediately apply to their writing.
Here are eight writing strategies King shares that have helped him sell 350 million books:
1. Tell the truth.
“Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all… as long as you tell the truth… Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work… What you know makes you unique in some other way. Be brave.”
2. Don’t use big words when small ones work.
“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 your household pet in evening clothes.”
3. Use single-sentence paragraphs.
“The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all.
The single-sentence paragraph more closely resembles talk than writing, and that’s good. Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. If not so, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?”
4. Write for your Ideal Reader.
“Someone – I can’t remember who, for the life of me – once wrote that all novels are really letters aimed at one person. As it happens, I believe this.
I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’ For me that first reader is my wife, Tabitha… Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader.”
5. Read a lot.
“Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows. Waiting rooms were made for books – of course! But so are theater lobbies before the show, long and boring checkout lines, and everyone’s favorite, the john.”
6. Write one word at a time.
“In an early interview (this was to promote Carrie, I think), a radio talk-show host asked me how I wrote. My reply – ’One word at a time’– seemingly left him without a reply. I think he was trying to decide whether or not I was joking. I wasn’t. In the end, it’s always that simple.”
7. Write every day.
“The truth is that when I’m writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday (at my age you try to ignore your goddam birthday anyway)… When I’m writing, it’s all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damned good.”
8. Write for the joy of it.
“Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it… Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side – I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”