On Writing (2000) | virtual book

On Writing (2000)

A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King

#reviews #books #memoir #nonfiction #writing Mentioned in what I'm doing now, where do ideas come from?, where do ideas come from? #2, Stephen King's writing advice, what I'm doing now

Half memoir, half advice for aspiring fiction writers. Both good.

I enjoy and mostly trust his

writing advice

Stephen King's writing advice

#notes #writing Mentioned in On Writing (2000)

King’s advice is mostly for fiction, but some of it applies to non-fiction, too.

big picture

Read a lot. Four hours per day. Take one day off per week, if you must.

Write a lot. The same number of pages every day. Don’t stop until you’re done, even on slow days.

technical stuff

Don’t describe too much. Depict a scene with a few, vivid details. Let the reader’s imagination dictate what characters look like. Let context tell the reader how characters are acting. Avoid adverbs like the plague.

Use simple verbs. Use “said” for dialogue attribution.

Work hard on your dialogue. Make it as true as possible.

Learn grammar. Grow your vocabulary.

writing process

Don’t come up with the plot of your story,

discover it

. Start with an interesting situation. Put your character in it and see how they react.

After you finish your first draft, put it away. Work on other things for some time. Resist the temptation to go back and see if that inspired passage really is brilliant. Or if that other chunk needs work. Wait.

This is a fertile time to work on something else, a short story, an article, something unrelated.

After a few weeks, when you’re ready to write a second draft, take the first draft out of the drawer. Wielding a pen and the critical distance you developed by waiting, go to work. Read the whole thing in the fewest possible sessions, marking the draft with notes of the things that must change.

The whole process should take three or four drafts. The final one should be more compact, not longer than the first one.

Write for your Ideal Reader: a single person (or persona), whose tastes you aim to please. Get feedback on your draft from a few, trusted people. Listen to them, but also listen to your gut.


This is yet


Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2014)

by Herbie Hancock

#reviews #books #memoir #jazz Mentioned in On Writing (2000)

The audiobook narrated by Herbie is great. His impression of Miles is hilarious.

It’s not a beautifully written memoir like Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Tara Westover’s


, but it’s a worthy story. It’s fascinating to see how Herbie’s collaborations pushed his career forward and how he

reinvented himself

over and over, always curious about whether something could be done. Herbie shows how openness, curiosity, and determination can keep your work interesting for a long, long time.

My main complaint is about

the format

. Herbie’s music was nowhere to be found, not even in the audiobook. And his descriptions are a poor alternative.

book that should be made


what is a virtual book?

#notes #writing #mediums Mentioned in On Writing (2000), what is this site?, what is this site? #2, what I'm doing now

I wrote an essay called The Virtual Book but I never defined the term. By virtual book I mean a book unbound by the traditional and physical constraints of printed books. I say ‘virtual’ because the greatest possibilities I see are in the virtual world of computers. Ebooks and audiobooks are just the beginning. The possibilities that excite me challenge not only the physicality of books but also their more subtle attributes.

A virtual book can be multi-media. It can consist of words, images, video, audio. There, we got the obvious one out of the way.

A virtual book can be reader-driven. Instead of forcing readers to follow the author’s thought process, a virtual book can let each reader steer the way. Wikipedia does this already. It lets you search the page for keywords, skip to the section you’re interested in, and even escape into a tangential topic, never to return. This is a natural way to consume Wikipedia because its form affords it.

Books generally have one start and one ending, but a virtual book can be non-linear. Wikipedia is again the obvious example. But letting the reader drive is only one way to create a non-linear book. It’s also possible to create multiple entrypoints, or even multiple endings, like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

A virtual book can be dynamic. It can change after its initial creation. Printed books, on the other hand, are static snapshots laboriously rendered by a particular author at a particular time. But what if a theory is debunked? Or a hypothesis confirmed? Or a record shattered? Or, in the case of story-telling, what if a loose end can be tied up neatly?

A virtual book can be non-monolithic. It does not need to be discrete or self-contained. It can consist of many interconnected parts that make up the whole but can exist without it. It can reference other virtual books, borrow bits from them, and lend bits of its own. For example, if Herbie Hancock’s memoir was a virtual audiobook, it could allow its snippets to be reconstrued into a documentary about jazz. (If Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary series was also ‘virtualized’, it could have been updated 15 years after its release to include bits of Herbie’s narration.) In fact, it could provide material for documentaries about many different topics: jazz, funk, hip hop, Miles Davis, Black Nationalism, Nichiren Buddhism, meditation, and crack addictions, to name some of the obvious ones.

A virtual book can be responsive. What if a reader could expect a book to field spontaneous questions? ChatGPT is an obvious candidate here, but the possibility is broader. What if Herbie Hancock returned to his memoir every now and then to answer questions that readers had left behind while reading it? What if readers could raise flags on issues that fact-checkers would then verify or return to the author for amendment?

The possibilities are plenty, and they are thrilling. The difficulty in realizating them is not technological, but legal and political. Powerful companies – and therefore governments – are hugely incentivized to prevent the free exchange of “intellectual property”. To make virtual books possible, we need not only the technological power of software, but also its progressive politics.

Dedicated to Aaron Swartz.


It consists of three distinct parts: a memoir of King’s life; advice for fiction writers; and a vignette about King’s near-death experience. (Really, it consists of two different types of writing: memoir and practical advice.) King claims that he included the memoir to contextualize his fiction, but I don’t buy it. I suspect he set out to write this book without a coherent vision for it. In fact, that’s how he usually writes!

I am glad he wrote all three parts. And they don’t go terribly together. But they’d go better with many other things, too, including things written by other people.

The simplest way to make this book virtual is to publish it digitally as three separate pieces that readers can choose to consume as they see fit. This is already an improvement. Aspiring writers could jump directly to the second piece – the one that is actually King’s thoughts “on writing” – and King’s fans could hear about their beloved author’s background and personal life without having to hear his opinions on grammar and diction.

Each of the three pieces could be divided into smaller chunks. The piece about writing, for example, could be broken down into King’s thoughts on dialogue, his thoughts on grammar, on character depiction, plot design, etc. The book is already organized into chapters, but they cannot be consumed independently of the book. If the chapters were designed to exist independently, they could be easily linked to by other works: books, articles, websites, videos, etc. King’s book would be only one of many pieces that contained his memoirs and his thoughts on writing.