Unleash your creativity with advice from Stephen King

My summary and notes on Stephen King’s book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.”

Photo by Shelby Miller on Unsplash

Companies’ creative people spend most of their time conducting post-its workshops, communicating their ideas to gain buy-in, executing project plans, and removing obstacles.

But how about incredible creative people outside companies? Like artists? Specifically bestselling fiction book writers?

In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King gives us some of his creative methods. It’s a chance to have an exceptional story innovator sharing his process from ideation to development while describing his experiences as a writer.

As an innovation leader or enthusiast, whether you are interested in being a good writer or not, I recommend reading this book as you might be interested in some of the concepts.

Indeed, in a sort of way, crafting a book for readers is quite similar to crafting an innovative product for customers. I found similarities with business product development in the book but also counter-intuitive and unique approaches that might be interesting to apply.

In this article, I’ll answer the questions I had before reading the book by picking quotes that most impacted me:

  1. How to find innovative ideas?
  2. How to develop an idea into an innovative story?
  3. What is the creation process?
  4. What is the role of readers during this process?
  5. How to be a better writer?

#1: How to find innovative ideas?

  • Be alert.

Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

  • Determine a time of day to unleash creativity repeatedly.

You train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

  • Start by imitating.

Stylistic imitation is one thing, a perfectly honorable way to get started as a writer.

  • Ask, “What if?”

The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.

#2: How to develop an idea into an innovative story?

  • Don’t use plots.

I distrust plot for two reasons: first because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

  • Let it grow organically.

My basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.

#3: What is the creation process?

  • Distinguish two stages.

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.

#3.1: Write with the door closed

  • Find your place where you can close the door.

Most of us do our best in a place of our own.

  • Be disciplined

By the time you step into your new writing space and close the door, you should have settled on a daily writing goal.

  • Be constant.

I like to get ten pages a day.

  • Go fast.

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to.

  • Use your free time also to think about it.

For me, not working is the real work.

  • Don’t give up.

Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.

  • Don’t forget that the project may seem huge but comes in a simple task.

A radio talk-show host asked me how I wrote. My reply — “one word at a time.”

#3.2: Rewrite with the door open

  • Take a step back.

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.

  • Remove the unnecessary.

When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story, he said. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.

  • Don’t get attached to what makes you proud.

Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, ‘Murder your darlings,’ and he was right.

#4: What is the role of readers during this process?

  • Be reader-centric.

The reader must always be your main concern.

  • Think of a specific reader.

All novels are really letters aimed at one person.

  • Enrich their lives.

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

#5: How to be a better writer?

  • Practice.

It is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

  • Build your toolbox.

To write to your best abilities, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you.

  • Be resilient to failure.

If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.

How the book upgraded me

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the creative effort to write a book has several points in common with any innovation effort, even in companies.

In art, as in business, innovators connect unrelated fields, start by imitating, upset the status quo with their “What if?” questions, and are resilient to failure.

There are precisely 4 points that caught my attention:

  • We can train our minds to unleash creativity by being daily at the same time and place in front of a blank page and starting to write without waiting for the muses.
  • An idea grows organically into a concept. We don’t need a plot to build an incredible story, and we don’t need a plan to build an astonishing innovation. Best moves are made through experimentation, trial and error, unplanned progress, and unexpected opportunities. It’s how nature works.
  • We are better innovators when we start by closing the door and thinking by ourselves. This is why brainstorming in companies so often fails to deliver insights. It’s better to ideate alone first, then share and confront ideas with the group.
  • Even for artistic work, being customer-centric is critical.

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