On Writing – Stephen King

Sometimes such a tremendous book comes along you have to lay aside everything else you’re reading. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen Edwin King is one of those books. The last one that had that power was Consilience by Wilson.

King, On Writing Cover Illustration

King, On Writing Cover Illustration

Hmmm, what’s in the cellar?

Assiduous readers will know that I’ve been reading style guides and ‘how-to’ books on writing lately. Big King fan JC in the 90s had persuaded me to try reading ‘The Long Walk’, a short story by King. I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. JC also told me that King had written a book on writing horror. Now that is in line with what I like. It’s always been in the back of my mind to read it. It would be like learning about comedy from Seinfeld: learning from the master.

So I picked up On Writing at the library. But looking at the publication date (2000), this wasn’t the right book! It turns out Danse Macabre is the book that JC had mentioned. But no matter. On Writing fits the bill of what I’m looking for: some tips on how to write for readers.

King, On Writing Back Blurb

‘If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write’.

In 1999, Stephen King began to write about his craft–and his life. By midyear, a widely reported accident jeopardized the survival of both. And in his months of recovery, the link between writing and living became more crucial than ever.

Rarely has a book on writing been so clear, so useful, and so revealing. On Writing begins with a mesmerizing account of King’s childhood and his uncannily early focus on writing to tell a story. A series of vivid memories from adolescence, college, and the stuffing years that led up to his first novel, Carrie, will afford readers a fresh and often very funny perspective on the formation of a writer. King next turns to the basic tools of his trade–how to sharpen and multiply them through use, and how the writer must always have them close at hand. He takes the reader through crucial aspects of the writer’s art and life, offering practical and inspiring advice on everything from plot and character development to work habits and rejection.

Serialized in the New Yorker to vivid acclaim, On Writing culminates with a profoundly moving account of how King’s overwhelming need to write spurred him toward recovery, and brough him back to his life.

Brilliantly structure, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower–and entertain–everyone who reads it.

Wow, the back blurb wasn’t written by King: he hates adverbs. Most of the time.

The Book

The book is part autobiography, part style guide, part analysis of his own novels, and part about living. The best way to put it is that it’s a book on the writing lifestyle: writing and life are intertwined. To prove the point, King even has tips on where to place furniture:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you site down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

Oops, my writing table is smack dab in the middle of the living room…the sign of an apprentice writer!

It’s refreshing to read King after reading the other style guides. King doesn’t like pretentious writing books either. The only one that passes his ‘bullshit rule’ is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. King advocates simple writing. I love one of his examples:

He came to the river. The river was there.

That’s no less a writer than Hemingway.

Now, every style guide advocates simple writing. But King provides good and bad examples from his works and others. They are entertaining examples. That’s what makes this book good: you want to read it.

But there are places where he taught me something new. For example, he talks about paragraphs, and how to make paragraphs look nice and inviting to readers. The first thing readers do, even before they start reading, is they scan the page: how to the paragraphs look? Easy? Or do they look big and daunting? I had never thought of that. Thanks, King! I will make paragraphs shorter and more evenly sized! Why didn’t I think of that? Or someone else, for that matter?

King advocates honesty. Write about things you know about. That’s what he does. His characters are the types of people he runs across. Even when he was run down, as he was going in and out of consciousness, it struck him that the careless driver was someone straight out of his novels. Even the advice he gives writers is deadly honest: if you can’t write, his book isn’t going to help you. Nothing will. The most his book can do is make a competent writer a good writer. Going from bad to good is out of the question. Going from good to great is also out of the question. That’s what genes are for.

Although King talks about fiction writing, the wisdom is transferable to any sort of writing. Writing to King is just like a toolbox. There may be special tools for fiction writing, but in the fiction toolbox are all the sorts of tools you’d make everything else with too. Yes, he uses the toolbox analogy. His writing toolbox is actually modelled after his uncle’s toolbox. I like this book. Things are real. You can touch them. It’s not one of those writing books filled with linguistic theory. When I read those books I feel like they are bashing me over the head with a hammer.

So why write?

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. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.

Damn, I like that! Speaking of getting happy, I am happy to have read this fine book! And now I think I will have to read The Stand somewhere down the line…in another twenty years maybe…

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m getting happy by Doing Melpomene’s Work.

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