Published: October 3, 2000.
“This has taught me more about the writing craft than any other book I’ve read.”
What Is ‘On Writing’ About?
Part memoir, part master class, Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing (A Memoir Of The Craft)’ is a revealing and practical view on the writer’s craft.
Listing the basic tools of the trade and offering his grounded advice, this is a unique opportunity to understand the lessons Stephen learnt during his journey to become an international best selling author.
Why Did I Read ‘On Writing’?
As a writer that’s constantly reading to improve my own technique or craft or whatever you want to call it, this book came across as essential reading. I should have read this book a long time ago, but in summary: I read this book to help me become a better writer.
What I Liked About ‘On Writing’
I loved the introduction of this book, it pulls you into Stephen’s life and builds a foundation of trust before he starts hitting you with techniques and advice on the craft. He didn’t need to do this, after all it’s Stephen King, but he sets the stage before the lecture. He also makes it clear that this is not an autobiography – as he puts it, this is more his CV.
The first third of this book is Stephen reciting his time growing up, working various low paid jobs and “repeating his mother’s life”. He then takes you through his initial manuscript submissions and how he learnt not to staple manuscripts. He touches on dealing with rejection letters, dealing with criticism and his very first novel (not Carrie).
He then covers his envisagement of Carrie and how he struggled with the novel being an all female cast ‘planet female’. Apparently he threw away his first attempt and his wife had to fish it out of the bin before convincing him to stay with it.
He mentions his growing addiction to alcohol at the time and how he hid it from his family, before the eventual acceptance that he had become a full blown alcoholic. He also relates this to ‘The Shining’ on how its about an alcoholic ex-school teacher which mirrored where he was in his own life.
A surprise to me was that King became addicted to drugs. He explains how ‘Misery’ reflected his state of mind and ‘Tommy Knockers’ was a metaphor for the control that drugs had over him. He had also developed a fear that his addiction to drugs and alcohol was linked with his more successful novels and was needed to fuel his creativity.
He talks candidly at how his wife stepped in to organise an intervention, fearful that they were watching his suicide in slow motion.
By the second third of the book King starts to get into talking about the writing process – his advice and tips of the craft.
Firstly Stephen King recommends that all writers read William Strunk Jr’s The Elements of Style – I have duly added this to my list.
I’ve put the notes I made from his advice below:
He talks of how writing to a reader can be interpreted as a form of telepathy. Images are described in books and readers will make their own pictures in their heads, but too much detail isn’t necessary or even interesting. Readers want a guide not an instruction manual. Description begins in the mind of the author but it ends in the mind of the reader.
King is a big fan of comparisons, he uses an example narration regarding a bar which, on entry, he compares to a cave. It’s done vaguely enough so that it would encourage the reader to access their own memories, envisage the bars and caves that they’ve experienced. The point being that if the description is vague enough the reader will fill the space with their own thoughts and images, which helps them to become more invested. It’s a clever trick, though in the same breath he attacks lazy comparisons; “She looked like a summers day” for example. He insists that comparisons need to be used to inspire the reader and requests that authors try to be more clever on this. Examples of better uses are given, I particularly liked: “He lit a cigarette, it tasted like a plumbers handkerchief.”
King recommends that an author builds a ‘toolbox’ of tricks. Vocabulary is on the top shelf, along with grammar and elements of style.
On vocabulary, he suggests that you don’t make a conscious effort to improve it. Simply read as much as you can, when you can.
Always use the first word that comes to mind, at least at the first draft stage. The use of long extravagant words can be harmful and feel out of place. The rewrite is where you polish.
He believes that fear is the root cause to almost all bad writing, fear that the reader will fail to understand what you (as an author) are trying to say. Because of this fear we over complicate our sentences, include unnecessary words and unnecessary adverbs.
On the point of adverbs, Stephen King is a huge advocate on the use of the word: ‘said’, rather than ‘said softly’ or ‘said gleefully’. He feels that if you’ve described the scene properly you shouldn’t need to add these unnecessary adverbs to your story. That being said he acknowledges he’s no saint when it comes to this subject.
He decided not to get to technical on the details of grammar, but insists not to use your lack of understanding as an excuse. A writer who grasps the formula to forming a sentence is comforted by it’s simplicity. On the flip side “language doesn’t always have to be in a suit and a tie”, the idea is that language should be welcoming to the reader and tell them an engaging story. This doesn’t always mean perfect grammar.
We then come to the importance of dialogue. Principally the advice here is never to tell a thing if you can show it instead. For example don’t explain that a man did bad at school, if you can say it in dialogue. Well crafted dialogue will indicate if a character is smart or dumb. Honest or dishonest. It will give the reader more subtle details than allow them to paint their own picture.
Dialogue is a skill best learnt by people who like to listen and understand the beats from real conversation. Loaners will likely struggle with dialogue and fail to create something realistic.
He gives several examples of bad dialogue to amplifier this point.
The key to writing good dialogue is honesty, but he warns that true dialogue will leave you open to criticism. King frequently receives complaint letters from people declaring him a homophobe, racist or psychopath due to the dialogue some of his characters have used – but it’s important to tell the truth: if you substitute ‘Oh sugar’ for ‘Oh shit’ because you’re worried about the legion of decency you’re breaking an unwritten contract between writer and reader to tell the truth. Don’t be a coward.
On discussing theme, King warns that when you write a book you spend weeks upon weeks scanning the trees, but when it’s done you have to step back and scan the forest.
Not every book needs a theme, but symbolism and themes can sometimes be found and crafted in the second draft. If it’s there and you notice it, bring it out until it shines and then cut it like a diamond. King recites how on the first read of his draft for Carrie, he noticed there was the theme of blood and dug deep to bring that out – but if it’s not there don’t go looking for it.
King also discusses writers block and how he went on long walks when struggling with ‘The Stand’. In the end his discovery of the story’s theme helped him address the block.
He urges two drafts, one with the door closed and one with the door open. Write rapidly at first to outrun the self doubt, but don’t let your work out the door unless you feel confident that its reader friendly.
The first draft is not when to look for meaning. You need time to rest after the first draft. Six weeks is suggested. In the meantime King recommends you start something else. When you read your first draft it should feel alien, but strangely familiar – like reading the work of a twin. During this process you’ll likely find the plot holes and be able to question character motivation.
The intention of a rewrite is to clarify the story and tidy up any ambiguity without spoon feeding.
Use a collection of people to read your draft and collate their opinions. He encourages that you accept and work with your feedback – not react defensively. If everyone comes back with similar problem – then you’ve got a problem.
He also stands by a formula. The second draft = first draft minus 10%.
Pace is the speed in which your narrative unfolds.
There’s a modern belief that the most successful stories are fast paced, but Stephen openly declares this to be “bullshit”.
Move too fast and you risk losing or confusing your reader. Stephen prefers the slow build, but you need scope to both sprint and walk.
He’s not so keen on using flashbacks either – “I’m an A to Z man”, but he advocates that the reader must understand the motivation and history of the characters if they’re to care. But bear in mind: a) Everyone has a history, b) Most of it isn’t interesting.
Also be careful with your research, it’s back story nothing more, use it when it’s important but story belongs front and centre at all times. Your readers are going to be interested in the characters and the story. Write the story first, the research can follow to support it.
OTHER IMPORTANT TIPS
What I Didn’t Like About ‘On Writing’
I guess the truth hurts, especially when Stephen is openly attacking the techniques that I myself have used (particularly the use of adverbs).
In direct contradiction to what I said I liked about this book, the opening third is a bit of a tease if, like me, you’re dying to get to the advice and make some notes.
I’m clutching at straws, I think…
Good Or Bad?
Was it any good? Very. This has taught me more about the writing craft than any other book I’ve read. In some parts his advice was common sense but the rest was inspiring, albeit a little crushing at times, but I guess it was important to read this so that I could learn and move on.
Would I recommend it? Yes, this is essential reading for writers.
Would I read it again? Yes, this is a long post for good reason, I’m writing to myself if no one else, I suspect I’ll refer back to this many times over.
What’s on the list?
The Lafayette Campaign by Andrew Updegrove
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
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David P. Philip