On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I’ve come down in the middle on this book. It was unique and full of solid, sagely advice, but felt uneven. As I mentioned, this is the only King book I’ve read, and I was very impressed with his ability. He’s no doubt the type of writer who’s not fully appreciated in the canon because of the material with which he’s decided to work.

The first section of the book, titled "C.V.," deals with Mr. King's youth, education, family, and the beginnings of his writing career. This was well written--excellent similes, pacing, and a wry, conversational tone--but was also clearly written for fans of his many other works. These vignettes describe how he grew up and where some of his inspiration and story ideas came from. I suspect these fans appreciated this section more than I could.

The second and third sections, "Toolbox" and "On Writing," outline and illustrate his writing advice, which lacked structure but was all swell. He begins with the exhortation to take writing seriously, advice I’ve given quite often to new writers, in particular those reluctant to hone and refine their book after the first or second draft. "Do not come lightly to the blank page," writes King. "It's writing, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can't or won't, it's time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe."

The last section of the book, "On Living," describes an accident King was involved in and harkens back to the first section of the book in its first-person narrative. I’m not sure if it was the tone of the book (light-hearted and conversational), the angle at which we see the accident and subsequent recovery, or the fact that I’m cold-hearted, but I was little affected by the story. It seemed a throw-in, something more important to writer than reader.

As a writer, the most inspiration I received was from King's metaphor of paddling across the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. Having spent seven years as a professional editor, I have developed an occupational hazard that can severely stymie my writing efforts. When it comes to freewriting a first draft, putting on the page the first cliché or adverb that comes to my head and moving on, I'm caught in two minds. This idea of furiously paddling before the waves of self-doubt sink my tub is valuable, and something I will carry with me.

Since mentioning I was reading this book I’ve received emails and messages from many friends and authors who are big fans of it, and I’m glad to hear that these writers are taking the time to learn from one of the masters. As the father once told his son, “Find a man you want to be like, and sit at his feet.” Soaking up advice from a man as prolific and skilled as Stephen King can only make you a better writer.

A few quotes for good measure:

On Description:
"Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's...Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first that come to mind. Remember that it's as easy to overdescribe as it is to underdescribe."

On Characters:
"It's also important to remember that no one is 'the bad guy,' or 'the best friend,' or 'the whore with the heart of gold' in real life; in real life each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, big cheese; the character is on us, baby. If you can bring this attitude to your fiction...it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction."

"Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing and hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see and hear with equal clarity (and without using a lot of tiresome, unnecessary adverbs)."

On Reading:
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write...Reading is the creative center of a writer's life."

"One learns most clearly by reading bad prose--one bad novel is worth a semester at a good writing school."

"Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling...Being swept away by a compbination of great story and great writing--of being flattened, in fact--is a part of every wrier's necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

On "Inspiration":
"There is a muse, but he's not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and sprinkle creative fairy dust all over your computer. He lives in the ground. He's a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. He may not be much to look at, and he may not be much of a coversationalist, but he's got the inspiration. It's right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life."


Metamorphiction said...

I really admire Stephen King. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of the memoir.

Cynthia said...

I have read many of Stephen King's book and love his writing style. Looks like I have to get a copy of this book as well.

Anonymous said...

I love Stephen King's portrayal of inspiration. It is right on! I have only seen some of his movies, now I'll read a book or two, since they are a challenge to my sensitivities, maybe that's what they are meant to achieve.

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