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Review: Stephen King, On Writing (1 Viewer)

kenewbie

Senior Member
Disclaimer #1: So, I realize that there is a zillion-page thread on the book that frequently gets bumped here, I could have posted in that. But, seeing as I promised myself to write reviews of the books I read, I figured what the hey, someone can just lock this if it's against policy.

Disclaimer #2: This is the first Stephen King book I've ever read. I've seen quite a few awkward and low-budget movie adaptations though. Which is probably why I've shunned his books.

The book is divided into 2 main parts. The first is autobiographical, retelling bits of the authors life from childhood and up to the present day. The second part is where he actually gives advice on writing.

While the first part is interesting, even for someone like me with no real ties to the authors work, I bought the book to get advice on writing. Some of the anecdotes in the first part are related to writing, but most are not. I had to fight the urge to just skip forward to the second part. Not that the bits of life are uninteresting or bland, quite the opposite, but I don't think this this was the place for them. The reader of the book is, at least in my case, looking for ideas on writing. When half the book is about something else, impatience is lurking close by.

He even said he wanted this book to be as short as possible, citing "The Elements of Style" as a role model of sorts, which made the choice to add childhood memories even stranger to me.

But if you are a fan that wants an insight into King's life, this is good reading. The story about how Carrie was sold is gripping, then funny, then gripping again. The accident that nearly killed him is inspiring in way.

So, with that out of the way, on to Part II.

If you extract a list of definitive Do's and Don't's, it'll be a very short one. No part of that list will be news to anyone that has frequented this forum for a while.

Read a lot, write a lot, use an active voice, stay away from adverbs, avoid needless words, cut down the length of the story by 10% during your second draft.

Anyone who expects to come out of the book holding a 32-point list of "how to write good stories" will be disappointed, but that is not King's fault. No such list can be made.

He takes quite a broad approach, which makes this book better suited for writers of some experience than total beginners, in my opinion. You need to be at a certain point with your writing before advice like "avoid showing your work until the complete first draft is done" makes any sense. It may be sound advice even for a beginner, but it is pretty far down the list of his worries. Also, it is tied quite closely to the way King writes, and only makes sense it that context. More on that later.

First, another, and kind of controversial point. King claims that a good writer can never become great, that a bad writer can never become good, but that a competent writer can, with practice, become good.

I respectfully disagree with this statement. I concede that not everyone can become a great writer. There are few Dostoevskys, Kafkas and Ibsens, just as there are few Babe Ruths, Tiger Woods and John Mcenroes, few Lockes, Humes and Hegels. But I see no reason why anyone can't become a good writer.

Writing is a skill, and skills are learned all the time. What proficiency you reach is simply a product of dedication and time. This is true for all other skills, why not writing? Sure, it may come easier to some than to others, but to think that good writing - say on King's own level - is unobtainable by some? I'd really need to see some convincing rationale before I could agree to such a statement, and King offers none.

There is another problem with that statement as well: How do you know what level you are at, and if you have reached your peak? Everyone starts out writing badly. How can you tell if this is as good as you will get, or if competent is waiting a few more stories away. You can't, of course, unless you write those stories and see. Which makes the whole point moot. If the goodness was lurking inside waiting to be sprung, or if it was cultivated out of badness through trial and failure, is philosophical and irrelevant.

But back to some of the advice. "Read a lot", is good advice. King reads 80 books each year. That's one book every 4.5 days. Unless you are a professional writer, I think a lot of people will have trouble finding the time to read that much. If you are holding down a day job, maybe have a family, and want to write in addition to that, something has to give. The advice is good, even if reaching King's standard is utopical for many.

So, what is the main text of Part II? King spends a whole lot of time explaining his own approach to writing: He does not plot, or have detailed ideas and spreadsheets, he "puts his characters in a room and watch them react". I've always cringed at statements like that, they sounded pretentious to me. But recently I think I've come to understand it better.

I think it is worth noting that said advice comes from a horror / sci-fi writer, where you are pretty much free to do all sorts of things if you write yourself into a corner. You have less leeway if you are writing closer to reality. Some genres benefit a lot from plotting, like say crime. Then again, Agatha Christie reportedly just "sat down and wrote", so what the hell do I know. If you can get that sort of plot complexities to unravel themselves as you go, then that is something to aspire to, at least.

Much of the later advice in the book is related to kings modus operandi, so I wont go into that here.

What is interesting is that - and this is very much this readers opinion - King describes a sort of dumb-persons-guide-to-writing. He does not know how he does a lot of things, which makes the information tricky to share. The things he does know, like establishing themes, using metaphors and such, comes as an afterthought.

This does not strike me as the approach of a brilliant writer. He goes through the first draft, looking for things that are accidentally there and then brings them further out in the rewrite. Initially, there is no deliberate depth to his stories or ideas.

This is perhaps my main gripe with his approach, but I think it also explains his statement about how a bad writer can never become good. Given that the depth of what you write is accidental, rather than at the front of your mind when you are writing it, I concur. Writing randomly and hoping for a masterpiece wont happen. If however, you practice at weaving pre-established themes into your work, you will get better at it. You might still not become Kafka, but if you find them in your own writing as an afterthought, the chance of getting better is pretty much none.

So, I've gone on for long enough now. I'd recommend the book to anyone who isn't an "established name". Although the first part is not technically about writing, some of it is inspirational at least. Also, I'd recommend the book to a fan looking for biographical type material. Both of these people would get a better book if it was split and the two parts elaborated on, then sold separately. But it is far from a show-stopper.

k
 

wmd

Senior Member
I found this book very inspirational and have read it a couple of times. I like to read memiors and this is one of the better ones that i have read.

You should gather from the title that this is not a writing handbook. This is one authors views on writing. The second half of the book should stir the muse and plant inspiration.. While you will get some technical advice from it you should not reading it expecting to get step by step instructions.

which made the choice to add childhood memories even stranger to me.

Because this was a memior, not a handbook.


He takes quite a broad approach
I think this is what makes the book better... there are a lot of frustrated writers out there that read books that say "do this this and this" and when that does not work for them, they give up.

King takes a broad approach because you have to. Everyone will be different so King wrote the book with the intention of planting seeds and showing how a writer can develop himself.

All in all I think it is a good book and would suggest it to anyone.
 
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