ON WRITING is better than I thought it would be. It's marvelous. I finished it in less than two days.
In the First Forward, Stephen King observes that popular novelists are never "asked about the language" when queried by admiring fans. Thus, he states:
"What follows is an attempt to put down , briefly and simply, how I came to the craft (of telling stories on paper), what I know about it now, and how it's done. It's about the day job; it's about the language."
In the first hundred or so pages, King shares his experiences growing up in Maine and Connecticut, his marriage, his struggles as a novice writer, and his drug and alcohol problems. King intends this section not as an autobiography, but as a curriculum vitae. It ends with the assignment of the paperback rights to CARRIE, his first novel.
In the next 150 pages, the author describes how he performs his craft. He explains the "tools" of writing (vocabulary and grammar), the creative environment (the room, the door, the determination to close the door, and the music - Hard Rock in King's case), style and formatting (paragraphing, narration, description, and dialogue), and the final stretch to a finished piece (drafts, editing, and proofreading by a trusted friend - wife/author Tabitha in King's case).
The final few pages, in a way, are the most interesting. It's Stephen's account of the road accident in 1999 that inflicted multiple fractures to his ribs and lower body, and the effect the mishap had on his writing. Ironically enough, he'd half completed this book at the time of the incident, and he had to struggle to come back and finish.
Though King was once a high school English teacher, ON WRITING is in no way pedantic, but chatty and informal. It's a book straight from the author's heart, and it shows.
"Don't wait for the muse ... This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic."
This last excerpt illustrates why I like this book so much. It's applicable to any sort of writing whether it be reviews for Amazon or technical writing on-the-job, both of which I do in tremendous amounts.
The author's first rule for good writing is that the writer must read a lot. Well, I do that - constantly. Perhaps I can improve my own poor scribbling. In this overview of the volume, I've followed his advice; I've kept the paragraphs short and avoided use of passive sentence construction. That's something, at least.
on 30 June 2005
This is two books in one, yet it isn't. The autobiographical section is not so much a potted history of King's life as a description of his writing apprenticeship - the experiences and emotions, from the stimulants of his childhood imagination to the abuse of stimulants, from the experience of rejection to the experience of survival after being hit by a van.
Writing, King makes clear, isn't simply the ability to do joined up words or type at a keyboard. Writing is about pain and experience, knowledge and emotion, understanding and questioning. Writing is about life ... and if you want to be a good writer, then you must live to write. In the process you may have to fight to survive alcohol and drugs and poverty and loneliness ... and the dangers round that next bend. Even when you've sold your first story, you're never comfortable, never sure it wasn't a fluke and that the next one won't be hurled back in your face.
It's a fascinating insight into King's psyche, one which prepares you for the guidance he offers writers. He puts together a toolkit of advice to motivate and encourage you to write. Much of the toolkit, of course, can be described as words and sweat. If you write, language is your medium. If you want to write well, you have to work at it.
There's a strong motivational element to King's book. He pulls no punches. Not everyone can be a great writer. Everyone might have a novel in them, but not many people have a novel anyone else would want to read. Be realistic about your talent. Appreciate you can improve, can refine your skills and techniques. But, it'll take work, lots of hard work, and you may still never write a masterpiece.
But writing is a process of self-belief and self-fulfilment and self-discovery. It is, only incidentally, a commercial activity. If you can make a living from it, so much the better. Writing is as much an addiction as drugs or alcohol. It is, however, a life enhancing and life asserting addiction.
I doubt if King needs the money, but you should buy this book if you have any love of or interest in writing - whether you harbour the notion of writing that masterpiece, of simply seeing a piece in print, or whether you write a private journal and enjoy the texture of passion and tactile delight of putting words on paper. For the writer in you, this book is a must read. It's life-affirming, and so well paced, it reads like a thriller. You'll keep turning the pages and won't be able to put the light out.
on 1 June 2010
In my search for books about writing, this one came up virtually everywhere. I've read a few of Stephen King's books, and I have a mixed opinion of them, but overall I think he's a great storyteller (one just has to look at how many of his stories turned into truly influential movies!). So it was with curiosity that I set out to read this one.
The author starts by describing episodes of his life that were relevant to his eventual development as a writer, and the book ends with King recounting an accident he was involved in while writing this book, in which he was almost killed by a wandering van. In this sense, the book feels like a memoir, with a section on the nuts and bolts of writing in between. This actually works quite well, since everything is written in the same light and funny language which makes the reader feel comfortable, sort of like talking to an old friend who just happens to be Stephen King.
Even though I bought this for the section about writing, I found myself enjoying the memoir parts more. It's fascinating to see how a specific life experience can lead someone to become what you know them to be, and in that sense this book is invaluable. King writes as if he has nothing to hide, as if he doesn't care what people will say. And some of his life experiences are really interesting. I found the description of his time working at a laundry, washing hospital sheets, particularly gruesome.
His advice for writers is very much to the point, and mostly makes perfect sense. Good writing has no formulas, and it's subjective enough to leave room for interpretation, but some things are obvious, like his first advice to "Read a lot, write a lot", or, the one I found most useful for me personally:
"The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better."
However, there were a lot of things I just didn't see eye to eye with the author - which is actually perfectly okay with me, since if I agreed with everything I would probably end up writing things that were too similar to his style. Still, this was a very useful read, not just because it was funny and entertaining, but also because it showed a glimpse into the mind of one of the best storytellers alive today.
Having grown up on Stephen King- 'Salem's Lot', 'The Dead Zone', 'Pet Semetary', 'It'& 'The Stand' were big favourites (and still are!). I had gone off him around 'The Tommyknockers'. Discovered other writers. Came back and was unimpressed by 'Needful Things'& 'Gerald's Game'. Read others. Came back to 'Insomnia', which was good (if a bit overlong)& his 3rd collection of short-stories (always a source of gems...). Read other authors, discovered alternate worlds, went to University, got a bit snobbish about texts that weren't Camus or Nabokov (or whoever). Started having good memories regarding King's work. Re-read 'Thinner' (for some reason), then read 'The Green Mile' (I had started reading the episode editions, but lost track of them due to a bout of hedonism) & then 'Hearts of Atlantis'. I couldn't get away from it- Stephen King is an excellent writer. He might entertain & shift units to those who haven't read Achebe or Joyce (or whoever is in vogue within the realm of literary study...). But he has something...
And that something is on show here- in this look behind the curtain. In this 'How to-' book and a whole lot more...
The first part takes in King's formative years- frequent readers will recognise parts of 'The Body'& 'It' (amongst others)in some of the portraits. Here we have autobiography blended with the cloud of remembrance- fiction protects the actual...One of the most moving parts here is the recall of the influences for 'Carrie'- it took me back to school, where I could see the people who didn't fit in. I didn't bully them, but probably added to it by making fun, going with the herd or just ignoring them. I hope they're flowers now- rather than beneath the earth as the people here are...There is also a lot here about King's hard times- life wasn't always so easy. He had to work hard to get where he was- and finally it was down to good fortune & commitment. King concedes if he had been as busy as his wife,his writing career might not have been as fruitful.
The second part tells you about writing- tips & examples are given; this will be of interest to King's fans (how he constructed these worlds we live in) & those who wish to write (not forgetting those in both camps). Intriguing is the 'influence' for 'Misery'- and a depiction of it's original end (which, thank God, he managed to avert). This section is writing at its best, laying out rules & advice for those who wish to write.
The final section takes in the 'interruption' of King's near fatal crash- and his slow recovery. Here, it seems like another hurdle for King to transcend (and this he does, by finishing this very book).
There is also a reading list- of some of the books he has read over the past few years; the one's I've read I feel much the same about. The one's I haven't are names to add to the list of books that I intend to read...
I don't know if by reading this book (or the equally good, if a bit more 'establishment' 'The Creative Writing Coursebook')that everyone who does so will become a King,or a Tan ,or whoever. My usual complaint about 'How to Write a Novel/Short Story'-books is that you have never heard of those who have written it. So, what can someone who you have never heard of say to you- who is on an equal footing?...This book is one I will come back to- and proof that King is a very good, if not excellent, writer. Ultimately, this book comes from a deep love of the craft of writing- the sense of vocation Dennis Potter talked of. If you love books, then this book is for you...
on 6 April 2008
I first came to this book when it was published, and I was not. Now, with my own portfolio of publications, I have returned to it and find it as interesting, insightful and honest as I did the first time around. This isn't a "nuts and bolts" book, it tells a writer's story, his experience, his success and failure. But crucially it motivates because of its honesty. On Writing isn't prescriptive like so many, it isn't dull like so many, it is very entertaining. I can think of only two books which have a similar motivational effect: Journal of a Novel, by John Steinbeck, and Wannabe a Writer? by Jane Wenham-Jones.
on 26 June 2006
Before reading this, i considered myself something of a writer, but hardly ever actually sat down and wrote my ideas down. When I did, i'd put off carrying them on properly, leaving stories half finished. I was lazy and unfocused.
Stephen King doesn't take the "if you want it enough, you'll make it" In-Hollywood-All-Your-Dreams-Can-Come-True. As far as King is concerned, you get what you work for, and it's going to take a damn lot of work. It's a refreshing perspective. Not only that, he goes into some detail (without becoming technical or dull) about the language that works in writing. He also gives you a look - a REAL look - at how he works on things like drafts, what changes he makes, how he lets others see his work during the re-draft process... all things that aspiring writers hear the big names reference to but never actually explain.
On top of all this, there's a brief auto-biography that looks particuarly with his writing career, and at how his life has came on since the accident.
If you love King and want to be a writer, this book will be great for you. If you hate King and want to be a writer, this book will still be great for you. If you're like I've been (since reading this i've worked daily on a new story, and do not let myself stop until i've done enough work), and your general approach to writing is "i'll do it after this programme/i've been out/tomorrow", then I'd strongly suggest this.
on 9 September 2000
"On Writing" Stephen King calls it, but it should read "King's Autobiography Linked to Strunk and White's Rules of Writing." He writes of his early life, an odd herky-jerky experience, he calls it. It is revealing and entertaining, and his hungry fans should adore it. He includes his recent experiences with a car accident that could have proven fatal. Also, his use and abuse of alcohol and drugs.
He shares with us his extraordinary success with Carrie, and it is infectious. We almost cheer when he learns of his huge royalties.
Included is his advice (but hardly a thesis as he calls it) that good writing consists of mastering vocabularly, grammar, and the elements of style. If you are a bad writer, he says, no one can help. If you are competent, it will be a tough road to become good -- but it is possible.
Write a lot, and read a lot is his bottom line -- but scarcely original -- advice to would-be writers.
on 24 November 2015
I bought this book for my partner’s dad last Christmas to encourage him to write, and he also bought it for my partner (apparently it makes a great gift!) so I’ve snuck in there and read it first.
It took me a while to get into this book, and I think that’s because I was desperate to get to the writing advice bit. I was often tempted to just skip forward, but I persevered with the initial chapters (they’re not boring by any means, I just wanted the writing advice!)
The first part of the book is a kind of memoir, as King recounts different events in his life that relate to his writing style and the genre he writes in too. It’s well written and enjoyable throughout, but I particularly like the later stages. I think everyone loves a good struggle-to-success story, and King’s is a great one. You can’t help but feel for him as he works hard to support his family and still manages to fit his writing in on the side. Just reading it made me want to write more and made me realise that excuses just don’t cut it – we’re all tired and busy, but if you really want to do something then you just get on and do it.
And then we get to the part where he sells Carrie and I actually had tears in my eyes. When he’s told the amount of money he’s getting for it, and looks around and the tiny, terrible houses he’s living in, and knows his life is going to change – I think it’s every writer’s dream. I adore success stories like this.
The actual writing advice is all very solid. Some of it is worded in a brilliant way that might cause a little revelation in you, but other bits are pretty standard advice that you’ll hear from all kinds of writers and editors. As always, there’s no magic formula for becoming a great writer or writing an amazing story – and anyone who tells you otherwise is not to be trusted – but there are certain skills you can develop and hone. I think the charm here is King’s bluntness and simple way of putting things – there’s no fluff here, no false hope, just a lot of great advice.
I’d definitely recommend this book, for any King fans who want to know more about him and how he writes his books, and for aspiring writer’s who want some straightforward advice. It doesn’t promise to make you a better writer, but with this advice, it can’t make you any worse.
I heard mixed things about this book, so decided to read it myself. By profession I am an author, so I'm always interested in books about the craft and have a pretty huge selection. I have great respect for Stephen King; love him or loathe him, or rather his writing, he is undeniably a huge success in his field. For me the aspect I found most interesting was the autobiographical section, in which he candidly revealed his personal struggles with substance abuse and the ongoing impact of an appalling accident upon his life (he was struck by a minivan while he was out walking and suffered life-threatening injuries) . He is also unfailingly honest when it comes to critiquing his own work. Carrie did not rank highly on his list and he couldn't even recall writing Cujo. This book is a window upon King's world; it is the timeline of a child whose father deserted the family when he was very young, whose upbringing was very modest, who escaped with increasing freaquency into a world of fantasy and who, ultimately, grew up to be one of the most popular writers of our time.
The second half of the book dealing with the art of writing is, to my mind, fairly basic and that ground is covered much more thoroughly by other publications dedicated entirely to the craft.
For fans of King and writers whose goal is to write in the same genre (although King has covered several, but is best known for horror), I don't think you'll regret buying this book. For people who just want to learn more about the craft, I would recommend you look elsewhere
For me, it was an easy, enjoyable read. I pretty much read it all in a matter of hours. However, it's not a reference book as such and I doubt very much if I will read it again.
Every course I ever took about writing discouraged me from writing fiction. The process described seemed unnatural, uninteresting, and unbelievably complex. So I became a nonfiction writer. Mr. Stephen King's memoir and observations about his methods has totally turned that around. He proposes a method that works much like the way I write nonfiction. Following his advice, I feel like I can create and enjoy creating novels now. That is a wonderful gift, and I appreciate the insights very much. I also wondered how a novelist goes from aspiring to full-time writer. The detailed descriptions here gave me many "ah-ha" experiences. Mr. King's horrible accident made me curious about how his recovery was going. I was fascinated by the long postscript that describes how the "writing" part of the memoir was written during his painful rehabilitation and mending.
This book should be read by everyone who loves fiction writing, whether as a reader or a writer. If salty language bothers you, that will be a drawback. I deliberately listened to the unabridged audiocassette so that I could hear the nuances of meaning from his voice and timing. I'm glad I did.
Mr. King's great strength is that he tells it like it is, and does so as simply as possible.
His description of letting a novel tell itself through the characters, starting from a fascinating situation, struck me as an enormous insight. In nonfiction, the equivalent is to start with a painful problem that almost everyone has. Then tell stories that take the reader inside the solution. Be honest and genuine in how you do it. I suddenly realized that nonfiction writers have an advantage because we can test our stories with those who lived them. The fiction writers have to use their own mental ear and those of readers to do the same thing.
After you finish reading this book, you definitely should try out his suggestion to write a thousand words a day. I know it sounds like a lot, but your speed and facility will rapidly increase. And it really does feel like being more alive!
Tell the truth!