Book Review: On Writing

I just lurve this book. Not a line Stephen King would condone, but I’m stickin’ to my guns. (Another phrase he would edit out because it’s cliché.) Then again, this is a blog, where I embrace the conversational and modern tone. On Writing has been on my Favorites list since my first days with this blog, something like a decade ago. When thinking of a dozen titles to list on that page, On Writing was one that I immediately thought of. It has something to do with me being a writer, but my husband—a fan of King’s but not a writer—also likes this book. So, Devon, tell me about this book (if I don’t already know, which is pretty darn likely).

I bought this book from a Borders (oh, Borders!) shortly after it was published in 2000 (and the Borders bookmark still sits nestled at its heart). I can’t really imagine why I bought it, unless it was just that all the writers were talking about it and I was not just an associate editor but adamantly a writer. It was received well and has been essential reading for writers since—it skyrocketed to its place next to The Elements of Style (White and Strunk) and Bird by Bird (Lamott). I avoided Stephen King through my teen years and young twenties after a run-in with a couple of Christopher Pike novels and The Watcher in the Woods. Horror was all I knew of King, and I was assiduously avoiding it. Until my new husband got me to read The Stand. Maybe it was about this time that I bought On Writing? It could have been—I was married in 2001, also the time when I was suddenly free from college texts to read what I wanted. I remember that apartment and reading on the balcony. I also read Bonfire of the Vanities and picked up the L. M. Montgomery I hadn’t given a second glance in years. (Isn’t it interesting that what we read or watch or listen to gives a flavor to memories that doesn’t wash off?)

Subtitled A Memoir of the Craft, On Writing is like nothing else that the prolific King has written. It is a book about writing in three parts. Written well into his career and straddling the headline news of his being nearly killed by launching bodily over the hood of a distracted driver’s van, the book takes its form in three parts: the memoir, beginning in his childhood and kept to the writing-related (titled “C.V.”); the nuts and bolts of writing, advice and craft (titled “Toolbox” and “On Writing”); and the wrap-up including his story where King meets van fender, his survival and recovery (titled “On Living: A Postscript). It’s a well-put-together book. It’s not long (my copy is 284 pages), especially considering it is half-memoir and half-writing lessons. But if King has anything, it’s an ability to write quickly, churn out compelling plots, and self-edit, not to mention a love of the thing. All these are here, in these somewhat brief 284 pages, especially a love of the thing that borders on tenderness.

The stories about his life are engaging, compelling, and they clearly come from a place of experience, hard work, and insider knowledge. You feel pretty cozy with King and somehow still in awe of him. He keeps pulling you in to walk alongside him, but you can’t help but stay star-struck, obnoxiously curious about what life experience makes this man. As a writer, too, you might have to fight a tendency to snobbery and disbelief. King has, after all, pursued the genres of his heart which are not, God bless him, literary fiction or poetry. As for the nuts and bolts part, King is—as ever—completely honest and frank, not afraid to embrace tradition where it works and to buck convention where he finds a bigger truth. The advice lacks ephemerality. He’s the layman of writing teachers, and I, as someone who has been accused many times of taking no BS, respect him tremendously for it. What I’m not saying is that he is dumbed down or lets anyone off the hook. His writing here is smart and funny, and his advice is demanding. (See the quotes below if you want to know more details about what he says before buying a copy. If you’re a writer or a Stephen King fan, you should definitely buy a copy.)

So, after my most recent read (a goal of reading six books on writing this year), I still lurve this book and would still recommend that you give it a read or re-read. Especially if you are in the game, right in the middle, it might be time to freshen up with some no-nonsense advice.

QUOTES

“This is how it was for me, that’s all—a disjointed growth process in which ambition, desire, luck, and a little talent all played a part” (p18).

“There were more doors than one person could ever open in a lifetime, I thought (and still think)” (p28).

“…good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up” (p37).

“When you’re still to young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure” (p40).

“One thing I’ve noticed is that when you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, ‘Not for us’” (p41).

“In my character, a kind of wildness and a deep conservativism are wound together like hair in a braid” (p53).

“There was also a work-ethic in the poem that I liked, something that suggested writing poems (or stories, or essays) had as much in common with sweeping the floor as with mythy moments of revelation” (p65).

This isn’t the way our lives are supposed to be going. Then I’d think Half the world has the same idea” (p70).

“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference” (p74).

“For me, writing has always been best when it’s intimate” (p76).

“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position” (p78).

“…in the early afternoon I have all the energy of a boa constrictor that’s just swallowed a goat” (p82).

“I bargained, because that’s what addicts do. I was charming, because that’s what addicts are” (p98).

“The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time” (p98).

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around” (p101).

“If you can take it seriously, we can do business” (p107).

“Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use ‘emolument’ when you mean ‘tip’” (p117).

“The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning” (p118).

“…you are capable of remembering the difference between a gerund (verb for used as a noun) and a participle (verb form used as an adjective)” (p119).

“…the reader must always be your main concern; without Constant Reader, you are just a voice quacking in the void” (p124).

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops” (p125).

“I’m concerned that fear is at the root of most bad writing” (p127).

“…while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine” (p128).

“The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story…” (p134).

“…you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic” (p137).

“But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well” (p144).

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut” (p145).

“Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones” (p145).

“Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling” (p146).

“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway” (p148).

“I’d like to suggest that turning off that endlessly quacking box is apt to improve the quality of your life as well as the quality of your writing” (p148).

“…when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head” (p150).

“If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?” (p152).

“Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. It I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind” (p153).

(This is also where King says that he works on the first draft of a book for no more than three months (one season) and that he writes 10 pages/2000 words every single morning. He also lays out what your writing routine and space should look like.)

“…the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not the commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for a buck” (p159).

(This is where King tells us that he is very suspicious of plot and that writers should use intuition and character, not structure, to write a book.)

“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary” (p179).

“…one of the cardinal rules of good fiction is never tell us a thing if you can show us, instead…” (p180).

“As with all other aspects of fiction, the key to writing good dialogue is honesty” (p185).

“…writing fiction in America as we enter the twenty-first century is no job for intellectual cowards” (p187).

“…I think that you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you” (p191).

“There is absolutely no need to be hidebound and conservative in your work, just as you are under no obligation to write experimental, nonlinear prose…” (p196).

“…you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time” (p196).

“Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, ‘Murder your darlings,’ and he was right” (p197).

(This is where King tells us to embrace symbolism where it emerges organically and to take a break from your novel, especially after the first draft, which is a fine time to think about theme. Then he shows us his own writing process.)

“What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind” (p214).

“…all novels are really letters aimed at one person” (p215).

“…beware—if you slow the pace down too much, even the most patient reader is apt to grow restive” (p221).

“The effect of judicious cutting is immediate and often amazing” (p223).

(Then he shares why he’s dubious about writing classes, and some nitty gritty about agents and publication.)

“And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever” (p249).

“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life” (p249).

“…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” (p270).

PS. I wrote an article years ago (on this blog) about being a woman writer as distinct from being a man writer. I lamented the image that King had painted in my head in this very book, of him working a day job and then coming home and writing, with the support of his wife as she threw herself into mothering. I argued that women are wired differently so there needs to be different approaches to the work and devotion required for writing. After this reading, I have forgiven King a little for putting this image there, because I found an allusion to this very thing when King says that his wife, given different circumstances, would have “made it” herself: an acknowledgement, I think, of the differences between us.

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