On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is, shocking as it is to admit, the first Stephen King book I've ever read. I know, take me out back and shoot me already. I blame a string of bad film adaptations (The Langoliers, for one. Oh, OH it's bad), and complete ignorance until recently that King wrote The Green Mile and The Shoreshank Redemption, two brilliant films. I knew he wrote The Shining but put down the awesomeness of it to Kubrick, not King.
I read this book on a recommendation from my boss. He teaches a publishing and editing degree and has shelves full of books in the office with austere titles like The Elements of Style and New Hart's Rules, so I was a little surprised to see him photocopying out of On Writing for a class one day. It was this page:
The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o'clock because that somehow says to him 'Put it this way and people will believe you really know.' Purge this quisling thought! Don't be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write The meeting's at seven. There, by God! Don't you feel better?
And I was hooked from then on.
The first half of On Writing is anecdotes from King's early life that he thinks accounts for the writer he became. I skipped over this as I wanted to get to the meat, which starts around page 113 in my edition, a chapter called What Writing Is. King draws analogies between what should be in a writer's mind and his uncle's formidable toolbox: vocab and grammar up top, elements of style underneath and so on. With grammar in particular, King takes things back to basics. What he relates is by no means Grammar 101 (you'll have to read another book for that--I'll let you know when I find one that doesn't make my gnaw my limbs off in despair) but he does talk about the basic parts of a sentence and what order to put the words--subject first, of course. ("The meeting's at seven!")
There's always some adverb-bashing to be had in books like this and King doesn't hesitate to put the boot in. Adverbs often end in -ly and are used to qualify verbs, like strangely and roughly. But he makes the point that not all adverbs are Satan's little helpers. I heartily agree. (There, now, that didn't hurt, did it?) Sometimes nothing but an adverb will do, and if Lharmell is published it will contain a smattering of adverbs. You have been warned! But each and every adverb (thanks to the vicious red circles on my pages made by my writing class peers) that I typed was accompanied by a flash of Pavlovian fear, half a second's consideration, followed by a swift deletion or rush of heady defiance. But the one time, King says, that adverbs should be shown the door are when you are writing speech tags, ie. "Never," she said firmly. I'm reluctant to use them in this case myself, but I recall that "Rodden said roughly" made it into my draft of The Harmings yesterday. It may be edited out. Further consideration is required.
What I like best about On Writing is the big-picture stuff: how King uncovers his stories, how he writes and how he feels about the craft. He likens the writing process to uncovering a fossil. A story is to be excavated, not plotted. Stories are discovered whole, in his opinion, but begin with a single spark, a What if? and as a writer it's your job to uncover it. He also believes that you should start with a situation, rather than a theme or character or so on. I'm not convinced that excavation is entirely different from plotting, but it's an interesting chapter.
King's not a great believer in writing courses. I can see his point but am inclined to be defensive. Two days ago I finished my three-year stint undertaking RMIT's Professional Writing and Editing diploma, and I am without a doubt a better writer, both in my method and my manner, for having done it. I want to explain how and why this is, and also the dark side of writing courses, but I'll save it for another post.
On Writing is an informative and cracking read. King's first and foremost an entertainer and I recommend this book to people who are interested in books in general, not just writers, and also for people who are interested in King himself. There are plenty of personal anecdotes, including a blow-by-blow account of what happened when he was hit by a van in 1999. His descriptions of his wife, his Ideal Reader (who he writes for) are very touching.
When I write scenes that strike me as funny I am also imagining my IR finding it funny. I love it when Tabby laughs out of control--she puts her hands up as if to say I surrender! and these big tears go rolling down her cheeks. I love it, that's all, fucking adore it.
My IR is a mix between me at fourteen and my partner. Especially the jokes. The jokes are all for him, and when he reads my pages I hover in the next room shouting "What bit was that?" every time he laughs. And he laughs in all the right places. It's a bit harder to access me at fourteen, but when I get that overwhelming sense of longing and wistfulness, usually accompanied by a voice in my head saying "That's soooooooo romantic", I know I've found her. She finds the oddest things romantic, like that scene in Hannibal when Lecter cuts his own hand off and not Clarice's when they're stuck in cuffs together. "Above the bone, or below?"
On Writing is highly recommended for everyone bookish.
I'm taking Stephen King book recommendations. Please leave one in the comments! His dystopian/fantasy works preferably, not the horror/psychological ones. I really want to read Under the Dome, which was released here yesterday, but it feels all wrong to start with this end of his career.