Thursday, November 12, 2009

Books for Writers (1): Stephen King's On Writing

There are a ton of books out there that give writing advice; some good, some bad and some awful. In this new feature, Books for Writers, I'll be reading a few of them so you don't have to (if they're awful) or pushing them on you like crazy if I think they're worthy of your time.

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.


  1. OK. So when I did my creative writing degree at uni, this was the only 'writing' textbook they gave me that I enjoyed. The others were all crap and I suspect that most of them were teaching the course and just wanted to plug their own books.
    I hadn't ever finished a book of Stephen King's before - I tried IT and it scared the f*** out of me so I couldn't see it. I saw the movie version with tim curry, i think it was, and couldn't finish that one either. Then I watched The Shining and I can't look at Jack Nicholson the same.

    So then I was recommended 'Lisey's Story' and COULD finish that one, although there is a certain 'piebald boy' that still creeps me out now when I think of particular scenes. It's more of a fantasy love story, and has some gorgeous elements...but overall I found it to be too experimental and self-indulgent to be a GREAT book. But you might like that one, i'm not sure.

    I was then recommended the Gunslinger as part of that Dark Tower series which is apparently a dark Wizard of Oz/ Lord of the Rings thingy. But i was bored to tears. Perhaps I should try reading that one again.

    I know you don't want to read a psychological/horror one, but I've heard The Stand is one of the best books he's written - so when I get the guts to read it I will.

    I was just offered an ARC of his son's, Joe Hill's, new book 'Horns'. I know its bad to compare him to his father since he obviously wants to be his own writer, but I will definitely be comparing them and if I like it I'll recommend him to you as well as part of your Stephen King experimentation.

  2. Sounds like great books, I'm going to try them out. I'm currently writing a book.

  3. Aside from a few short stories, this book is the only one of King's that I've read. I'm not big on horror.

  4. I just bought this book the other day. I haven't started it yet although I have read a few excerpts and what he says is so spot on.

  5. This book is total love. I just made me heart King even more after I read it.

  6. You're not wrong when you hesitate in reading King. yes, he is a great and popular writer for a reason, but unlike other writers he takes his time setting up characters, scene and plot before he gets the ball rolling.

    What I love about his "What If?" method is the simplicity of it. I'm sure you know that he does a daily walk around Maine where most of his stories are set (Salem's Lot, Castle Rock etc), and I think he must be a great 'people watcher'.

    Just like when he walked near a bridge/drain and thought of a troll in the town that became Pennywise from IT, or thought WHAT IF Dracula came to a Middle American/New England town, which became Salem's Lot. Not sure if he does his walks anymore after his accident, but I find I come up with ideas when I am driving in my car, and totally bored at work!

    In regards to the Dark Tower series, they are actually Clint Eastwood's Spagetti Westerns (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Pale Rider etc) meets Lord of the Rings. The hero Roland is actually based off Clint's "Man with No Name" character, and while they are laborious they are actually quite good, and my wife's fave series of all time (she has read all the King books too).

    In regards to Fantasy, King actually wrote "The Eyes of the Dragon" for his daughter because she didn't want to read his "Horror stuff".I find the experiment of "Bachman" quite interesting because he wanted to know if his own success was just a fluke.

    Of course Running Man etc sold well too, and then his fans figured out that King and Bachman where the same. So perhaps it's more skill than luck which makes you a bestseller.

    I saw a talk he did on youtube about writing where he said that you might read a book and find its utter rubbish, and wonder why it got published, and that you have a similar or better idea, AND if this person can get published you should be able to write your story and be published over this other person!!

    Lastly, I laugh when I think back to an interviewer who asked King how he comes up with his ideas. He answered "I have the heart of an eight-year old boy. and I keep it in a jar above my desk" :)

  7. Aimee--I will definitely go for Lisey's Song, and I think I'll start with The Stand. It's apocalyptic so should hold my attention. I hope. I was offered Horns too but I'm trying to stick to YA and just a few grown-up books. Didn't realise that was his son!

    Gabriel--I'll give The Eyes of the Dragon a go, thanks! 8 y/o boy's heart--LOL.

  8. I'm a King fan. When he's on, he's the best at what he does. When he is off, he fails so badly that it almost doesn't matter - you can just toss that one aside and get on with a better one.

    His works you should read:
    The Running Man (nothing like the movie), classic dystopian future
    The Long Walk: psychological dystopian story
    Different Seasons: a collection of 4 novellas, including the ones that Stand By Me and Shawshank were based on (King movie rule of thumb: aside from the Shining, his supernatural horror never works on screen, but the rest of his stuff does.)
    Night Shift or Skeleton Crew: two books of short stories, lots of horror, some gore, but also fantasy, scifi, other stuff.
    Start there, then try the Stand or It if you like his style.

  9. you know, I have no desire to write a book, but after your review I really want to read this one! And I'm not a Steven King reader. That could very easily change however.

  10. I really enjoyed On Writing by Stephen King. It was a wonderful look at the inside of a writer's life and I found it inspirational as a writer.

  11. My mom offered me this book some years ago and I enjoyed it too. Although it's to take with a grain of salt (some things are tips, but some things are opinions, like the bit on writing classes you talked about), I found it to be really helpful.

    I remember when I read it, I loved the bit about the IR and I kept wondering who that could be for me? I knew no one close enough to me that would enjoy reading the kind of stories I wanted to write! And then I met my Man, and he is it. He's one of the few people who understand what I want to do, but can help me with a reader's point-of-view. Even better, he reads both in French in English, so if one day I'm good enough to write in English, he'll be able to help me. Most of my friends and family wouldn't, so this is reassuring.

    Change of topic : The Specials in Uglies do get a little scarier! Like you I wasn't impress at first, but in book 3 they're something else. That being said, they're not "horror movie" scary; I found that the idea of them was what was the most disturbing. Hard to explain since I don't want to spoil it, but they're the extreme of what the Pretties are.

  12. Great idea to review this - I'll definitely check this one out. Love the description of your IR too. And bless your guy for laughing in the right places, that's always awesome.

    My own personal favourite book about writing is Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, because it's great on world-building.

  13. Rhiannon. . .if you read THE STAND, be aware, as The Dirge of Gabriel says, that King really takes his time setting up characters, setting, backstory, etc. THE STAND is one of my favorite books, but I actually skimmed and sometimes skipped chapters containing The Trashcan Man character.

    That being said, I'm a big fan of Stephen King. My dad collected his books when I was kid, so I used to sneak into his room and steal them off the bookshelves and scare myself silly.

    I love a lot of his short stories in his NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES collection. And if you can find the audio version of that collection, it is incredible; A different celebrity reads each story (Kathy Bates, Jerry Garcia, David Cronenberg, Tim Curry, Yeardley Smith, Joe Morton, Matthew Broderick, etc.).