Monday, February 22, 2010

On Writing: King's Approach to The Craft

Stephen King on writing? Isn't that a bit like Keanu Reaves on acting? Or Nickelback on music? Okay, juuuust kidding. ;)

This book came recommended highly enough by many people whose opinions I value that I knew it wasn't going to be as silly as King's fiction sometimes can be. And King does have some good advice to impart. Not all parts of his very specific formula for how he produces his fiction, edits and re-writes will work for all writers, but the trip inside his mind sure is fun to read.

King begins his "memoir of the craft" with actual tidbits of memoir. From his nanny who used to fart in his face to the day he met is wife, King describes all the seminal events of his life that have influenced his writing. A lot here will be familiar to King fans — how he wrote Carrie in the laundry room of a double-wide trailer while near financial collapse, and how his wife Tabitha had to intervene to cure him of a nasty early-80s cocaine habit and addiction to booze.

King introduces the actual advice-on-writing section with an anecdote about his grandfather's toolbox, and why it's important to bring all your "tools" as a writer with you every time you sit down to compose. Not exactly an original approach, and the section includes tips that won't exactly be revelations to anyone who's had a college writing class, but they're still good reminders: Write every single day, with a specific output goal in mind (1,000 words/day, eg.); read as much as humanly possible; avoid adverbs, especially in dialogue tags (...he said angrily, eg.); don't use passive voice; have thick skin and accept that rejection will be part of life.

The book builds to King's two central theses. Good fiction must be real and authentic. You can write about whatever you want, as long as you tell the truth and be honest, he says. Which leads to Thesis #2: To write good fiction, writers must understand that the story's the only thing that truly matters. The situation or spark comes first, then the characters, then you just narrate what happens. Every literary trick you can imagine plays second fiddle to the story itself. 

And that's where things get dicey. It's not so much that I "disagree" with some of King's assertions, because he's really talking about what's been successful for him and only suggests it might work for you, too. Besides, what right does an unpublished schmuck like me have to "disagree" with a novelist who has sold millions and millions of copies? It's more that some of King's assertions seem to go against the grain a bit.

Book buyers aren't attracted to the literary merits of a novel, says King — all book buyers want is a good story. That's true to a degree, I suppose, but I buy books based on their literary merits all....the....time! Or did you know you're not supposed to know what your book is about thematically until the second draft? Or that any symbolism in your story should be serendipitous, and not something done intentionally, and only discovered as you edit? Or that you shouldn't plot at all, you should just let the characters lead the story where it may with no ending in mind until you get to the ending?

I'm not exactly a prolific fiction writer, but all this runs precisely 180 degrees in opposition to how I've tried to write my own stories. It does, however, explain a lot about King's fiction — especially the atrocious ending, strange plot twists and one-dimensional characters in his latest book Under the Dome.

The strength of On Writing is its breezy, often sarcastic, and frequently hilarious style. One example: In the discussion of the evils of the passive voice, King provides a particularly odious sentence to hammer home his point, which he does thusly: "Oh, man — who farted, right?" He's even funny as he wraps up the book talking about getting hit by a van in the summer of 1999 — an accident that nearly killed him.

Have you read On Writing? Any parts you found particularly helpful? Any parts you take issue with?


  1. I haven't read the book but Stephen King is one of my favorite writers and I love your review. Sounds fun, and I would like to read more about his life too along with the tips.

  2. I don't read Stephen King; he would give me nightmares. And I agree with you that the story isn't the only thing that matters in a book.

    Was just reading comments by bloggers on Katsuo Ishiguro, whose fiction I read and whose plots are not elaborate as he concentrates more on conveying the thinking of his flawed but basically harmless characters. Remains of the Day...for instance. Guess I won't be reading King's On Writing!

  3. When this book first came out, I read it and found it very interesting, truthful and King had approached writing about himself unusual. Not a lot of people who are like him write so honestly about their own lives as he did.
    The second time I read it, I found parts of it hilariously funny where they were serious in the first reading. I don't think I'll be giving away my copy of his book any time soon; as each time I look at it, it reads differently each time.

    Seeing I've been a great fan of King's since high school, and I still read his works, I have found a shift in his writing since his accident. But he's still got the story-telling skills he had before it. This particular book tells us things we didn't know previously in the biographies that were written about him by George Beahm; and the best thing about this one is that the way King writes it makes it more personal than if he had gotten a ghost-writer to do it for him.

  4. I've read this and Danse Macabre(King's take on the history of the horror genre)and both show that King is a much smarter fellow than many folks take him for.

    His approach to the art of writing is a basic meat and potatoes style(or as Big Steve once put it himself "A Big Mac and fries")that is helpful to writers of commercial fiction but also tells those who fret over form rather content at times to keep your eye on the prize there.

    Not that artistic value should be entirely a secondary concern,however we all know authors who have gotten plenty of critical accolades and yet when you sit down and read the actual book,it's not long before you close the cover and look for something with a little more action to it. The same holds true for lighter fare that can be as mind numbing as a bad summer movie.The best art both enlightens and entertains,a rare combination to be sure.

    Stephen King does go overboard at times with plotting and excess details but when he hones his craft on presenting the finer details of a character and their moment of realization(The Green Mile,Lisey's Story,Delores Claiborne),that's when the magic happens. I would recommend On Writing,as a basic guide for beginners and a tune-up for those of us trying to keep our creative fires burning.

  5. It's been several years since I read it, but I loved it. I remember most the part about how he began writing. Loved that part, perhaps especially because I had a son about 13 at the time I read it who was a budding writer.

  6. @Myne - Yeah, to me, the bits of memoir were really interesting - he's led a fascinating life!

    @Harvee - I hope I didn't give the impression that On Writing isn't good - it actually really is. It's just parts of it ran counter to what I'd learned in my own experiences as a reader and writer.

    @Mozette - You're right, it is an intensely personal book - especially the details about the aftermath of the accident. He's a lucky man to have such a loving wife!

    @lady t - "Meat and potatoes" is a good way to describe his approach - nothing flashy, he's at root a storyteller, and a damn good one! "The best art both enlightens and entertains" - very well said. I couldn't agree more!

    @SmallWorld - Yeah, the parts about the writing he did during his teenage years was really fun - his first "bestseller", but which he had to return because one of his teachers didn't want him peddling mindless science fiction, and the satirical newspaper for which he had to serve two weeks' detention. Great little anecdotes!

  7. i always want to know what inspired the writer, the painter, the film maker etc, and i love this book, mostly because it is such an insight into a writer who's work i love. it's a good curiosity satisfier :-)

  8. I read this book years ago--well, I actually read the book in the bookstore when it first came out, stopping by a few hours over a couple of days, haha. I grew up with Stephen King's books. And I think that no matter what anyone can say about him being a writer, he's a very good reader. I love it when he talks about books (his comments on Raymond Carver were spot-on, I thought).

    I liked this book a lot. I can't remember bits from it, but I *know* I loved this book. His tone, his little stories about his life and his craft. It was like hanging out with an old friend. :]

  9. I haven't read On Writing - actually, I haven't read any King (I clearly need to get up on my read-more-authors act) - but I would have to agree with you that I buy books based on the writing more than the plot. I've read plenty of books that are relatively "plot-less" (Love in the Time of Cholera comes to mind), but loved them because of the words on the page, not the depth of the story...

  10. Love this book! (as you know ;) Glad you finally got around to reading it.

    I most enjoy the parts about his own life (the memoir stuff), but I also enjoy, as others have said, "the look behind the curtain." I think his writing process is enlightening, and it becomes clear why some of his novellas are his strongest work (Shawshank, The Body, etc.), because he doesn't write and write and write them...

  11. I haven't read this yet but it's been on my TBR list for a while now and I just haven't quite gotten to it yet. I've been reading Stephen King since I was a kid and I have a feeling I'll love getting insight into his personal life and writing history!

    Interesting that he emphasizes the importance of the story...his books are all about the characters to me.

    I think King is a master storyteller and will be all ears to any tips of the trade he's willing to pass my way. Thanks for the review!

  12. I really loved the memoir part the most. He reminded me a bit of Rick Bragg or others who reveal terrible things without layers of pity thrown in. Just flat out honest and unadorned.
    Like you said, there were no huge revelations that unlocked the 'secret' to great writing. I'm not a fan of his fiction at all, not even when they are made into movies (except for The Green Mile). I really like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird better in that sense, and also the different books by Noah Lukeman.
    I have to disagree too, a story isn't enough. I am reading a complicated novel right now, and the story itself is rather simple, but the characterizations are amazing and insightful. You can't just live on candy!

  13. Thanks for a wonderful review. I read On Writing years ago when I was trying to learn how to write fiction. I thought it was a wonderful treasure.

    There were two elements that I have found to always be helpful. The first is his characterization of discovering story like finding a shell on the beach and then trying to dig out what is beneath the surface, brushing a few grains of sand at a time as the jewel is revealed. I do find this to be the case in writing fiction, especially for someone who does not outline the story from the start as opposed to discovering it grain by grain.

    Second, is Prof. King's advice to read, read, read everything you can. It has taken me a few years to understand the importance of this advice. I am constantly dumfounded at how much I learn from constantly reading and writing reviews. When I sit down doing my own composition, the lessons (positive and negative) that I learn from reading are right there like a chorus of friends advising me what to do and not do, especially the layers of editing that are necessary to have a smooth story.

    It my view, On Writing is the best of "how to" books."


    Thanks for linking up this week!

  14. I just read this book, too, and I am not a SK fan. My review's supposed to go up early next week, so I'll save my thoughts for that, but I enjoyed it.