‘On Writing’ by Stephen King

'On Writing' by Stephen King

I loved On Writing, a very entertaining and informative book about being a writer. It’s part memoir, part conventional fiction-writing guide, written in an amusing, self-deprecating style. For example, here’s Stephen King describing his first ‘best-seller’, a novelisation of one of his favourite horror films, self-published when he was at high school:

“Working with the care and deliberation for which I would later be critically acclaimed, I turned out my novel version of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ in two days … blissfully unaware that I was in violation of every plagiarism and copyright statute in the history of the world.”

He sold out his entire print run to his fellow students, making an enormous profit, although his principal later made him refund the money and told him to stop wasting his time writing “junk”. King received advice that was far more useful from the editor of his town’s newspaper, where King had a part-time job writing sports reports:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story … When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

King goes on to describe his development as a writer – studying literature and creative writing at college, writing stories for magazines, then working on his early novels while supporting his young family by teaching high school. His wife fished the opening chapters of Carrie out of his wastebasket and convinced him to keep going with it. Carrie ended up being his first published book, made him a fortune, and set him off on his career as a best-selling author of horror and speculative fiction. It wasn’t all smooth sailing after that, though, and he writes eloquently about his struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, and then about his physical rehabilitation after he was nearly killed in a horrific traffic accident.

The second half of the book provides a lot of practical, well-organised advice about writing fiction, although King cautions:

“…no matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.”

He divides writers into a pyramid, with a lot of bad writers on the base, some competent writers above them, a few “really good” writers above them, and at the apex, the geniuses – “the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys.” He believes it’s impossible to make a bad writer into a competent one, or a good writer into a great one, but that “it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one”. He also believes that stories are like fossils, “part of an undiscovered pre-existing world”, excavated from the ground using a writer’s box of tools.

His advice includes:

– Read a lot and write a lot. He provides a list of his favourite books (his favourite writers include Pat Barker, Bill Bryson, Annie Proulx, J.K. Rowling, Donna Tartt, Anne Tyler and Evelyn Waugh) and he says that watching television is a waste of time.

– Write quickly, work every day to a schedule, and don’t stop until you’ve finished a draft. He thinks a first draft should take no longer than three months and claims he wrote the first draft of The Running Man in a week. However, he does acknowledge that The Stand took sixteen months and (probably not coincidentally) is his fans’ favourite book.

– Don’t ever plot, because “plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible”.

– “Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.”

– Similarly, symbolism will only become evident once you’ve excavated your story: “If it is there, and if you notice it, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polishing it till it shines.”

– “Dialogue is a skill best learned by people who enjoy talking and listening to others”, which is why H.P. Lovecraft, a painfully shy snob, wrote such terrible, stilted dialogue.

– When revising, remember this important formula: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”

And if you get stuck, remember, “Boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam.”

I can’t say I agreed with all of it (personally, I find plotting essential, and while I’d love to be able to finish a first draft of a novel in three months, I can’t imagine that will ever happen) and some of his advice about finding a publisher is a little dated, because the book was written fifteen years ago. But I found all of it fascinating and I’d recommend this to anyone interested in writing as a craft or as a career.

2 thoughts on “‘On Writing’ by Stephen King”

  1. I agree with you about this book. I liked his tone of realistic encouragement and he gives such a good account of the sheer satisfaction involved in grappling with the craft. I thought Carrie was a bit clunky but his account of the background to its writing was powerful (and painful).

    1. I’ve never actually read any of his stories because I tend to avoid horror novels (if I want horror, I can read the newspapers), but now I feel I should try one. Maybe Carrie, just to see how he started out.

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