I find it hard to concentrate on anything resembling a textbook, but luckily Stephen King’s much praised “memoir of the craft” is nothing of the sort.
The first section is titled “C.V.“, but is more of an autobiography, hitting a nice medium between personal anecdotes about his childhood and his early writing career. Through this section King explains why he writes and how he started. I got my pen out on page 55 and didn’t stop taking notes until the end of the book. The first gem was from his first editor at a local newspaper: “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.“
I have always been interested in how authors work and how they hone their talent. However, one of my pet hates is when a writer says something along the lines of “I simply have to write – it’s not a choice”. It’s not useful and it’s frustrating for people who find writing so difficult. King is slightly less infuriating. He likens writing to a playground and says he feels “at loose ends” when not writing. Most importantly, he refrains from giving the idea that he finds any of it easy.
Even if you’re not an aspiring author, On Writing has useful tips that I think many people could learn from. Anyone that has to write letters or emails at work, students writing essays and, of course, bloggers such as myself! If storytelling is your aim, there is no secret formula for success, but King gives a concise guide to the basics to get you started, with examples and even an editing exercise. Here’s a quick breakdown of points I found most useful or interesting.
Vocabulary – Don’t try to impress by using long words when a short one will do. And don’t make a conscious effort to improve your vocabulary.
Adverbs – According to King, and I’ve heard agreement from other writers, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs“. A good writer should show and not tell the reader how characters are feeling. If you don’t believe him, look at this example below, which I think says it all.
“‘Put it down!’ she shouted.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said.
In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:
‘Put it down!’ she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.“
Working environment – King says it’s best to write in a serene environment with few distractions. This seems pretty obvious to me, but one interesting fact I did learn is that he listens to hard rock while writing, which isn’t exactly serene! More importantly than the writing environment though, is having “…the determination to shut the door.”
Don’t over describe – As a reader, I enthusiastically agree with this one! As King puts it, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
And finally, my very favourite piece of advice – read lots of books!
I didn’t necessarily learn everything there is to know about writing, but I found On Writing both useful and entertaining. It’s certainly a good place to start if you want encouragement, and if not, it’s still an interesting read for Stephen King fans. You will get an insight into his life and and his writing process, as well as learning about how the idea of books such as Carrie and Misery first blossomed.
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