This review was originally posted under my pen name, but I loved this book so much that I decided to dust the post off, and give it a new home here. In the year or so since I read this book for the first time, I have found myself more and more inspired to take my own work seriously, and approach it like a career instead of a hobby that would too often get pushed aside in favour of other aspects of family life. I finished and edited my first novel, and am about a third of the way through writing my second. Read this book. Well, read the review first, then go read the book.
My copy of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King is the tenth anniversary edition published in 2010. It comes with a few extra words at the beginning and few extra post scripts at the end. The world has changed a lot in the past seventeen years, and I would love to see a twentieth anniversary edition just to see if there is anything else that King would add. Despite the changes in the world, I found most of King’s observations and advice to be timeless. Let’s get in to it:
Part I: C.V.
“…My attempt to show how a writer is formed. Not how a writer is made; I don’t believe that writers can be made […] The equipment comes with the original package.”
CV or curriculum vitae — loosely translated from Latin means ‘the course of my life’. It sounds so much more romantic than ‘long form resume’, and I have to say that this was one of my favourite parts of this book. This is the sort of writing that makes people fall in love with King. His tone is friendly and conversational. I read this section of memories and anecdotes as if the two of us were sitting in a cafe somewhere, chatting and sharing a few laughs.
It hooked me right from the get go. And I have to admit, if King had started with Section II, I may not have finished reading the book as quickly as I did. I think that this is a lesson in itself. If you’ve got to talk about the less attractive and sometimes boring parts of a thing, sandwich it between parts that will grab your reader by the face and not let go.
Part II: Toolbox
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
The toolbox is the nuts and bolts of writing. This is the part where King discusses the hows and whys of language, and tight, adverb-free writing. His theory is that a heavy reliance on things like passive voice, adverbs, and complicated dialogue tags are the sign of a timid writer. I have been guilty of a lot of these writing sins, but when I think about it, King’s argument makes a lot of sense.
Good writing requires trust. The writer has to trust in themself that they can set the scene and tell the story in a way that will inspire the imagination of the reader. The writer also has to trust that their reader will be able to get it without having every little detail described.
As many successful writers suggest, King urges readers of this book to pick up Strunk and White’s classic volume on writing, Elements of Style. I have to admit that while I do own this little grey pocket-book, I have yet to read it all the way through. It’s dry, but having read King’s interpretation, I may have to give it another go. As writers we tend to pick up our lessons in varied and odd places, but it’s probably a good thing to have the basics all in one place.
Part III: On Writing
“There are no bad dogs, according to the title of a popular training manual […] I can’t lie and say that there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.”
In the Toolbox we learned about all the bits of weak writing that we want to avoid. In On Writing, we see examples of bad writing set against better examples. Some of our most beloved authors have had their weaknesses in style. I think that the chunk of dialogue from HP Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space will stay with me forever — it’s that bad.
This is also where King really hammers home that if you want to be a writer, and have any kind of success with it, YOU HAVE TO READ.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
This is a message that I really take on board. Reading is magic. It is what made me want to be a writer. Personally, I am not a huge fan of e-books, as impressive as it is to be able to keep hundreds of books at your fingertips, they just don’t do it for me. I need that feel of paper in my hands — that smell of physical books is the smell of stories. It is definitely a part of the magic.
That said, it is still possible and pretty easy, if I’m being perfectly honest, to have a book with you most of the time. King lists dozens of places and times throughout the day when you can sit and read. He also points out that one of the biggest obstacles to reading is plopping down at the end of the day in front of the television. It’s easy for that big black screen to suck away hours of our lives without us even realizing it.
Once we step past reading as a way to help build up our writing skills through subconscious osmosis, we step into some thoughts on where story ideas come from, and how writing is somewhat akin to archeology.
I absolutely love the imagery of a writer as archeologist excavating stories from the aether, and chasing down those elusive clues that lead us on twists and turns as the characters grow and change beneath our pens. It makes me feel like Indiana Jones and Phryne Fisher all wrapped up in one.
My favourite anecdote from the On Writing section was one about Rudyard Kipling’s desk at the Brown Hotel in London. I won’t ruin it for you, but it is very typical of life’s mixed blessings. And it opens a story about how planning and plotting cannot be a rigid framework.
I think that if you’ve been writing for any length of time, then you have probably run up against this phenomenon before. It isn’t that your work will be bad if you stick to a prepared plot, but more that along the way, the characters tend to just grab your outline and shred it. “This isn’t how it goes,” they tell us.
The last bit of On Writing deals with what comes after the story is done. Insider tips from one of the world’s most popular authors really helps to make the process of getting published seem less intimidating. King dispels many of the publishing industry’s sacred cows, and tells you right up front that writing for a living is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s not even a get rich ever scheme. We can’t all be JK Rowling.
King, himself, worked crappy jobs for years to support his family (and as someone who has experience with crap jobs, I can honestly say, his were worse). He later worked as an English teacher to pay the bills, fought and overcame a substance abuse problem, all while writing from tiny desks in back rooms. And while writing has paid for his house, even he admits that his story is not typical. The world of writing is different now than it was when Carrie first hit the shelves. There are a lot of great writers out there who still have their day jobs.
It can seem a bit pessimistic, but I remind myself that this was written at the turn of the millennium, and things have changed since then. The traditional model of publishing and monetizing writing may not promise riches and fame, but there are other options out there for artists. Like many other industries, the arts are no longer managed by big business. We are all working for ourselves these days.
Part IV: On Living
“Writing is magic. As much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”
This part of the book broke my heart. I can still remember where I was when I first heard on the news that Stephen King had been hit by a car and might not make it.
On Living is where King recounts his accident and the long road to recovery. It’s vivid and surreal, and felt like it could have come right out of one of King’s own stories. He talks candidly about pain, and slowly learning to walk again — about the operations to rebuild his leg, and how he wouldn’t have made it without the love and support of his wife and family. He talks about how hard it was to go back to writing. And that the work wasn’t some sort of miracle that saved him. It was a step. And similar to physiotherapy, little by little, things started to get better.
I loved this book. There is so much more to it than just a how-to writers text. It really is a memoir, and it illustrates the approach of someone who truly loves the craft. That alone is what I find endlessly inspiring. As writers we are entrusted with the stories. It is our job to tell the tales.