on October 17, 2000
For the legions of Stephen King fans out there (which is to say a lot), the first third of the book containing his short memoir is truly a gift. One can't help wanting to read about his/her favorite writer after being transported to fantastic worlds countless times in Mr. King's prolific career. Some fans would have paid... gladly for the first 101 pages of the memoir ("C.V." he calls it), which includes heartfelt tidbits about his brother, mother and his long battles with alcohol and drug addiction.
The second part, "On Writing," is where the aspiring novelists will find inspiration. Assuming you're a serious writer (or wanting to be a published one), you'd no doubt would have read the countless manuals on the mechanics of writing. With Mr. King, you do get short lessons in the mechanics of prose here and there. What he mostly offers to the aspiring writer is the inspiration, the cheerleading, and as some have already suggested, after reading it makes you want to sit and write something. He actually allows you into his writing routine, when and where he writes, how many months it takes to write the first draft, and even how he goes about editing the second draft.
Some very original thoughts I found quite interesting:
1. Story is a fossil you find on the ground, and you gradually dig it out slowly.
2. He doesn't plot his stories. He puts "a group of characters in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free." In fact he even goes as far as to say, "plot is shift, and best kept under house arrest."
3. Write first draft with the "door" closed, and the second draft with it open.
There are truly gems here for writers, simple, direct, to the point. As always, he doesn't talk down to you. There is even advice on finding agents.
The final section elaborates his near-death experience in summer of 1999, when he was hit by a van driven by Bryan Smith. The book is actually a sandwich: two slices of autobigraphy with the writing advice as the meat of the book.
Though the thin volume was not your edge-of-the-seat thriller or horror, I found myself reading the darn thing in one seating. A pretty good deal for a non-fiction book. This may sound funny, too, but I felt like the book became a good friend of mine. In a word, this is book is intimate. As a fan, and perhaps a writer, that might be worth something.
The cover shows an inviting scene, a country house with a warm light glowing in the living room window, a set of double doors leading down to the cellar, the house lined with pink and white flowers. "Come on in," the picture seems to say. "I have a story to tell."
It generally takes Stephen King about three months to finish the first draft of a book. He began "On Writing" at the end of 1997, but put it aside a few months later, unsure how to finish it. Over a year later, in mid-1999, King decided to spend the summer "finishing the damn writing book."
The events of late-June, 1999 interfered with those plans. King spent three weeks in the hospital after he was struck by a van. In late July he decided it was time to start writing again, and it was "On Writing" that he chose for his return to work. The finished product, "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" will be released by Scribner in early October, 2000.
It was a discussion with Amy Tan while on tour with the Rock Bottom Remainders that inspired King to write this book. "No one ever asks about the language," Tan said in response to King's query about the sorts of questions that she doesn't get at author appearances. "Serious" authors get asked that but they don't ask the popular novelists who, he says "care about language in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper."
King opens with a lengthy memoir that "attempted to show some of the incidents and life-situations which made me into the sort of writer I turned out to be." He calls this section "C.V," as in "curriculum vitae," his list of accomplishments and job skills. Some of the story is familiar, though many of the details are new. He works his way through his stages as a writer from childhood to novice to apprentice to worldwide success.
For the first time in any detail, King addresses his battle with alcohol and drug abuse, when it started, how it evolved and how he eventually was forced to confront his problem. He reveals that he has little memory of writing "Cujo" ("I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page"), that he hadn't realized that when he was writing "The Shining" he was writing about himself, and how Annie Wilkes in "Misery" could well be seen as a symbol for coke and alcohol. "I decided I was tired of being Annie's pet writer," King says.
King is more revealing of his life in this book than ever before. He is frank in discussing the merits and deficiencies of many of his books. Of "Rose Madder" and "Insomnia" he says: "These are (much as I hate to admit it) stiff, trying-too-hard novels." He talks about how he reached a point in "The Stand" where he had to set the novel aside for several weeks until he could figure out how to go on. If he had written a couple of hundred pages less at that point he probably would have abandoned the book completely. Also described in some depth are the issues he had to deal with in writing "Carrie," "The Dead Zone" and "The Green Mile." He spends some time relating an event that inspired him to write the upcoming novel "From a Buick Eight" and the research required for the second draft that had to be deferred after his accident - a couple of weeks riding with the Pennsylvania State Police.
"But I'm not a writer," the prospective reader of "On Writing" might cry. "Why should I want to read this book?" While a substantial section of the book is about writing, King's approach to it and his advice to writers at all levels of the art, there is much here for the non-writer as well. King's success has made him a high-profile personality, more so than many other authors, and the level of public interest in his life is easily demonstrated by the overwhelming number of requests for updates on his condition received by his office and official web site in the weeks following his accident. Here is the opportunity to read King on King, and on his books. He describes the symbolism in many of his novels, rarely planted intentionally on the first draft but uncovered, as an archaeologist uncovers a ruin, during the writing of the second draft.
For writers, though, the book is chock full of advice, some of it common sense, some of it uniquely King's. His taboos of writing: adverbs (especially those in dialog attributes) and the passive voice. His description of the writer's toolbox: Common tools on the top shelf (vocabulary and grammar), elements of grammar and style on the second level, along with an understanding of the paragraph as the basic element in fiction, and a synthesis of all of these along with innate and developed skills at the bottom.
"If you want to be a writer," King says, "you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot." King calls reading the creative center of a writer's life. He advocates reading in small sips as well as long drinks - in waiting rooms, in line at the theater, in the checkout line at the grocery store, on the treadmill at the gym and in the john.
When it comes to writing, though, King is more selective. "We do best in a place of our own," he advises. The most important feature of this place: a door that you can and are willing to shut. No TV, no phone and no video games. Curtains closed. Write first with the door closed. Write for yourself without worry about theme, symbolism or accuracy of details. Those are for the second draft, which is usually written with the door open, after he has sent the book to a select group of critical readers.
King includes examples of both good and bad writing, sometimes taken from his own work, sometimes taken from such writers as Elmore Leonard and John Katzenbach. The final chapter of the book is an annotated rewrite of his first draft of the opening section of "1408," one of the three stories in the recent "Blood and Smoke" audio release. This section should silence critics who suggest that King doesn't rewrite his work. It is an interesting look at the creative process and what an author should look for when editing his or her own material.
He also describes his approach to research. It's all about back story, he says. "What I'm looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude, like the handful of spices you chuck into a really good spaghetti sauce to really finish her off."
Toward the end of the book, King tackles the subject of his accident. This section, called "On Living," is partly a bully platform for him to get his version of the story down, as well as his opinion about how the legal system handled the case of driver Bryan Smith. It also describes how an otherwise ideal day went wrong, the minute details of his injuries and some of the challenges of his recovery process. "Life isn't a support system for art - it's the other way around," he concludes.
Throughout the book, but especially in this chapter, King pays tribute to wife, Tabitha. She is King's "Ideal Reader," the person for whom he writes all of his books, the one who he wants to make laugh or cry through his writing. His love and admiration for her shines through, from a touching scene in their early courtship where he sits at her feet as she reads her poetry in a workshop, his hand on her calf, to her organization of a group intervention to make him confront his addiction problems, and all the way through to her support and encouragement of him during his convalescence.
At the end, King includes a list of nearly a hundred novels that he considers the best that he's read in the last three or four years. "A good many of these might show you some new ways of doing your work. Even if they don't, they're apt to entertain you," he concludes.
The same might be said of "On Writing."
on September 18, 2000
Though far from the definitive writer's guideline, this book shines a unique perspective on the craft. Stephen King lays down the law and then teaches it. He shares his techniques, his pet peeves, and his own personal horrific experiences - both as child and adult - and he does it all within the cerebral classroom of the printed page. He wraps a juicy filling of personal tragedy, growth and experience within a tight covering of his famous story telling style.
As a human, I was touched by his childhood anecdotes and often laughed with him about his insecurities. I am still in awe at what he has recently had to overcome physically. I mean, damn.
As a writer, I am grateful for a brief glimpse into his vocational world. I gained confidence from learning about things I have been doing right and have changed many bad habits (may the adverb rest in peace). I've read several tomes on the subject and believe his reigns as the most complete.
I've been a fan of King's since the seventh grade when I was given The Dead Zone and Cujo as an Easter present. A year later I had read every book he'd published (with the exception of the dreaded Limited Editions of which I could opine negatively for hours - suffice it to say that writing should be for everyone to read, not just the rich). I've read or listened to all his books since. I can honestly say, that this is my favorite.
Sometimes the coldest hands to wrap around your neck are the true ones.
The only bad thing I can say about this book is that it's too short, something one rarely has the opportunity to state regarding the beloved author.
A huge thank you to Mr. King for a brief indulgence into the life of a genius.
on November 8, 2005
I enjoy reading Stephen King and I love writing, so I bought a copy with great expectations. I found it disappointing in both structure and advice. The first 100 or so pages are almost pure biography. Labeled "C.V.," this long section describes how King developed as a writer. Unlike the biographical sections of other such works (Norman Mailer's The Spooky Art, for example), most of the biographical stories have only the merest connection to learning the craft of writing. I couldn't help thinking that King desired to write an autobiography to immortalize friends and family, but didn't take the plunge and so instead lumped it into his book on writing.
The latter part of the book provides his advice on fiction writing, much of which is excellent and compelling. However, some of the advice understandably mirrors weaknesses that appear in King's own writing. I remember a high school friend commenting (he'd just finished The Mist, I believe) that King couldn't "write a good ending to save his life." This failing is well explained by his dislike for outlining and pre-conceived conclusions.
An English professor of mine called it "grooming your own thicket." When writing without a clear idea of the conclusion, most writers have a snarled mess by the time they reach page 50. The branches of unresolved plot, so clear in the beginning, have grown out of control and enmeshed the writer in chaos.
If you're a beginning writer, realize that Stephen King is a one in a million writer (as proven by his incredible success) and what works for him may not work for you.
on February 14, 2001
First of all, I should probably mention that I had never read a Stephen King book in my entire life. I've never had much interest in horror or mystery or suspense. Naturally, I wasn't sure what to expect, and I was a little wary. Another motivation for picking up this book was the fact that I've been writing for the vast majority of my life, and I was curious to see if I was on the right track. I received 'On Writing' for Christmas and read it through a week in January.
I was absolutely stunned. Sure, I respected Mr. King as a successful novelist, and knew a little of his personal life; after this book, I felt like I'd known him personally for years. As many others have mentioned, this book is really divided into three parts: a short memoir, a manual of writing technique, and the now well-publicized accident.
The first part, "C.V.", was really glimpses into Mr. King's life, interesting little episodes that he considered life lessons or things that sparked his sense of humor. It also provides a very important part of a good writer: He grew up loving to read, and reading frequently. He also started writing and submitting his work at an early age. "C.V." paints the picture of a real-life struggling novelist: how he had to work at several different crummy (though interesting) jobs while supporting a family, a drug habit, and a hefty manuscript.
The second part was "On Writing". In this, Mr. King takes almost no credit for what he's saying. He constantly refers back to 'The Elements of Style' by Strunk & White. He also gives you, flat-out but not in a patronizing tone, what you need to succeed as a decent writer. The best way to summarize how I felt about the section as a whole is this: when he revealed that he taught high school English for several years before the success of 'Carrie', I was desperately jealous of those students. He'd teach an *awesome* class.
I was most impressed by the last section of the book, where he explores his painful memories of the accident and his slow road to recovery. It literally wrenched my heart when he talked of his wife setting up a table in the stuffy hall that he sat at to write for the first time. It was obvious that writing is more than just a business occupation--it's obvious Mr. King has a true passion for the craft.
I applaud him for it--such people come few and far between.
Read this book. You won't regret it.
on September 29, 2000
Being a huge Stephen King fan I knew that I would enjoy this book. What surprised me was just how good this book was. It provides valuable insight not only into the mind of King but on the writing process itself. You will find yourself inspired to actually sit down at the computer yourself and finally put down those ideas that have been floating around in your head. However, King does make it clear that writing is a serious job and that it is not for anyone. His insight into the business side of the craft will prove to be valuable to any aspiring writer. I always enjoy the "note to the reader" section that King often includes in his novels. On Writing reads like one long "note to the reader" and is often funny and at other times quite touching. King is amazingly honest about his own troubles and faults and the section of the book detailing his accident and road to recovery are inspiring. Most of all the best thing about this book is that King's love of writing, reading and all things about books comes shining through. What an amazing man.
on October 28, 2000
I have never read Stephen King's work, but being an aspiring writer, I bought this one simply because the reviews were too good to ignore.
I'll add to this pile now.
The biographical first part is written in a smooth and flowing style that keeps you turning the pages late into the hours. It details King's journey to becoming a published author, as well as his battle with substance abuse. All the humour, heartbreak, and hardship shine through to inspire anyone who is unlucky enough to want to write.
The second part contains the truth about the craft. The work, sacrifice, and the suggestion that writing is something you just might *not* be able to do. In addition, it contains helpful sections pertaining to building good writing habits, things to avoid, exercises, etc. There are some things I don't agree with, such as avoiding adverbs if possible, but it takes nothing away. The information in this part of the book is something you'll be hard pressed to find anywhere else. To some, it'll be ugly, to those who really do want to write, it'll be comforting to know that everyone doing it is fighting the same battle.
The third part is King's view on his close brush with death and how it's affected his life.
The two "And Furthermore" sections at the end contain a fully corrected piece of fiction that is an invaluable lesson, and a recommended reading list.
If you want to be a writer, buy this book. Whether you read King's work or not.
on November 27, 2000
Stephen King has sold a gazillion books. Along with Tom Clancy, John Grisham, he is a member of the trifecta of modern pop-literature. It seems every book is a potential movie. So why did he write this book now? Why write a book on writing? Is it necessary? Is it even worth buying? C'mon, folks, he's "got it" and 99.9% of aspiring writers don't. Right?
I think Stephen King wrote this simply because he can. He knows it is a select audience that is going to read it. Those fans who don't ever care to be writers won't read this book. Well, actually they might, thinking to themselves that they might gain some secret insight into the mind of their idol. They will be disappointed. In not so many words, Mr. King says exactly the same thing himself. There is no secret to his storytelling. It just is what it is...lots of hard work.
The first part of this 280+ page book is autobiography. He expounds on a few of his life "snapshots" that may or may not have influenced particular characters or scenes throughout his collection of works. But if you desire to buy this book just to uncover those snippets of Stephen King trivia, be my guest. It will only make him more money. I think the author was only trying to open up a bit more directly to his readers--instead of doing it via a fictional charcter (which he asserts every character he has created is a part of himself) within his stories.
The other part of this book is, of course, on writing. He answers questions often asked him in book signings and semanars ("Where do you get your ideas? etc etc") as well as questions he wishes people would ask. He analogizes writers as having multi-leveled "toolboxes." Important things like vocabulary and grammar go on top of the tool box where they are most accessible. Elements of style and dialogue and paragraph structure go elsewhere along with theme and symbolism, etc. This analogy is a fantastic discription that I hope to use with my own students some day (whenever I go back to teaching). I also enjoyed the expert lessons on discipling one's self towards writing. Of course, what works for him may not work for everyone, but I think many hopeful writers reading this will find commonalities with someone who is making a living, and the rest of us doing it for now as a hobby. As he says, "you could do worse" in following some of his examples.
Some of the lessons on style and grammar could be learned in a couple of writing courses in any college in the country. However, it would would be a lot less efficient and lot less interesting. This book isn't going to give you credit hours, but it will give you helpful tips. Sometimes a car only needs a jump start, not an engine overhaul.
I could describe everything about this book that will keep it prominantly on my bookshelf (dog-eared, loaded with post-it notes and little penciled notes in the margins, no doubt), but the gist is this: If you love to write and feel you may be pretty good at it, read this book. If you just "like" Stephen King as a novelist and don't think about the intricacies of writing then go to the library. Check out this book and skim the auto-bio section and return the book after 2 weeks. You won't be bored and then someone else can use the book to do the same.
I have always held that you can extract a ton of information about a person by what they read everyday. (Ernest Hemingway vs. Robert James Waller; Wall Street Journal vs. Field and Stream etc). In the last 3 pages Stephen King submits his private reading list that have influenced him in some way in the last 3 years. Wonderful list! I photocopied it so I can keep it in my wallet so whenever I am at a bookstore I can look for a few of the titles. It WAS a boost to my ego though, when I realized out of the 100 or so books he lists, I have read about 30 of them. Nice to know that a bestselling author and myself are on a similar mindset.
Already after I finished, I began going through some of my own journals form college and looking for ideas I had started, but never finished. I have already set aside more hours to read (and turning of the TV, which he recommends) and to write. With a couple more readings of this book I may ever become encouraged to submit some stories for publication.
PS: one more thing. The last section that he wrote describing his near-death accident in 1999, when he was run-over by a van being driven by someone messing with his dog, is a real sobering account. For anyone who has thought not to continue writing due to something tragic in their life (because they don't know how to keep creative, etc) this account will tug on your heart.
on September 25, 2000
When faced with a King book, no matter its subject matter, expect to be fully entertained. Though On Writing may be a how-to book, there's plenty of stuff in here that many non-writers would be interested in. The first half the book is a loose autobiography, perhaps more accurately described as a scattered collection of anecdotes (I believe this is something close to what King calls it, too) than a complete dossier. Many of the stories are quite funny, especially the interaction between King and his brother. The most surprising part of this section is King's drinking/drug problems -- I had no idea, though I must say, I always wondered about his monumental production in the late 80's. I think in one year, 3 books came out basically all at the same time -- Misery, Eyes of the Dragon, and Dark Tower II: Drawing of the Three. Throw in the Tommyknockers, too, and what you have there is King's second renaissance, thanks to beer and blow. Of course drugs almost killed him, but hey, you have to admit, those were some pretty damn good books.
The second part of the book is all about writing, and I must say, I'm not so sure King imparts such illuminating wisdom. He says outrageous stuff like how all first drafts of books should be written in three months (Hey, Mr. King, not everybody can do what you do!), or that you should average something like 2000 words a day. Those are King-sized goals to say the least. Outside of the unusual quantitative requirements, everything else he says has been said before: leave out the adverbs, second draft should be smaller than the first draft, blah blah blah. Don't expect anything earth-shattering, but do expect to have fun.
The last part of the book is his account of his run-in with a truck that almost killed him. This was printed in The New Yorker in its entirety a couple of months ago. And then there are a couple of appendices, both pertaining to writing. Actually, I think the first appendix here might be the best part of the book -- King shows us a draft of a story, then an edited version of it, complete with proofreading marks. Studying and learning this section would no doubt greatly benefit a writer. The second part is a list of recommended books.
on July 21, 2001
I was not a reader of Stephen King before I read this superb book. Frankly, I am not fond of the horror-suspense genre. Like many I know, I pretty much wrote off Mr King's work (a decision based more in prejudice than anything else). But something led me to pick up a copy of this book. Perhaps it was the fact that I know I have often liked film versions of his work. Perhaps it is because I now live in New England, and I have an increasing sense of connection to the 'stories' of this place (and hence, potentially, its storytellers). Whatever the motivation, I picked up the book -- and I did not want to put it down until I had finished it.
What most struck me about Stephen King's book on writing is how well it conveys insight into the Soul of the man and the passion of the writer. There is a down to earth sense of reality to the encounter one finds in these pages. King manages to work the magic of giving the reader an opening into his world -- the world within. The book intrigues me.
This book is part personal memoir and part commentary on the craft. Both parts of the book are priceless and compliment one another perfectly. King does a lot to make clear to the reader that it is real people who write. And his comments on writing are no-nonsense and practical. The book is a wonderful source of advice.
More than this, perhaps, it is a source of encouragement. Stephen King is inviting others into the waters of the craft of writing. He is helping them to see past misconceptions of what life writing is like and into the reality of hard work and inspired 'magic.' This book is a very loving work, in a lot of ways. It is an invitation to storytellers to share their gift.
This is an excellent book. I give it my highest recommendation.