On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Paperback – July 6, 2010
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"This is a special book, animated by a unique intelligence, and filled with useful truth."—Michael Chabon
"On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style."--Roger Ebert
“The best book on writing. Ever.”--The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
About the Author
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Mr. King recommends to 1000 words per day. Even at 5 days a week, for 50 weeks, you would finish with 250,000 words, which is the size of 2-3 novels in a year. However, the main goal is to make writing a daily habit, and that is just one of the many tips that you learn in the book.
I recommend the audio version along with the book (hardback, paperback or Kindle version). Mr. King is your narrator, and he truly brings his words to life in his presentation.
If you are looking for a book on the genre that Mr. King is best known, you might want to pass. However, if you want to learn what makes an author take up the pen or typewriter to earn their daily bread with poetry and/or prose, or you want to earn your daily bread with YOUR poetry and/or prose, this is the book for your professional library. Oh, and read it ALL the way through before putting the book's golden nuggets of information into practice. In the last couple of chapters, he truly teaches the magic of the written word, and it will make more sense when you have read through the book from start to finish.
The breadth of this memoir comes as a surprise—what is a memoir of a craft anyway? King divides his memoir into several parts, including:
• C.V. (17-101).
• What Writing Is (103-137).
• On Writing (141-249).
• On Living: A Postscript (253-270).
• And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open (271-284).
• And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklike (285-288).
• Further to Furthermore, Part III (289-291).
His chapters are preceded by three forewords and, in spite of its length, this memoir reads quickly—but not too quickly. Still, the breadth of this work comes from the way that King weaves his life and his craft together—a visitor to the King house might be advised to forbear exploring the closets! What the heck; let’s explore.
King is an author and a household name. He has written numerous (35+) books, many of which have also appeared in film. As an example, his breakout work, Carrie, sold first as a paperback novel (1973) and was released three years later as a horror film.
Interestingly, Tabitha, King’s wife, rescued an early manuscript of Carrie from the trash, as King recalls:
“I had four problems with what I’d written. First, … the story didn’t move me emotionally. Second, ... I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready-made victim. … Third, … [I] was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. … Fourth, … the story wouldn’t pay unless it was pretty long. … I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away.” (76-77)
But, confronted with his Ideal Reader (Tabitha) telling him that this manuscript had promise, King went back and gave Carrie his best shot.
This notion of an Ideal Reader is interesting. King writes for his wife, Tabitha, who happens also to be an author, which seems most fortunate because she can articulate her opinions to King in actionable language. King explains:
“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.” (219)
King sees the Ideal Reader as particularly helpful in judging story pace—“the speed at which your narrative unfolds”—and the details to include in your backstory—“all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story” (220-223).
Part of the back story in King’s memoir evolves into front story in his postscript where he describes in detail his experience of being run over by a Dodge van in June of 1999, while walking down a country road in rural Maine (253-255). This story of his near-death experience might have been just an interesting aside, except for the fact that King had motivational problems in finishing this memoir back in that summer (265). I suspect that his life story suddenly became a slightly higher priority, having been thrown 14 feet in the air (259) and improbably lived through the experience.
Before I wrap up this review, let me make one more observation. King has an interesting view of plot. He describes plot as too big a hammer (a jackhammer) for normal use by fiction author and he prefers to motivate his characters through stressful situations (164). If you believe that we act out of our identities, then no two characters will respond the same way to a given tricky situation. How a story evolves out of a situation is therefore interesting and potentially surprising because people discover the character in themselves as they are challenged by life’s situations—we are ultimately strangers to ourselves; that is, until we are not. The thrill in the thriller is therefore hard to duplicate with a plot-line where the author already knows where the story will go and how it will get there—it is better to scrape the plot and discover the character the same way that a reader might. Therefore, King looks for strong situations and explores interesting what-if scenarios to challenge his characters and writes intuitively about how they respond (169).
Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is an interesting and helpful book for wannabe and experienced authors both, because he explores both writing and the writing life. Film buffs might also read this book to garner the backstory on his films, many of which are now cult classics. Personally, I read this book mostly because I like to read and love to write—perhaps, you do too.
Top international reviews
I tell myself I don't have enough time. Sure, I'm the greatest living novelist to never write a novel, if only I could get time to write the damn thing. Which is why I reached for Stephen King's On Writing. One of the most successful writers in history must know something about his craft, right?
Split into two parts, On Writing first tells the story of what made Stephen King a writer. At times hilarious and moving, but always honest, the first section had me laughing out loud (when his older brother tricks him into wiping his ass with Poison Ivy), marveling at his work ethic ("By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it"), and amazed at his success.
I also liked his writing.
Now. Here's a strange thing: he's one of the most successful authors of all time, and I hadn't read a single one of Stephen King's books. I pride myself on the eclectic nature of the books I read, and yet I've not so much as flipped to the back cover of the Shining, or even grazed the spine of Carrie. Horror isn't a genre I'd pick up without some serious prompting, so maybe I needed a book like this to show me all the great stuff I was missing out on (straight afterwards I went out and bought a collection of his short stories, so it likely won't be a problem for long). But King's success is no accident - this cat can write.
The second section is Uncle Stevie's how-to-guide for writers - a kind of framework for thinking about how you get the words down on the page, what words they should be ("The road to hell is paved with adverbs"), and getting rid of the words that don't belong ("To write is human, to edit is divine").
It's this framework that separates On Writing from the rest of the pack; it helps you understand how the small stuff fits in to the big stuff - it reminds you how narrative, dialogue, character, sentence, and paragraph work together to create the whole story, without getting bogged down in the details for too long. I've not read anything else that paints the whole picture in a way that On Writing does, nor anything that fills you with the confidence to sit down in front of a blank page.
Inspirational is what it is.
Time to boot up the laptop and pop the kettle on again I think...
Apart from an autobiography, I didn't know what to expect, perhaps a few tips on writing. But no, he gives us more. He gives us the tools, and practical advice as to how we should write. He gives rules to follow and things to avoid. He has a "Do as I say, not do as I do" policy in regards to adverbs for example.
As a writer myself, this book makes you want to re-evaluate your writing and sharpen your own tools. Sure, you cannot write like your favourite authors, but you can develop your own style and improve yourself. He tells it like a university lecturer and as a friend. This is the tone that inspires you to work harder. He believes in you.
The autobiography itself tells us about his childhood, the first book he wrote, his inspirations, how his wife contributes to his works, the publication of his first novel, to how he survived a horrible accident. He may not look it, but Stephen King is a fighter, he carried on writing. It kept him going. This is an uplifting book.
Who can possibly give the best advice on writing other than the best storyteller?
Essential for Writers, a Must-have for King fans.
It took me a while to get into this book, and I think that’s because I was desperate to get to the writing advice bit. I was often tempted to just skip forward, but I persevered with the initial chapters (they’re not boring by any means, I just wanted the writing advice!)
The first part of the book is a kind of memoir, as King recounts different events in his life that relate to his writing style and the genre he writes in too. It’s well written and enjoyable throughout, but I particularly like the later stages. I think everyone loves a good struggle-to-success story, and King’s is a great one. You can’t help but feel for him as he works hard to support his family and still manages to fit his writing in on the side. Just reading it made me want to write more and made me realise that excuses just don’t cut it – we’re all tired and busy, but if you really want to do something then you just get on and do it.
And then we get to the part where he sells Carrie and I actually had tears in my eyes. When he’s told the amount of money he’s getting for it, and looks around and the tiny, terrible houses he’s living in, and knows his life is going to change – I think it’s every writer’s dream. I adore success stories like this.
The actual writing advice is all very solid. Some of it is worded in a brilliant way that might cause a little revelation in you, but other bits are pretty standard advice that you’ll hear from all kinds of writers and editors. As always, there’s no magic formula for becoming a great writer or writing an amazing story – and anyone who tells you otherwise is not to be trusted – but there are certain skills you can develop and hone. I think the charm here is King’s bluntness and simple way of putting things – there’s no fluff here, no false hope, just a lot of great advice.
I’d definitely recommend this book, for any King fans who want to know more about him and how he writes his books, and for aspiring writer’s who want some straightforward advice. It doesn’t promise to make you a better writer, but with this advice, it can’t make you any worse.
As the title suggests, this is a book written for nervous authors looking for success by a frighteningly successful author. This book was on my wish list for a long time before I finally got down to reading it, and now I am wondering why I waited so long.
Naturally, I started off on the book with a great deal of anticipation. The first half of the book is a kind of brief autobiography of Stephen King, going back to his childhood and stressing the factors that shaped him as an author and his own efforts at achieving a name for himself. He started young, something I wish I had done. For a fellow author (light years behind King on the path to success) this part makes for fascinating reading, even if it does not directly address the title and intention of the book. . It does talk about an author’s struggles and failures and successes, and makes you want to emulate him.
Now to the “on writing”, second part of the book. I have this to say straight away: On Writing did not teach me much new in terms of new lessons on writing for authors. I really have not kept count of the number of books and blog posts and articles on writing I have read. I had already—and in most cases repeatedly—come across almost all of the finer points of writing King talks about.
What sets King above most others is how he presents things—his style of writing. That is uniquely Stephen King. That is uniquely enjoyable, and because it was enjoyable, I found myself rapt in what King had to say, and absorbing everything he said better. He covers the gamut of writers and writing, from Hemingway to Grisham, and he does not leave much unsaid.
Putting it in another way, King gets the point across better than most others, and that is what makes this book worth the cost and the read. At least for writers.
However I have read about this book from so many famous sources that I thought it was still worth a read.
It’s less of a how-to book than I expected. But what it does capture is a surprising (to me) humility on the part of one of the world’s most famous authors. That said, there is plenty of very very practical advice, clearly born from many many years of work.
Above all what comes off the page is the dedication to the craft, and a commitment to expressing the story of a novel as it is revealed to the author.
I confess to having no novel-writing experience so I can not compare to experience. But for someone preparing to write what I hope will be at least half-December non-fiction, it is certainly an inspiration and I hope, will be a guiding hand.
There are a few nuggets of common sense about writing thrown in, which probably confirm what you already suspected about becoming a writer anyway.
Spoiler alert: if you want to be a successful writer, begin writing when you're eight years old, be totally obsessed with writing every day, then study creative writing at university, don't be concerned about making money, be prepared to get hundreds of rejection slips, ... oh, and be incredibly lucky with maybe your first book... which got made into a film (Carrie) because you happened to be around at the right time. Like all creatives who made it big, the man paid his dues while he learned his trade.
The anecdotes were amusing, and the poor guy got badly injured (nearly killed) 20 years ago by an idiot redneck driver while out for a walk. Nobody deserves that. So... good luck to Stephen King. Apart from the bad accident, he's had quite a bit of luck in his life, which is great.
So... pay the money, read the book, and at least you can say you were given tips by one of the most successful writers of our times.
The description of his battle with alcohol was refreshingly honest and surprising. He barely remembers writing 'Cujo', apparently. 'At the worst of it I no longer wanted to drink and no longer wanted to be sober, either. I felt evicted from life.' 'On Writing' is full of things he tells us not to do, but like many famous writers he can break the rules. The main tips I took from the book are brevity and honesty. Both are required for good writing. Instead of 'The meeting will be held at seven o'clock' it should be ' the meeting's at seven'. He likes the idea of writing about what you know and using similes. He doesn't really rate writing classes or seminars, and he says taking a step back from your manuscript for six weeks can give you a fresh look when you go back to it. Lots of other tips and observations all through the book. Because the book was written in 2000 it is now quite dated; the publishing world has changed radically since then with the advent of the ebook and the boom in self-publishing. Competition is probably far more fierce nowadays. On average a successful author in the UK can only expect to earn £11,000 p.a. from writing, and big advances of $400k are extremely rare. But then we don't do it purely for money do we? It's a good job we don't!
Jonathan Nicholas, author of 'Who'd be a copper?'
There are many great hints and tips for budding writers to be found in his book. For me the most important was "kill your little darlings" those great bits of prose you're so proud of, but don't fit the story. We've all got them. My MS has shrunk by about 20% after reading this book and it's now much tighter and cleaner. I just need to put in some more hours to get the word count back up - thanks a LOT Stephen!!
Totally recommended as essential reading for any budding writers. And good luck to you all, you'll need it!
I skipped through the autobiographical part one, as I wanted to get to the nuts and bolts of part two. It's nice that Mr King adopts exactly the same style as myself, in his suggestions here, so this gave me a little thumbs up, that maybe I'll do something good in the writing department one day.
The final section was informative but still had me flitting around a lot.
I definitely recommend this book to other writers, as you will learn a trick or two but remember - and Stephen says this too - there are not secrets, short-cuts or tricks to writing. You have to learn through reading and writing yourself.
The rewards will spill forth from you :)
I approached this book full of expectations and I was curious to be met by Stephen’s memoir in the first half. I devoured every word, wanting more and more as I kept reading. Stephen King truly is, after all, a master of storytelling.
Then the toolbox came, and, although it kind of repeated some things I was already aware of (to some extent at least), there were many concepts which were better exposed and overall worded masterfully.
There is always something to learn from another writer. This book is the living proof of it.
And if I had to share one concept to summarise the entire thing, it would be this:
“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
Pick it up when you can, and also – most importantly – when you cannot. Read it, and let it inspire you. Just like it inspired me.
No, I don't consider On Writing a masterclass on the craft of penning a half decent book, frankly, the instruction is pretty thin, but as a peep-hole into the life of a writer who just loves to write, I found it pretty up-lifting...and hilarious.
The way King writes? It's like chatting with him in a dive bar while you are both half-cut. The man is human. Friendly, too. And, he's far from a God. He's just a man doing his best, and sometimes not all that brilliantly.