On Writing, by Stephen King

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

In this book, King tries to give an account of what has shaped his writing style, and provide advice for would-be writers.

The first section of the book is a potted autobiography, in which King picks out episodes that he feels have relevance to his writing, including the stories about how he first tried to get published, and about all the rejection slips that he accumulated. This was reasonably interesting, but the meat of the book was in the subsequent sections.

To start with, King enumerates what he sees as the essential tools of the writer's trade: vocabulary, grammar, care for structure, etc.. He is not keen on the passive tense, and has some examples which do seem to back this up. E.g. "The writer threw the rope" is better than "The rope was thrown by the writer". He also says adverbs are bad, and in his own work makes an effort to remove them. In this he reminds me of Elmore Leonard (who he credits) - he also makes the point that "said" is the best word to use when reporting speech. Not "pleaded", "shouted", "cried", and certainly not "uttered menacingly".

After having described the "writer's toolbox", King talks more about the exercise of writing. The basic message seems to be: there is no magic formula. He is very keen on reading: "you have to read widely... if you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write". You should put yourself in an environment where you can concentrate and won't be disturbed (he calls this "writing with the door closed"). Get rid of any distractions - phone, TV.

Don't worry about plot. Or at least King doesn't (usually). Get the characters and situation right, let them interract and watch what happens. He uses the metaphor of the story being a fossil, which it's the writer's job to find, and with the aid of his toolbox, to remove all the dirt and uncover the detail. He does acknowledge that some novels do rely on plot (e.g. murder mystery) though.

Description is important, but it's better to under-describe than to provide too much detail. If you want to convey an impression of something or someone, focus on the aspects which spring to mind and use those, rather than giving an exhaustive list.

In your first draft, don't worry about getting it right. Experiment, try different things. But you must be prepared to cut out what doesn't work, even if you like it ("Murder your darlings").

King reckons that for him, the process involves "two drafts and a polish", but acknowledges that this varies greatly from writer to writer. After the first draft has been written, put it in a drawer and leave it for "a minium of six weeks". Don't look at it at all. Then come back to it and read it all the way through, making notes as you go on what needs fixing.

He doesn't rate writing classes. Or at least, he says that it can be interesting to hear the opinions of someone who has experience of writing, but the sharing of your own work with others is, in King's opinion, not productive.

The book has a section describing the accident which nearly killed him, and which occurred half-way through his writing of this book. Interesting to have this, but I don't think it's crucial.

At the end of the book is a section from the first draft of one of his stories ("1408", published in Everything's Eventual), followed by the same text as it looked after King has been through to revise it. He explains what he changed, and why, and it's really interesting to see how the changes he made do enhance the writing.

A couple of things (not exactly criticisms, but) at the start of the book, King talks about his playing in a band made up of other writers: "we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don't know." I've heard him express similar sentiments elsewhere, and yet in this book he gives several examples of how things happened to him which gave him the idea for a novel (Carrie, Misery, From a Buick 8).

Although he's against the passive voice, and although I think that his avoidance of it does help lend vigour to his writing, I'm not sure it's always wrong to use it. Maybe if you're wanting to write a page-turner, then avoiding the passive is a good idea but I don't know that it's universally bad.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book, partly because I'm sympathetic to a lot of the things King says I suppose. I think it will make me more conscious, as I write, of the things I need to do better.

Completed : 24-Jun-2007

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