Monday 19 April 2010

Book review: On Writing

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

By Stephen King

(New English Library, 1 September 2001)

I'm pretty sceptical about books on writing; I think you learn how to do something by doing it. You don't learn how to swim, or do ballet, or play a musical instrument, just by reading a book. And I don't think writing is any different. Prior to purchasing On Writing, I owned two books about writing fantasy and SF, and neither of them did much for me. Much of the advice seemed rather obvious, and the tone used in both books was distinctly that of a teacher lecturing a student.

Despite this, I'd always been intrigued by Stephen King's On Writing, since it appeared to be widely regarded as the best book written about the craft of writing. Furthermore, King's probably the most popular author to have written such a book (certainly in the speculative genre) and so it was likely that he had plenty of interesting advice to give.

On Writing doesn't disappoint. I burned through the book in a couple of days, which is highly unusual for me - but that's what an addictive, absorbing read it is.

The first part is an autobiography, providing a glimpse of King's life from his childhood days through to his adult writing career. King pulls no punches, writing openly and honestly (and with a constant sense of wry humour) about his drug and alcohol addiction ("There was one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing"), as well as the difficulties he experienced while trying to get his career off the ground while struggling to pay the bills with a poorly-paid job and two kids. These revelations are entertaining and fascinating in equal measure, though most importantly they act as a context for the writing advice that comes later - King is effectively saying "Look, this is how tough it was for me. If you want to pursue a writing career then you better be prepared." It's perhaps the best lesson in the entire book, one of sheer perserverance. Nowhere is this perseverance more apparent than in the closing section of the book, in which King talks plainly about the day he was hit by a truck and almost died. The fact that he was back writing a mere six weeks after this horrific accident is testimony to his own determination and spirit, and his love of writing.

The book's middle section about writing is equally absorbing. What really struck me as being different about this book, compared to other books on writing, is the tone: King talks to the reader in a chatty, informal manner, which is preferable to the teacher/student tone of other books on writing that I mentioned earlier. Another difference is that King abstains from throwing numerous 'assignments' at you, prefering instead just to give his thoughts, opinions and suggestions on various elements of writing.

One of the books I own about writing is Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. I always thought that title is misleading, as it seems to suggest that the book contains some sort of secret about how to become a writer. This idea of some sort of secret formula is one that King pounces on and dismisses straight away. If you want to be a writer, he says, you just have to read and write - that's it. I liked the emphasis he placed on this idea of practice and self-improvement - that the best way to learn is by doing - as it seems more genuine than suggestions I've seen elsewhere. 

King goes on to touch on the usual subjects such as grammar, dialogue, and description, but also takes time to discuss the importance of having your own 'place' where you can lock yourself away to write without distraction, and the need for a regular writing schedule. He includes brief samples to demonstrate good and bad dialogue, as well as showing a sample of his work in both first and second draft form, so the reader can see what changed the second time through (King includes notes to explain the reasoning behind each edit). All the while, King manages to avoid lecturing the reader and going into too much detail; each section is relatively brief and cuts straight to the chase. Subsequently On Writing is full of useful ideas and suggestions, yet is a book that can be read like a pacy novel, rather than a textbook.

Verdict: If you want some advice on the craft of writing then this is the book you should pick up. King covers all the important areas, from language to agents, via the psychology of discipline. His advice is simple and easy to comprehend, and it's all delivered in a friendly, unintimidating tone. Fans of King (and anyone wondering what it must feel like to be skint and then receive a phonecall telling you that the rights to your first novel have just been sold for $300,000) will no doubt also enjoy the brief biographical sections, which vividly portray some of the most significant moments of King's life and writing career.


Todd Newton said...

I agree, it is a very good and useful book about writing. I also have the OSC book you mentioned, and it reads much more like a textbook than anything else. I can't particularly stomach writing books that give me "exercises," as I've never really found them useful, but I would recommend Terry Brooks' Sometimes the Magic Works. It was a relatively friendly and easy read from a very prolific SFF author.

James said...

Yeah, I totally agree - I'm not interested in assignments or exercises (the best way to practice writing I think is just to go ahead and write - be it a novel, a short story, whatever).

And yeah, I've also read Sometimes the Magic Works - not so much writing advice in there, but it's another really interesting book.

Kristopher A. Denby said...

Couldn't agree with you more. I'm not King's biggest fan, but this book is outstanding. Read it about 10 years ago when it came out and I had the same reaction. I'm a slow reader but tore through it in a few days.

Definitely a good read (and an eye opening one) for aspiring writers.

Good review.

Ryan said...

I read On Writing a few years back, and I think you'll find, like I have, that the lessons really stick. Every time I sit down to write, whether it be for school, or for pleasure, I find myself recalling bits of this book.