Saturday, 14 April 2012

'On Writing' by Stephen King

Ask any author the question, 'how can I improve my writing?' and you are likely to get the following response: 'Write and read ... a lot!'

In a previous post I hinted at a new writing schedule I'm using.  I'll be writing more about it in the coming weeks, but it's working.  I'm writing, on average, 1000 words a day!

And the 'reading' bit?  I read all the time.  I've always got at least one book on the go.  But what about reading a book on writing?  Wouldn't that help?  I thought it might.

So, a few weeks back I hit Amazon looking at the sample pages of a few books on how to 'Become a Bestseller!!!'.  Well, not really.  I was just after a quality guide to help with my writing.  It was difficult because I wanted something that was clear, but not too boring, and not full of hyperbole that seems to dominate the self-help genre.

I found it - Stephen King's On Writing.

Whether you're a fan or not, there's no denying the success of King as a writer.  According to Wikipedia, King has sold over $350 million copies of his works, and has won more awards than you can throw a book at.  So maybe this writer knows something about the writing game.  And if he's willing to share it, I was willing to read it.

Is it good?

Better than good.  It gives wonderful, insightful and useful tips about writing.  But more than this - it's  a great read!

On Writing is a memoir, and as such we are invited into King's past as he takes us on his journey to writing stardom.  He tells us a very honest story of how he started writing as a child- his mother bought his first stories for "a quarter a piece",  to publishing his first novel, Carrie.  What I liked is how he paints a very real picture of his journey.  He had many obstacles and setbacks to his writing just like we all do.  He speaks almost fondly of the stack of rejection slips he had nailed to his wall!

He is a funny writer too.  And I found myself chuckling along through the whole thing.  Here's one of my favourite bits, where King laments the 'truth' that bad writers exist:

"I can't lie and say there are no bad writers.  Some are on staff at your local newspaper, usually reviewing little-theater productions or pontificating about the local sports teams.  Some have scribbled their way to homes in the Caribbean, leaving a trail of pulsing adverbs, wooden characters, and vile passive voice constructions behind them."

I had a loud guffaw at this and wondered which best selling author he was thinking of when he wrote it (Jackie Collins?  Danielle Steel?).

King allows us a view of deeply personal trials.  His addiction to drugs was a surprise to me.  At the end of the book, he shares his come back from a near fatal accident, and it is truly inspiring to read about his strength during this time.

But what about the writing?

This is why I had picked the book in the first place.  So did he help me with writing?  YES!  He references Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, a lot  - "There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book."  And gives plenty of his own advice.

As I read, On Writing, I highlighted various tidbits that were particularly useful and I'll share some with you here:
  • Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.
  • The basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind.
  • The adverb is not your friend.
  • The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.
  • Omit needless words.
  • You should have settled on a daily writing goal ... I suggest a thousand words a day
  • In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.
  • Never tell us a thing if you can show us, instead.
There are many more of course, but really you should read it for yourself and make your own highlights.  

One recurring piece of advice King states, is to always tell the 'truth' in your writing.  What he means is that your story, whether narrative or dialogue, must seem true. "Honesty is indispensable."  I think this is very good advice, but difficult sometimes to assess in your own work.

For aspiring writers, I cannot recommend this book enough.  But if you're a Stephen King fan you will also find it interesting.

I'd like to finish by quoting one more snippet from King, that reflects the start of my post:

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


  1. Aderyn -

    I too find this book useful and inspiring. My favorite part is where he writes about chapter plotting and the way he actually avoids making too many rigid chapter outlines, prefering to let his creativite subconscious take over the course of his book.

    It was a reminder to me about the spontaneity of the writer. I'm wrestling with my second novel now because I want to know how every scene begins and ends before any writing takes place.

    This book is still on my nightstand. I'll read some more of doctor King's memoirs tonight.

    Thanks for the refresher.

    1. I also found his views on outlining interesting. King does very little outlining, he sees it as a restricting activity that can limit the natural emergence of the story. The more I write, the more I see his point. When you actually sit down and write the novel, many things arise that you simply cannot foresee in your planning. For me, outlining is important, but I don't go into great detail with it. I'll be talking more about outlining in coming posts.

  2. I have heard a couple of good reviews on this book now - I think I'm going to have to read it!

    And that's so awesome that your writing schedule is working out and that you are getting a thousand words a day written - I'm very impressed (and looking forward to your next posts on the deets - maybe I can borrow your method?) :D

    1. Maybe you can AK, I'm going to keep using it for a while yet before I write about it here, I want to 'test' it for a little longer. I hope you can read the book, I'd like to hear what you think of it :)

  3. thank you for this post!
    In an interview, I think King mentioned specifically that Stephanie Meyer was one of those "bad writers" lol. I found you through the master list on the making connections group on goodreads and am now following you! Hope you will follow back/check out my blog if you like it!

  4. I've been wanting to check this book out for awhile now, but hadn't heard how good it actually was. Sounds like I'll definitely have to check it out! Thanks for the awesome post!

    Also, on a sidenote: I've found that I write best in the early morning or late late evening. So now I've now blocked off those hours as writing hours. It works so well! I love having a writing schedule!

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