Review 85: On Writing


On Writing by Stephen King

When I was in college, I sent a letter to Stephen King. It was the first letter I’d ever sent to an author – to any famous person, as far as I can recall – and I did my best to not sound completely fannish in it. I told him that I really liked his work, especially The Stand, and how I looked forward to seeing how other books came out, The Dark Tower series in particular. As far as I can remember, I kept my head. I was cool.

But I also did what I reckon many people do when they write to their favorite authors – I told him that I enjoyed writing as well, and I hoped I could be an author someday. In retrospect, I imagine King gets a lot of these letters, and after I’d sent it, I figured that was my stupid fanboy move. I knew what I wanted to happen next – I’d get a call from Stephen King who says, “You know, judging from the well-written letter you sent me, I would like to see an example of your fiction,” and so I’d send him the short story I was working on and he’d write back and say, “You’re BRILLIANT! I’m going to devote my remaining days to seeing that you become a writer of greatness! Stick with me, kid, and the world is your oyster!”

The advantage I have over other people with overactive imaginations is that I know when mine is bullshitting me. Honestly, I figured I’d never hear from him at all.

On that point, at least, I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I got a letter from none other than Stephen King himself! Included was a card, on which he thanked me for my kind words about his work, as well as a couple of photocopies of articles he had done about writing. I figure he had a whole stack of these, ready to send to every prospective writer out there, but it meant a lot to me that he had taken the time. The articles talked about how he wrote, and the advice he always gave to budding writers.

I figure he must have gotten a lot of letters like mine, because he eventually wrote this book. In it is nearly everything he knows about how to write well. I figure that he hoped people would stop asking when he published it, though I doubt people did. Those who want to be writers – and you can ask any published writer about this – believe that there’s a Secret to getting published. That there’s some special club of writers and agents and publishers who all know each other and in order to get in you have to go to live with John Scalzi and become his personal cat waxer for a year.

But it ain’t so. What those who are already in publishing will tell you is that the best way to get a story published is to write a great story. Do that, and your chances of success are much improved.

How, then, do you write a great story? All King can tell us – all any writer can tell us – is how he does it.

The first of the book is his Curriculum Vitae, in which he tells us about how he became a writer. It’s not a particularly surprising story, really. He gives us his memories of writing as a child, from knock-offs of horror comics to original works of horror and fantasy. The stories he tells, the memories that he relays to us show that he was interested in writing all his life, and the desire to write – no, the need to write – was something that has always been with him.

It follows him through his days as a neophyte novelist, breaking into the big time with the sale of Carrie, and how the personal and financial success he gained from that propelled him to write more and better. And, of course, there were the Dark Days. The drugs and the alcohol, the books he can’t remember writing and the days he can’t remember drinking through. He’s sober now, of course, but this is a warning – one of many peppered throughout the book: beware the Writers’ Traps. The illusion that you must be a drunk, a la Hemingway, to be a good writer, is one. He fell for it and, fortunately for us, he climbed his way out again.

Much like any trade, skill in writing is built by experience, and having the faith that you have something worth saying to the world. But even just having something to say and an unshakable faith won’t make you a good writer, so the second part of the book is a bit more practical: how do you make a story? Well, much like any trade, you need your tools. You need your grammar and structure and vocabulary so that you can present your ideas in a comprehensible form. You need your metaphor and simile, so that you’re not being too obvious in what you want to say. You need your symbolism, description and characterization, foreshadowing and nuance and dialog. But what you need the most is practice, patience and faith.

He walks through the steps of composition, character creation, and coming up with the essential through-line of your story. He gives us his own pet peeves as a writer (he hates adverbs passionately and says that the passive voice is to be avoided at all cost) and exhorts us to read as many different writers as we can. He gives us the benefit of his years of experience and the things he has learned, and says to us, “Now you try.”

King sets a very challenging bar, though – 2,000 words a day, every day, no exceptions. Well, for people just getting started he’s willing to be a little lenient: 1,500 words a day and you can have Sundays off. And you have to take it seriously, as you would any true craft. King recommends that you establish a Writing Space, ideally somewhere where you can close the door. Lose the distractions and take care of the reasons not to write.

And, as the fine folks at Nike would say, just do it.

Of course, if you’re new at this, most of what you write will be crap. In fact, even if you’re not new, the odds are that your first draft will be a mess. But if you have something to say, and you know what that is, then the story will shine through. You can polish it, revise, tweak and massage it until it’s something that you’re willing to let the rest of the world see.

It’s hard work, that’s for sure. At no point does King say that being a writer will be easy. He says that it’s sometimes thrilling, scary, exquisite, weird, toilsome, difficult, Sisyphean even. But never, ever easy. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up where he is. In fact, the odds are that you won’t be able to make a living as a writer. It’s certainly not impossible, of course – many men and women make that bar every year. But to write consistently at that level requires even more practice, patience and faith.

In the end, King is one writer who has most certainly made it big. He avoided destroying himself, and survived an accident that should have destroyed him, and he’s still writing. And if you get nothing else from this book, perhaps it is this lesson: a writer writes. No matter what, no matter why, a writer writes because that is what a writer must do to survive. If you’re willing to do that, if you have stories that you need to tell, then you might be a writer. It’s a scary thing to do, but who knows scary better than Stephen King? Take a read through this book, open up a fresh Word file, and get to work.

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“What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.”
– Stephen King, On Writing
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
On Writing on Wikipedia
On Writing on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s website

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