Stephen King is a phenomena. Look him up. The bibliography. The awards. There must be something to learn from his book On Writing. The book is full of rich, lengthy examples from the development of his own novels that serve to illustrate the principles or practices he recommends. Or show how he learned the hard way by doing.
The first section “C.V.” is a short (115 page) autobiography focused on events and times that shaped and influenced his writing. It is colourful, rich. Full of stories about doing things hard, early writing life, piles of rejections, persistence, early married life. When I skipped through this section for this quick review I spotted a few references to death. Because it’s King? I think just because he is observant, not afraid to tackle any subject and is blindingly honest – one of his lessons from later in the book.
The second section is about the author’s “Toolbox”.
“I want to suggest that to write to your best abilities it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and immediately get to work.’
The toolbox has different levels, as a regular toolbox might. Common tools are on top, easily accessible:
- vocabulary – using the right word
- getting the basics of grammar right
- active (not passive writing)
- avoiding adverbs
- keeping dialogue attribution simple – just use “he said” and the reader will understand how he said it:
“Your man may be floundering in a swamp, and by all means throw him a rope if he is…but there’s no need to knock him unconscious with ninety feet of steel cable.”
The next layer down holds elements of style. King recommends Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, for example using short sentences and fragments to “streamline narration”, and using short paragraphs to provide stage direction, indications of character or setting.
“in fiction the paragraph is…the beat instead of the actual melody.’
In section three “On Writing” King recommends:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
He reads 70 or 80 books a year, and the reading lists offered at the back of the book show he reads broadly across many genres.
He warns of the danger of subconsciously adopting style of an author you are reading, something I became aware of in my earlier attempts at writing.
How can you write if you don’t have the time to do it. Make time! Avoid TV!
“You must be prepared to do some serious turning inward toward the life of the imagination…Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it.”
“…offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh…”
Write a lot. He describes his writing schedule, and how once started on a writing session he must keep going until he meets his target. He aims to write the first draft of a book in three months, “the length of a season”. He has a target of 10 pages, or 2000 words per day, so at the end of three months he will have a manuscript of 180 thousand words. Don’t stop each day until you have reached your target. Don’t take a day off. Don’t stop until you have finished.
Write behind a closed door. Find a place to write, close the door and focus on the writing. You mean business. You have a regular schedule, a concrete goal, and will eliminate distraction. Loud music might not be a distraction! This idea resonated strongly with me – I don’t like talking to anyone about my stories until finished. I don’t know enough about them.
Every story must tell the truth.
And you tell the truth of your story through three elements:
- Narration – getting from a to b. King talks about liberating the story, discovering it, and like unearthing a fossil you do this with delicate tools not necessarily the jackhammer of plotting the whole story from the start. The twists and turns, and the end of the story may be a surprise to the writer as well.
- Description which brings alive the sensory reality of the story’s setting. He gives an example of taking the first four things you think of about a place you know, and using those in your writing to bring the place alive.
- Dialogue which brings the characters to life. It must be honest, as the characters themselves must be.
There are good chapters on revising the first draft, editing and improving, including a lengthy worked example:
“Most of all, I’m looking for what I meant, because in the second draft I’ll want to add scenes and incidents that reinforce that meaning.”
“I feel that buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and put them in a line…Writing…makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place”