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Author: LongHook Big red star, 1000 posts Add to my Favorite Fools Ignore this person (you won't see their posts anymore) Number: of 4867  
Subject: Review: "On Writing" by Stephen King Date: 7/21/2003 11:52 PM
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I've talked a bit about how good I consider "On Writing" by Stephen King, but now that I've finished it, I think it's pretty much a must read for anyone that wants to write fiction seriously.

Let me preface this first by saying that the book isn't a typical "How to write stuff" book. King doesn't presume to tell you the magical pearls of wisdom that will make you into the next great literary discovery, instead he just relays some of his own opinions and, more importantly, experiences that have led him to where he is.

I should also add that I am not a huge Stephen King fan, so this isn't a case of rampant fan love. I enjoyed some of his earlier books such as The Stand and The Shining, but pretty much lost interest after It. I think King is a fantastic storyteller, but I think his stories, themselves, are pretty plain.

The book is very conversational. In fact, there are no chapters (nor a table of contents), just sections labeled from 1 to 16, along with a couple of appendices, including a moving description of his near fatal accident (he was struck by a van while taking a walk on a country road) and the subsequent recovery.

Most of the book consists of reminiscing on his childhood, describing the formative events that inspired him to write and submit his work for publication. His narrative ability is striking, and he managed to keep me engrossed even when talking about the most mundane things like receiving rejection slips at the age of 14.

Starting at page 111, we enter his Toolbox section, which is what most aspiring writers would consider the meat of the book. It definitely is laden with the most practical advice.

His toolbox analogy basically breaks down as thus -- toolboxes are layered, with the most commonly accessed tools on top. Try to find and hone your important tools, and understand how to use them intuitively. Important tools include things like vocabulary, grammar and brevity. He gives very cogent, practical reasons for each of these, instead of just a bunch of academic high-falutin' stuff.

King pays homage to Strunk and White (which I would say is the #1 most important book on writing I can think of), and then talks about his own pet peeves in writing (particular phrases, use of the passive voice, and a fairly huge tirade on adverbs). He also goes on at length about the wonderful value of "said" instead of all the amateurish synonyms neophyte writers use. I've seen this mentioned so many times that I think it should be pretty much common knowledge.

He makes a very insightful statement: fear is the root of most bad writing. When you have no fear and just say what you want to say, then you come off as more assertive, and there is less mealy mouthing of statements. I know for a fact that whenever people laud my own writing (i.e. Internet posts), it's when I'm just trying to say something, not when I'm trying to write. Discard the self-consciousness and affectation.

Moving on, he goes into more nuts and bolts stuff -- possessives for proper names that end with 's' should be written as "Thomas's" not "Thomas'", etc. The paragraph is your friend -- understand formatting and layout since it is a key to flow.

Finally at Page 141 we hit the section On Writing, where it gets a bit more philosophical about writing, and where I found most of the real value. He talks about the difference between bad, competent, good and great writers, and posits that you can't make a bad writer competent; or a good one great; but that with hard work you CAN make a competent writer into a very good one.

His first rule of being a writer is that you must read a lot and write a lot. No argument here. Lots of good examples and justifications for this are presented. He also talks about what is "writing a lot", and the relative output of different authors, and then his own goals for writing (2000 words/day).

Next up is a discussion on "the writing place" and his perfect location to write (his desk at home, how it's configured, etc.). This is followed by a very good analysis of the "write what you know" adage.

King's view of stories is that they are composed of three things: narrative (the story arc); description; and dialogue. It's a pretty good break down, and he further goes on to give in depth analyses of each of these areas along with examples of authors that excel in one area and are incredibly bad at others.

Going back to a recent discussion here, King is a pretty big proponent of "the story writes itself". He does not believe in outlines or rigid formats, and instead feels that the stories -- specifically the characters -- are driving his work, not the other way around. I think this is fine, but as anyone who reads King will know, he doesn't really make very intricate story lines. In fact, The Stand is a pretty classic case of deus ex machina (and a book he almost never finished because he got stuck 500 pages into it and didn't know what to do).

I am not a large fan of stories that write themselves, but if you have that gift of narrative and don't mind writing relatively simplistic plots, then hey, go for it. Worked for King.

His notes on description are also very dead on. Reading that section made me realize that for many writers, they'll never "get it". If someone has to explain to you the difference between overly verbose descriptions and keeping succinct, well...good luck.

Greg Bear is a sci-fi writer who suffers from this. Every new character is greeted with a paragraph discussing their physical features, but in fact most people don't care. They fill in the details for themselves, and this is the case with most description. If an author neglects to note the color of the paint in the den, most readers will easily fill it in for them. Describe what's relevant; imply as much about a character as possible without sledgehammering people over the head with verbosity.

And yes, he talks about profanity. "On Writing" is clearly a conversational piece, and King makes no attempt to avoid tweaking people's sensibilities. I think he gave an outstanding rationale for using bad words -- the writer's job is to tell the truth about people, and when everyone is saying "Oh gosh" and "Golly gee darnit", you're lying to the reader. Even the nicest people in the world sometimes say "Oh shit!" when they hit their thumb with a hammer. Anyway, use profanity when appropriate and honest.

The remainder of the book talks about writer's block, revisions and then his near death incident. All very good stuff, and he can really take the most ordinary topic (revisions) and give brilliant insight into the process, although without patronizing, condescending or lecturing.

Fantastic book, and if you consider yourself a writer, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you don't read it.

I am not a huge fan of "how to write"-type books, but on occasion I run into one that approaches the topic from the right direction (observations about good/bad habits), and I'm a much better writer for simply having read the book. This is one of those few books.

-Hook
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