What I’m Reading: Stephen King’s On Writing

I started Stephen King’s On Writing on 10/14/2012. I finished it 10/16/2012. For the next two weeks, I debated whether or not I should write about my experience. Such a widely acclaimed author as Stephen King surely doesn’t need my help!

Oh hell, it looks like I’m reviewing this anyways.

The first thing that strikes me about Stephen King’s On Writing is the seeming effortlessness with which King uses language. This is my first Stephen King book, and by page 5, I’d determined that it shouldn’t be my last.

He takes us on a lightning tour of his life leading up to and through On Writing, factually and completely without pretension. This is my life. This is what made me the writer I am. Take it or leave it.

The particularly meaty part of the book, for the writers that primarily constitute this book’s readership, is his advice towards fledglings. He talks for a time about becoming a better reader, and encourages people to be widely read. The cynical might observe that it’s completely in King’s authorly interest to have rabid readers. I felt cynical too, when I’d first heard this, during a period where I’d become a bonsai reader due, mainly, to financial pressures. But King’s right: A poorly read writer is more likely to abuse tropes. I still remember my shock when an aspiring author at a writer’s conference unabashedly informed me about her mystery novel’s lead female protagonist, a sassy reporter, and the male lead: a too-old-for-this-shit cop.

Now I won’t say you shouldn’t explore the cliches of our genre. I will never tell a fantasy writer, “Hey, yeah, uhh, this is great, but can we have less dragons and shit?” because you can never have too many dragons. Tropes are tools, neither good nor bad, but it’d still do to know them. How many people these empathize, truly empathize, with a sassy reporter? It’s as dated as a drawknife. And unlike at Pioneer Days, you don’t get bonus points for old-timey authenticity. Learn machining before you become a blacksmith.

To belabor the point, in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary, Jiro says, “In order to be a great chef, you must have great taste. How are you going to impress with your taste if you don’t find new experiences?” Yeah, like what he said, only for writing.

King encourages stuffing your eyes with prose, because it teaches language usage, story, and characters. Even a bad book teaches a lot about writing right. He says he read 90 books a year, and you know what, I took him up on that challenge. Since 10/14/2012, I’ve read seven and started two more. Before that, I don’t have exact metrics. Surprise! I’m insane and track my reading and writing obsessively!

King then goes into a great deal of detail about his process: where he writes, the mechanics of good writing, and so on. I can’t more highly recommend this section, and refuse to give a Cliff Notes version. Go and sit down at a Barnes & Noble for a few hours if you’re strapped for the $20 this book costs. It’s well worth the money and time.

He also recommends several practices to ensure good editing, such as letting the manuscript cool off for 6 weeks before going at it with the editing pen. He says this ensures distance, and looking back on my post-Snowraven exhaustion, I’d say he’s right. Your mind will want a break after the first draft. Which, speaking of, you should write all in one go, and as silently as possible. I agree with these two points as well. Every time I’ve stopped a piece to edit some earlier part of it, the manuscript died on the vine. Same too, with a story I explained to a friend. The first draft isn’t the time to gloat over one’s own brilliance. Probably shouldn’t ever gloat at all.

So King says write 1,000+ words/day. Then edit 6 weeks later after the first draft’s done.

Seriously though, if you’re a writer, read this. Thanks to it, Carrie is somewhere deep in my backlog.

You can find a copy here.

5 thoughts on “What I’m Reading: Stephen King’s On Writing

  1. I read “On Writing” – very inspirational for a lot of reasons. He started young, he wrote while holding a full time job, he writes no matter what – he writes for the joy of writing. And the paycheck.

    I’ve read a few King novels. “Carrie” and “Christine” are okay. “Firestarter” was incredible – way better than the movie. “The Stand” is one of the best reads of my life. If you want to draw your reader from from belief to suspension of disbelief, study that book. He took today, added something plausible, then something less plausible and something even less plausible – soon it’s apocalyptic end times fun! It scared the hell out of me and I totally bought into it. Masterful. If you like Lovecraft, try “From a Buick 8” – he talks about it in “On Writing.” The similarities between the book and his real life. Unintentionally creepy! “From a Buick 8” creeped me the hell out for weeks. I read “Thinner” while I was living in Maine, that made it extra fun. When King describes cops and rednecks – he’s speaking from experience, those people all live in Maine! I also read “The Eyes of the Dragon” which is high fantasy and his noir piece “The Colorado Kid” – they were solid reads, but his flair really is horror. I tried “The Dark Tower” – I couldn’t do it. I see where he was going, it was just so … drawn … out … it was just words and words and words. I know there are fans that love that series to death, I couldn’t hit the half way point of the first book.

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