A Review of On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am seriously considering finding some of his short stories to read. I quite enjoyed the book.

I don’t normally read autobiographies – or any biographies, actually. In fact, the last time I read one, it was for school – because the teacher made me. I also don’t normally read books that try to tell you how to write.

I’d heard of this book for years. The first time was right after I did NaNo for the first time and was in a writing circle. One of the members had read it and… well, he treated with as much reverence as some people do the Bible. Every time he’d critique something he’d say, “In On Writing, Stephen King says…” It annoyed me, more because I wanted this person’s opinion of my writing, not Stephen King’s (if I’d wanted Stephen King’s opinion, I would have written him and asked for it).

My brother was a huge Stephen King fan when I was growing up. He read nearly all the books – watched nearly all the movies. Stephen King is just not my type of writer. I’ve got nothing against horror. I’ve seen people call it “horror shit”. Really, I’m not that elitist person who thinks you have to write literary stuff in order to really know about writing. I write fantasy. I, generally, hate literary stuff.

All of that is to say this: I read this book because it was part of the “required” reading for a group I’m in. It was our book of the month and one of my goals is to read more this year, so I said, “I’ll start with this. It’s short.”

I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I was cringing at parts of the biographical section. As I said when I’d read about his ear infections, I can see why he writes horror. He’s been through some pretty terrible stuff – which would, I’m sure, give him some great ideas for stories. I found it really interesting that he was into alcohol and drugs, because I’d never heard that about him before. I found that section fascinating as well.

Then, I got into the section that was actually about writing. Some of this stuff I’d heard for years: adverbs are ebil, passive voice is weak, use said as your only dialogue tag… These are things I can agree with to some degree, but I don’t think you can ever totally banish an entire part of speech from writing and there are times when there’s a valid reason to use the passive voice.

Just when I was getting to the point where I was afraid that I’d spend the rest of the book arguing with Mr. King, I got to the section about plotting. I really, really enjoyed that part. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that part! I’ve been hearing practically since I started writing that I need to plot, plot and plot some more. Then, I read this book. He’s the first author to tell me that, basically, the way I’ve always written is all right!

I don’t have to plot out the entire story before I can write it. I can think of the scenario, throw in the characters and see what happens. Glory be! I actually got something right! King compares a story to a fossil (with my paleo background, I loved the metaphor). Plot is like a jackhammer. It’ll get the story out of the ground, but not without damaging it.

I know – I KNOW – there are people that will disagree with him on this. However, to me, this was great to read. I totally agree with him. I can pull out the jackhammer of the plotting outline and get my story out of the ground. That will definitely do it. Alternatively, I can pull out my little picks and brushes and coax that story out of the ground – the way I would a fossil.

It’s important to note this: this is just how he is saying we should write. He’s not saying that the story is ready for publication after that. That’s where the whole, “Write with the door closed, edit with the door open” thing comes in. Once you’ve lovingly coaxed that story out of the ground, show it to people, so they can tell you what parts need to be polished and when that’s not a horn on the dinosaurs nose, it’s his thumb.

I also enjoyed the sections on dialogue and characterization. I found myself agreeing with most of what he said regarding both. I read the sample dialogue, with tags, and finally saw what he meant about using only “said”. For the first time ever, I found myself agreeing with this idea. The word has always seemed terribly repetitive to me. I’ve heard it said that it becomes invisible after a while. Well… not when you read out loud – and I read out loud quite often. So, seeing how it “should” be done was a big help for me.

Overall, I’d say that On Writing is a good guide for people who are looking into writing their own stories or novels. I’m not going to go as far as saying that everyone should read it. I found it helpful and encouraging, because my writing method is similar to King’s. For someone who has a more structured writing style, this book might not be so helpful.

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