Sunday, January 04, 2009

REVIEW: On Writing by Stephen King

Title: On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft
Author: Stephen King
Genre: Memoir/Writing Technique
Price: 14.95
Paperback: 288 Pages
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-671-02425-3
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed By: Cheryl Anne Gardner

I love surprise Christmas gifts, and this one was no exception. The friend who bought it for me is a huge Stephen King fan, and I am a fan myself, not necessarily for his horror fiction, but more for the admirable way in which he handles the novella genre, specifically those written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

Let me first preface the review by stating that I am not a fan of memoirs. This is mostly due to the uncomfortable feeling I get when reading them. I don’t like getting too involved in people’s real lives, and I certainly don’t want someone’s real life floating around in my head, smashing into and getting entangled with the real lives of my fictional characters. That is always bad business. Then, memoirs, to me, always seem to smell and taste like history books with a healthy dash of narcissism thrown in for good measure. This isn’t one of those. I found the memoir part of this book to be an extraordinary read, and this is probably because King’s easy prose blossoms from the creative mindset of a fiction writer -- it has an innocence to it that I really like. Innocence peppered with sarcasm and a bit of self-deprecation – always a good mix. However, this review won’t be about the memoir portion of the book. I want to focus on the second half, which is the writing technique and advice half. After all, this is a self-publishing review and commentary site. We comment on other authors’ work, so this site, though titled POD, is really about writing. Most of our readers are writers; we here at the peeps are writers, so it makes sense for me to talk about writing, even if my opinions are of the biased anarchist sort.

The first part of the technique section is appropriately titled: The Toolbox. Plain and simple, these tools are the backbone of good writing. I’ll discuss each one a little and then add some additional tools, ones that I keep in my own personal toolbox, which aren’t mentioned in the book, but have served me well over the years.

  1. Vocabulary. Of course this is number one. Can’t write without words. King states that a writer should not consciously seek to improve their vocabulary. I agree. Anything forced always reads forced. He says vocabulary improvement just comes naturally through reading. I also agree. Every writer should read … a lot. Me, I am word nerd, can’t help it. I was that kid who got a perfect score on every vocabulary test they ever took. Every word has an attitude all its own. Sometimes the attitude is nothing more than simplicity; regardless, that’s what I want in my work: attitude, and it doesn’t matter if I use a nickel word or not to get it, but I always try to use the right word for the right situation.
  2. Grammar. Mr. King says relax, chill. You need to know it, can’t get around it, but, and I quote: “One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not. If you don’t know it, it’s too late.” Mr. King doesn’t go into grammar too much because of that statement. I, myself, love grammar, always have, but every once and a while, a writer might need a refresher, for that he suggests the tried and true The Elements of Style by William Strunk. Me, I have numerous grammar and style manuals, and I blame my day job for that. Professional business writing is just one of the skills required to be successful in my particular line of work. The manuals were unavoidable, as were the endless business writing workshops. I am not saying you have to love it, but if you want to be a writer, you have to know grammar like the back of your hand. The key to good writing is articulation, and grammar is the grease for the lock.

  3. Optional toolbox stuff. Everyone’s toolbox will be different according to the writer and what it is that you write. For me, since my stories are mainly psychological character studies, I have my literary study textbooks, which cover all the weird and wondrous story construction stuff like metaphors, symbolism, character arcs, story arc, voice and tone, foreshadowing … etc. I also have psychology and sociology reference books, can’t write characters unless you watch and understand people, and on a broader scale, understand humanity. Lastly, I have some editing manuals, which I highly recommend. Editing your own work is a downright nasty task, but the way publishing houses are cutting staff in that area, every writer should know how to edit and do it with some level of confidence. But you gotta watch the editing books. Written by editors of major publishing houses, the rules they expound smack to me of the Stepford Writer syndrome. Remember, they want books that sell, and they have a formula. I worry about that. If every book is written exactly the same, following the same set of rules without fail, it does make it easier for the publisher, but I wonder what that costs the writer in the end with respect to their individual voice. In much of the literature I have studied over the years, the flaws were often viewed as endearing quirks, giving the writer an unmatched uniqueness. I would hate to see artistic style suffer in the wake of conformity. But even with my reservations, I still think it wise to at least know the rules and their particular justifications. Some I agree with and some I don’t, but understanding the rules makes it much easier to know when, why, and how to break them. I have broken many, some accidentally because I wasn’t paying attention, some deliberately because I was, and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But hey, that’s what revision is for.

The next part book deals with the craft and the writing process. Mr. King uses the self-deprecating, I was once where you are tactic, and it works. It doesn’t come off preachy and condescending because he is honest. Honesty is what makes any advice worth its weight. I am not going to go into too much detail because the book is fun to read, so here are section highlights:

  1. Read a lot and write a lot.
  2. Atmosphere and Schedule.
  3. Write what you know, what you love, and all the intricacies involved in that.
  4. Story construction, or as Mr. King calls it: “Digging the fossil out of the ground.”
  5. Description – too much, too little, too early, too late – and the Show and Tell issue.
  6. Dialog – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the adverbs.
  7. Honest Characterization.
  8. The Bells and Whistles: metaphor, symbolism, tense shifts, theme … “It’s all on the table, and you should use anything that improves the quality of your writing and doesn’t get in the way of the story.”
  9. The dreaded revision and editing process. I like Mr. King’s process, probably because it mirrors my own. It’s comfortable, easy to follow, and takes the confusion out of it. Mr. King uses the three draft method, of course he admits that during that time the manuscript will be looked over at least a dozen times or more, each pass focusing on something different. I do think this is the best approach, along with the minimum six-week resting period he recommends in between each draft.
  10. First readers and ideal readers: How to process the input from each.
  11. Research, again, too much, too little or is the porridge blended just right to add that extra bit of reality to the mix. I like research, but admittedly, I have issues blending it seamlessly into the story. It’s just one of my many flaws, that, and I love my adverbs. I use them sparingly and cannot give them up.
  12. Then we have Mr. King’s thoughts on writing classes, seminars, critique groups, and retreats. Does he think they help -- not really.
  13. Dealing with writer’s block.
  14. Lastly, seeking representation and publication -- an arduous and oftentimes frustrating task.

The End of the book moves back to the memoir and discusses, in depth, the tragic event in 1999 when he was hit by a car and almost killed, appropriately titled: On living.

I count this book as a must read. The advice is sound, even if I don’t agree with all of it. Littered with practical application, it offers value to all writers in all genres, and written with King’s notorious sense of humour and style, the memoir is heart-warming and inspirational.


JaxPop said...

I'm reading 'On Writing' for the second time. The first was last spring during the re-write/edit stage for my first book This time through I decided a refresher was just the ticket as I reach the midpoint of book number two. "Kill Your Darlings" - get rid of anything that isn't part of the story. Awesome advice. Cut & hone & polish & then cut some more. I recently recommended the book to my niece - also writing & my first bit of advice was "KYD".

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

Agreed, books like this are very handy, especially if you write using traditional story structure, which King does. He, admittedly, writes from situations. Another good one in this same vein is Self Editing for Fiction Writers.

However, many writers are not situational writers, and writing should not always be confined to traditional structure. In that case, writers and critics can take these types of books too literally. I have seen stories suffer due to hack and slash editing based upon misconceptions and misunderstood principles.

So I recommend a good balance between this type of "standard" style guide and more intensive literary study, where basic mechanics are put aside for more poetic and experimental construction, where the focus is on the underlying theoretic principles of literature and not just the physics of a story.

And not all literature has to be a traditional story. I think Kafka would agree with me on that one. Standardization destroys original thinking and thus destroys art. So how seriously you take “style” guides really depends on what you are writing.

Carson said...

It's no surprise that a celebrated author such as Stephen King would give so much importance to vocabulary. I've read some of his novels, and it was easy for me to see how his great vocabulary got him where he is now. That's why I told my brother to invest on improving his daughter's vocabulary. For this, he said that he's counting on WordSmart. Complaints about a WordSmart scam didn't stop him and his daughter from learning and enjoying. And you know what? As early as now, I can see my niece's potential in writing and public speaking.