Book Review: Stephen King: On Writing

Steven King On Writing - Header

I have always enjoyed writing, creating, and while it has been primarily limited to web site content and over the last year or so, bog posts, it’s a passion that has always been simmering away inside me. I’ve always enjoyed imagining, explaining, bringing to life. Using the power of words to express, whether fact or fiction, and so with the simmer rumbling into a boil and with reading taking more of a front row seat in my life, I turned to one of the masters for advice.

I’m not the biggest horror fan in the world, whether in literature or film; monster’s yes, purposely scaring myself for the sake of it no. And so, I’ve never really been drawn to Stephen King. He’s the “massive name” who likes to write about axe murderers or possessed children. At least, that is how I foresee his writing in my head. But if you have a passion for writing, if you want to read about how to write, everybody recommends his book On Writing.

The first thing to quickly point out is that this book is part Curriculum Vitae, part educational text twisted into a narrative story through three distinct and separate chapters. And it really works. Obviously, when you’ve sold as many books as King, and command a seat at the top table, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that you can safely structure a book to keep a reader interested but the reason it works so well is that the clichéd mantra – practice what you preach – is laid bare in front of you.

Little Stephen King - On Writing

The only way to really critique the book is to look at it in its three independent parts. It starts off with the man. Little Stevie King. It creates the back story, the character, starting as a young boy and driving through crash, crisis and life shaping calamity into adult life. And it draws you in. The stories are charming, engrossing and vivid. It’s quality descriptive writing that places you directly into his life. I felt as I read that I was there, I was a fly on the wall able to witness the shaping of the man who writes today. Learning what makes him tick and learning how nature, nurture and the environment our imagination grows up in provide the honest, solid foundation for the work we produce later.

But more than that, the stories define the man. They make him feel real. The more I learnt about his childhood, his tough hand to mouth existing, the more I empathised with him, and in one way, the more I came to feel sad for myself. Not because I wanted the difficulties of the life he survived, but rather because I don’t have those experiences to use to shape my own writing.

The book then moves on to look at the nut and bolts of writing. The toolbox of the trade as King calls it. It’s at this point there is a monumental shift in the tone, style and angle of the book. The opening salvo, the first person retrospective stories that suck you are slightly lost and instead it twists into a theatre lecture. A key note speech. And while this shift in tone doesn’t destroy the relationship I had with the book, it took a little while to rekindle the initial lust. Change is OK, and at times, necessary, it just takes a while to get used to it.

The “toolbox” section isn’t overly technical, that comes in part three, but what it is, is useful. It simply tells you to think, honestly, about what you are writing. And while huge parts seemed overly obvious (sorry for the adverbs Stephen) I can feel that a lot of what is said, because it’s reasoned and explained to a point beyond doubt, is already starting to influence my writing. Shaping the language I used, the thought processes I go through and the ruthlessness of my editing. I’m killing my darlings as King puts it.

Stephen King Lecture - On Writing

The final act of the book I found the hardest. I think this was because it focused mainly on those really pushing ahead with a career in literature. Rather than a growing passion looking, dreaming, wondering. It is basically detailed how to go about getting your writings published. How to batter on the door, of a perceived cold boys club, until you get rejected enough to that a make that first acceptance even more sweet, so to speak. And I think, because I’m not at that point with my writing, and because the world has now moved on in terms of digital publishing and self publishing, that it’s almost lost its relevance. I’m sure if you want to write fiction for magazines, or see your work in print, then there is a lot of good information that still holds true. But when it talks about the delight of a box of blank floppy disks on the imagination, you lose the connection it won so easily, and feel a little bit like you’re looking at a relic of times past.

Over all, I really enjoyed the book, and as I said I can already feel it’s influencing hand on the way I write, construct my thoughts and I decree my words. If you have any passion for writing, in whatever medium then I would recommend this book in an instant. I found King’s style of writing and his use of language an absolute page turner, and he won me over so much I’m contemplating reading more of his work. This book manages to get the balance of story and education spot on and has completely invigorated my passion for writing a work of fiction. I have characters floating around my head, coming to life, begging for their voice to be heard. And it’s this book that has born the confidence to let them speak.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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