I just finished reaidng Stephen King’s On Writing.
I tend to be highly resistant with things like that. If you want me to do something, i likely won’t do it. The more you want it, the less likely you’ll get it (no, i’m not at all contrary, why do you ask?) So even when it’s something I in fact am interested in, often I either will put it off, or get it and then put it away and not listen or read.
For some reason though when E asked me the other day if I’d read it I clicked ‘purchase’ on amazon before I even thought about it.
It’s an interesting book; fascinating, frustrating, uneven, brilliant in some ways, irritating in others, not unlike the rest of King’s body of work.
For those who don’t know it, On Writing is a combination Memoir and writing manual.
My best descriptive i can think of for Stephen King’s writing is ‘craftsmanship’. He’s a solid, effective writer. He understands the technical job of the writer incredibly well, he writes quickly (which accounts for the cubic fuckload of books he’s published), and he uses language well. He is not a poet; his language doesn’t have a lot of music. It does not have a pulse, a beat. You don’t, for the most part, stop in the middle of a page to catch your breath over a brilliant passage, just because it’s so fucking good. But he gets the job done, tells the story, builds characters and a sense of place. He does what he does in a style all his own.
On the other hand, his work is wildly uneven. I can’t claim to have read all his books, he lost me a dozen or so in; but he’s written some truly great books (the shining), some truly bad ones, and quite a few very weak ones (christine, it). I’m sure his later work follows the same pattern, a gem or two, a clunker or two, and a lot of mediocrity in between.
But he’s solid. He knows what he’s doing, technically, and keeps doing it. I may not always admire his books, but I still admire him as a writer.
King’s great weakness as a writer is his compulsion to tell twice as much story as he needs. Every single book I’ve read of his could have been cut in half and made incredible, or could have been cut by a third and made very, very good. The book that best exemplifies this is The Stand.
The Stand starts brilliantly; lost, shocked survivors of a global plague gathering to some supernatural call. You have everything you need there for am amazing novella or a good short novel. However, King turned it into a long novel, despite not having quite enough plot to drive it. He contrives a supernatural battle of good verses evil, extends the book a good couple of hundred pages after a natural ending, and then ends it all with one of the worst and most obvious Deus ex machina conclusions I’ve ever seen (I’ve heard fierce debate over the notion that this ending isn’t a literal Deus ex machina, but one only has to look up the meaning of Deus ex machina and the read the ending on The Stand to see it’s impossible to create a sound argument against this; not to mention King’s own admission of Deus ex machina in his own descriptions of said book).
Don’t get me wrong; The Stand is a great book, i think my favorite of Kings (though ‘salem’s lot is a close contender). But it’s a book that would get better with editing; and the more editing one did the better it would get. Here’s the example of the problem; King later released a “Complete & Uncut Edition”, which was some hundred or more pages longer than the original, taking a book which suffered for it’s length and extending it further.
There you have King’s failing as a writer in a nutshell.
On the other hand, King’s a great essayists. One of the best things I’ve ever read by him is is an essay in the beginning of (I think) Different Seasons, about the no-man’s-land of the novella. His easy, casual, slightly profane tone works incredibly well this context, talking about his craft and his business, and his life.
I picked up On Writing with some suspicion; given King’s uneven history as a writer, I wasn’t sure what he had to say that could be of use to me as a writer. I had visions of advice like never, ever edit and try to make your second draft half again as long as your first, and even ignore editorial input..
On Writing, like everything else King’s done, is an uneven, interesting, frustrating work. It’s relentlessly readable (I slurped it down in two days).
It’s weaknesses are King’s weaknesses; he quotes Strunk & White – remove unnecessary words – several times. And yet the book is longer than it should be, bogging down in a memoir at the beginning that is too much for a book that’s ostensibly on wrting, and not enough to actually make a good memoir. This patterns goes on through the book, though not to the same extent; in several places King digresses colorfully in the middle of a point. The digressions are a pleasure to read, but fly in the face of King’s own advice to remove unnecessary words.
The strengths, though, are many. King doesn’t try to teach a writing class; he doesn’t tell us how to churn out a novel or how to be a best-selling novelist. What he sets out with is the concept that you can’t make a bad writer into a good one, nor a good one into a great one. Only talent can do that. But you can make a mediocre writer into a good one, with a few simple rules and a lot of practice, which is a sound idea on which to base a writer’s manual.
In King’s earthy, straightforward way, he walks through the writer’s ‘toolbox’ (grammar, punctuation, vocabulary etc – I wish I could find a succinct list of this). Basically he presents these as the basic components of good writing. Know your grammar, use a vocabulary you’re comfortable with, stay away from mistakes like passive voice, get the fuckin’ adverbs outta there). He leans heavily on Strunk & White here, which is hard to argue with.
He then goes on to talk about how he writes (starting with, read, read, read, and read some more), and then about the components of writing, with sections on description, dialog, research/back story, etc, basically building on the toolbox concept (you have the tools, now here’s how you use them).
Both sections are filled with a lot of examples – his own and others, demonstrating what he’s talking about. He also talks quite a bit about other popular writers, un-flinchingly criticizing some and praising others, which I found deeply entertaining. I love hearing successful, talented writers talk about what they think is good or bad pop writing.
The whole thing is useful; I’m an entirely self-taught writer, doing almost everything by the seat of my pants. So I found the book useful as a review of my own skills, and found several things that made me go research further. The book reminded me I needed to buy a new copy a strunk & white, and made me think about certain techniques I follow instinctively but never think about consciously. HIs section on revision and re-writing was particularly useful for me.
It’s interesting, too, as a window into King’s own creative process. It’s funny and heart-warming to see him poke fun at his own poor books, and it’s telling to see him dismiss plotting in favor of character or situation driven stories (illustrating both one of his strengths as a writer – the sense of wide open spontaneity – and his greatest weakness (aside from a failure to edit enough), in that he starts without a clear course and sometimes finds himself in a plot hole he can’t get out of (The Stand).
I think it’s a good read, for beginning writers, or for those of us who are struggling to improve or to channel creativity. I picked up several things, some technical, some process oriented (King’s suggestion of writing with the door closed – both literally and figuratively – was one I found useful; distraction plagues me and my lack of an isolated place to write is a huge reason I have trouble being productive, I simply can’t get away, in the physical space available to me, from intrusions of real life long enough to get solid, consistent work done, which is why I have so many starts and so few finishes.
On the other hand, there are some fundamental areas where I don’t agree with what he’s saying. That’s fine, for those of us with a degree of confidence as writers, but I hesitate to hand this to a raw beginner for fear it will be taken as a bible.
The end of the book, though, is a thing apart. On it’s own, it’s possibly the best pieces of writing in the book.
King was severely injured – nearly killed – when he was struck by a car in 1999. This happened when King was in the middle of On Writing.
King describes the accident and it’s aftermath with unflinching detail. The description itself starts with an almost humorous tone, describing how the driver of the van that struck him was distracted by a Rottweiler named Bullet in the back seat of his van. But then the description turns gut-wrenchingly serious as King himself begins to realize, in the middle of being air-lifted to a hospital, that he may die. It’s a great, short piece, and pulled out of the book to stand alone might be my single favorite thing I’ve ever read by King. It hurts to read the short, tightly written description of the experience; you can feel the pain and terror without a single wasted word.
It’s hard to say how the accident changed On Writing. Some reviewers say it’s responsible for the weaknesses in the book; King went back to working on this while he was still in a wheelchair, in brutal pain and heavily medicated. On the other hand, this fact – that he doesn’t write to make a living, but because he cares so damned much about what he does that he’ll do it even in that state, is somewhat inspirational. It’s impossible to know, but the question itself, I think, makes the book more interesting.
If nothing else, reading this made me desperately wish to write. I do know know if this inspiration will produce anything, but in some small way it lit a fire for me, which I need to stoke before it goes out. And for that alone, I thank all the people who told me I should read this book. For all it’s flaws, it did inspire me to do more of something I love doing.