On Writing (review)

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On Writing

I decided that if there is a halfway decent story inside me, and even so much as a feather’s chance in hell it will ever see daylight, I’d better do some research on how best I might make that happen. Naturally, start with what you already have available, so…

My Mom sent me a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing a while ago. I had barely started it, put it down for one distraction or another, and didn’t pick it back up again. I admit I was a bit skeptical about my ability to enjoy what amounts to a how-to-manual on something like writing, but I figured I’d have to slog my way through it to find any golden nuggets of useful information.

To my delight Stephen King is every bit as fun to read in nonfiction! You would expect his remembrances of growing up with a writer’s spirit to come alive in the mind’s eye, but not necessarily anything else. He admits that beyond the basics, writing nonfiction was agony for him to put his thoughts to the page, but you wouldn’t know it to read it. No question, On Writing is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to write fiction of any kind. My copy now stands with many, many passages highlighted, pages marked, notes written – I inhaled this book!

Of course he covers things like grammar, punctuation, and sentence and paragraph structure, but those sections are short and to the point. He talks about plot and theme, when and how to use them, and when and why he doesn’t. He peppers the dry stuff with humor and real examples, most of which are taken from the works of other authors (some famous, some obscure) to better make his points.

He also talks about the value of writing the initial story completely for yourself “behind the closed door” so the whole story can come out. No editing in your head or as you go, just write. This copy is not meant to be read by anyone else so write as though it never will be.

On the honesty imperative, your story and its characters must be as real for the reader as they are to you. Otherwise the story will be stale, flat, unrealistic, plainly poo. For example, if a character in your story is a bigot, do not edit for political correctness! It’s possible you may get some backlash (King himself still receives mail with things like accusations some of his characters’ views must be his views, nevermind they are fictional), but I think if you’ve managed to piss somebody off, your character was probably quite real enough. You won’t please all your readers, can’t please everybody anyway, likely can’t please most, so don’t even try at the cost of your story. It’s your story!

He explains why it’s so important to make yourself let the first draft rest for long enough it almost seems foreign to you, ideally after you’ve already absorbed yourself into the next project, then reading the whole thing in one go, if possible, before attempting to edit for what is story, what doesn’t belong, and what needs clarification.

When it comes to editing the rough draft, King says most writers are “either taker-outers or putter-inners” (admits his own desire to add rather than cut), why it’s so important to take out so much of what tends to show up in the first draft, and how to identify what needs to stay or go. He even offers a couple of pages from his book 1408 for comparison, first in rough draft and then edited for second draft.

Though the idea of having people close to you read and critique your work is typically frowned upon, he explains why he feels the first half a dozen copies should go to people who will give a subjective but honest critique of your work. “Besides,” he says, “if you really did write a stinker…wouldn’t you rather hear the news from a friend while the entire edition consists of a half-dozen Xerox copies?”

Amazingly, King provides a setup and encourages readers to write their own short story and send it to him! Of course this book was originally published fifteen years ago, written mostly sixteen-eighteen years ago, but if the tone of his writing is true, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still reading and commenting on people’s work in response to this challenge.

All in all, I have to say I’m very glad a copy of this book was given to me. I don’t know when or if I would’ve gotten around to obtaining a copy on my own. I highly recommend it to any writer for all the valuable information contained as well as the pure enjoyment of reading the thoughts and experiences of such a successful, down-to-earth writer. Stephen King just made the top of my if-I-could-have-dinner-with-anyone list.

10 thoughts on “On Writing (review)

    theryanlanz said:
    May 8, 2015 at 5:24 PM

    Nice review!

    Liked by 1 person

    knitsbyjenn said:
    May 8, 2015 at 7:40 PM

    I love this book too. Like you I read it in almost one sitting. Its informative and very well written.

    I wish I could write the ten pages a day like he advises for all aspiring writers. I just cant manage that much though. Maybe someday.


      knightwitch responded:
      May 9, 2015 at 7:26 PM

      Actually, he said HIS goal is “ten pages a day which amounts to 2,000 words.” (just don’t ask me how only 2,000 words works out to 10 pages). He suggests to “set the goal low at first, to avoid discouragement…a thousand words a day” for aspiring writers. As a blogger, that really is not hard at all to accomplish. I don’t write daily blog posts, which would probably help me, but when I do post, I’m almost always forced to cut it back severely. I tend to run long and most people won’t bother to read a long post. (Why bother posting if no one will read it, eh?) So, especially considering he’s talking about closed-door-writing, 1,000 word count per day is totally doable. It just may not be a thousand words of new story, that’s all. I bet if you check your posting word counts, you’ll see you write much more than you realise. Don’t be so hard on yourself.


    whennothinggoeswrite said:
    May 14, 2015 at 1:22 PM

    I may have to pick this book up! I’ve never written fiction but I’m definitely interested! Also yeah. Good review!

    Liked by 1 person

      knightwitch responded:
      May 14, 2015 at 1:25 PM

      Thanks. Kind of funny, it wasn’t going to be a review of the book, just my next step in processing this idea for a story. It wasn’t until most of the post was written I realized how much it focused on this book specifically, so yeah, review.

      Liked by 1 person

        whennothinggoeswrite said:
        May 14, 2015 at 1:26 PM

        How is your writing going after reading it?


        knightwitch responded:
        May 14, 2015 at 1:35 PM

        It’s definitely working… My thoughts are still a little all over the place in the story’s timeline, but it’s coming together. I don’t feel quite as intimidated by the whole thing now. I think making myself take breaks in my writing to focus on *how* to write is helping. It gives me the opportunity to change gears and then apply what I’m learning when I return to it. The scenes are starting to make more sense as part of a whole story (finally!) rather than just random snapshots and impressions.

        Liked by 1 person

        whennothinggoeswrite said:
        May 14, 2015 at 1:37 PM

        That sounds pretty great to me. It’s probably good to take a break and focus back in on applying what you’re learning. It’s easy to slip back into old habits when you aren’t being reminded of the principles. Glad that book helped you! Don’t be intimated, it sounds like you have the write mindset!

        Liked by 1 person

        knightwitch responded:
        May 14, 2015 at 1:38 PM

        Thank you. I certainly hope so! Good luck with yours, by the way. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

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