Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Reading About Writing: On Writing, by Stephen King

What Writing Book Did I Read This Month?
On Writing, by Stephen King

"If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write."

In 1999, Stephen King began to write about his craft--and his life. By midyear, a widely reported accident jeopardized the survival of both. And in his months of recovery, the link between writing and living became more crucial than ever.

Rarely has a book on writing been so clear, so useful, and so revealing. On Writing begins with a mesmerizing account of King's childhood and his uncannily early focus on writing to tell a story. A series of vivid memories from adolescence, college, and the struggling years that led up to his first novel, Carrie, will afford readers a fresh and often very funny perspective on the formation of a writer. King next turns to the basic tools of his trade--how to sharpen and multiply them through use, and how the writer must always have them close at hand. He takes the reader through crucial aspects of the writer's art and life, offering practical and inspiring advice on everything from plot and character development to work habits and rejection.

Serialized in the New Yorker to vivid acclaim, On Writing culminates with a profoundly moving account of how King's overwhelming need to write spurred him toward recovery, and brought him back to his life.

Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower--and entertain--everyone who reads it.

Why Did I Pick That Book?
This is the most consistently recommended writing book I've ever seen. Every time I mention that I'm looking for a good writing book, this one gets at least one mention. It makes sense, as Stephen King is one of the best known authors in the world. I imagine even hermits have heard of him. So if you're looking for advice on how to make a career out of writing, King certainly has a solid case in the experience department. (Understatement much?) It seems like everyone I've ever met/heard speak/read about who has any connection to the publishing industry has read this book. So I figured, you know, I should probably read it too. It's one of those word-of-mouth advertising meets peer pressure things.

What Did I Think of It?
I liked it. It was a good collection of practical information and an enjoyable read. I wasn't expecting the "CV" section of the book, which was very interesting for me. I've head of Stephen King (obviously) and I've read some of his books, but beyond knowing that he's a guy who writes good books that often get made into movies, I didn't actually know anything about his life.

The how-to section of the book was very no-nonsense, which I loved. Rather than waffle along telling you how you might do something and then following it up with something completely different in a positively Clue-like "or you might want to do it this way", King just sets out how he does things and lets us decide if we're going to go that route or not. Some people take this book as gospel anyway (oh, how I mourn all the poor adverbs a certain CP of mine has ruthlessly slaughtered in King's name!) but that's certainly not based on any pretension of grandeur I found in this book.

I also liked it--prepare yourself for a moment inside my very silly brain--because I had to read Strunk & White's Elements of Style in high school and two pieces of information from that book permanently attached themselves to my brain: the difference between nauseated and nauseous, and Omit Needless Words. King really liked that second one, and references it several times, which made me smile every time. It's always nice when you get the reference, and it feels a little bit brilliant when the reference is being made by someone widely regarded as an expert in your field.

Of course, I'm probably no more likely to take that little tidbit to heart now that I've heard it from Stephen King than I was when it was presented to me all those years ago by William Strunk, Jr and E.B. White. I'm convinced that all those poor lost needless words other writers are so busy omitting are being picked up by my Muse and given a warm new home in my own writings.

What Did I Learn from It?
So, so much. As I said above, there's a good collection of practical information in this book. King lists out a number of things he feels you need to do to be successful at writing things people would actually be interested in paying money to read. I learned some good nuts and bolts stuff. My favorite little tidbit was probably the 2nd draft = 1st draft - 10 % rule of thumb. I'm... verbose. Writing word-limited flash fiction is helping me learn to tighten things up, but that doesn't stop me from flinging ALL THE WORDS at my rough drafts.

On a more... philosophical level, I learned a lot about being in the mindset of a career novelist. In giving so many examples from his life, King paints a very deep picture of what it's like to be a writer at every level of the game. I felt it was good for me, to be able to point to stages I've already been through, the place I'm sitting at now, and, of course, the place I'd ultimately love to be. I have a feeling that aspect of the book will keep it relevant for me in later years, when (not if!) my career progresses from aspiring novelist to professional.

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, by the way, I'm not saying I'm just like Stephen King. We've lived very different lives. We're traveling different roads, just like every other human being on the planet. We might not agree on much if we ever actually met, or even be able to understand one another on any but the most superficial of levels. But we have this one thing in common, this great love of stories, and I think it's important to keep that in mind. Writing is such a lonely game most of the time if you lose sight of that.

Oh, and if you ever want a really nice example of "show, don't tell", I think the "C.V." section of the book words very well. It kind of makes me wonder: did King set out to create a showpiece for the advice he would give in the book when he wrote that? Or is good storytelling just so ingrained in him at this point that he did it unconsciously? In other words, genius or SUPER genius?

Would I Recommend This Book to Another Writer?
Yes I would. Not that I think I'll need to. As I said at the outset, every writer I've ever met has read this book, and it seems I'm the last one to join the party. But just in case I ever happen upon someone looking for good writing books who hasn't yet discovered it, On Writing will definitely be on my list of recommendations.

Have you read On Writing? (Of course you have. Again, everybody has.) What did you think of it?

This experiment of reading one writing book a month is working out really well. You'd never know I was someone who generally hates writing books. After all, I have yet to pick a book for one of these features that I wouldn't recommend, which is making me wonder if maybe I was just picking up all the lousy writing books before.

Oh, and next month I'll be reading either The Kick-Ass Writer, by Chuck Wendig, or Writing 21st Century Fiction, by Donald Maass. I can't decide which one. Anyone have an opinion there? Or have another writing book (about writing, editing, publishing, etc) they'd like to recommend for the future? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

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