9 March 2012

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King - book review


This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit... the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.

So begins Stephen King's superb book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

As far as I know, this is the only book on the craft of writing written by someone who has sold over 350 million copies of his books. King says, in this book he has put down "everything I know about how to write good fiction".

The first part of the book is titled C.V. which is a memoir of Stephen King, but it still has many useful things to say about writing.

In this part, King has narrated incidents like his ear infection and the painful injections the doctor gave him, his excreting in the woods and wiping with the jungle leaves that made him fell ill with blisters, his drinking and drugs intake habits and his mother's death.

But this part also contains King's real life experiences on reading, writing and publishing. King has narrated how he read "approximately six tons of comic books" in his childhood, the first story he wrote or imitated ("Imitation preceded creation"), how at the age of 13 he sent his first story to Spacemen which was rejected and how his first novel Carrie's paperback rights were bought for four hundred thousand dollars!    

By narrating such events he attempts "to show how one writer was formed."

The succeeding parts contain spectacular advice on writing and these instructions are too intertwined by King's personal experiences. These parts are a must for anybody who is or wishes to become a fiction writer.

My favourite quote from the text comes from the second part of the book titled What Writing Is.

... a prissy attention to detail... takes all the fun out of writing. What am I going to say. 'on the table is a cage three feet, six inches in length, two feet in width, and fourteen inches high'? That's not prose, that's an instruction manual. [Blocks added.]

Then comes the Toolbox. Vocabulary, grammar and the elements of style, says King, should be the parts of the toolbox that every writer should possess. 

In the next part, he answers some common questions like why writers should read? What should they write about? How much description should they give while writing? How to get published? Etc.

King has then devoted a complete section headed On Living: A Postscript to his fatal accident of 1999 and how writing helped him recover. "Writing did not save my life," he says "but it has continued to do what it always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place."

The book is appended with the first draft of a passage written by King which "is completely raw.... it's the story undressed, standing up in nothing but its socks and undershorts." Then the edited version of the same passage is reproduced with notes on why the changes were made. This is very instructive. 

He comments on this method as follows:

I took my fair share of English Lit classes in my two remaining years at Lisbon, and my fair share of composition, fiction, and poetry classes in college, but John Gould [an editor] taught me more than any of them,  and in no more than ten minutes. [Blocks added.]

The last two parts are lists of one eighty plus books that King admires. The list includes classics like War and Peace and bestsellers like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Some readers who have left comments below the book's profile on sites like Goodreads are saying that if you are interested in knowing only about writing then you may skip the C.V. and the On Living parts. I disagree for the following two reasons.

One - Even these parts contain some useful information on writing. For e.g. consider the following passage from C.V.

...good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.

Two - As an aspiring writer, I think one should not read only about the craft of writing but also about the struggles and thoughts of professional writers. That can be very enriching and encouraging. For e.g. King says in the C.V. :

Once I told her that enlisting (in the war) and going over there might be good for me - surely there would be a book in it...

I too sometimes had similar ideas but never professed them publicly for the fear of being considered insane.

The drawbacks

Now let's speak about the downside of the book.

I think a more appropriate name of the book should have been On Writing Fiction as most of the things discussed in it pertain to fiction writing.

Secondly, the skepticism of the readers about skipping a few parts has some justification in it. There are clearly some passages in the book (in the C.V. and On Living) that have absolutely nothing to teach about writing. 

And lastly the book is written with a rough style of narration as is evident by the occasional use of the F word and some other such not so decent words.

Still, I feel the positives far outweigh the negatives. I repeat. This book is a must for anybody who is or wishes to become a fiction writer. 

After finishing the book, few readers would not want to echo the words that appeared in Entertainment Weekly's review of On Writing - "Long live the King".

More praise about On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

It's not only me who has liked the book.
  • The bestselling Kindle author Amanda Hocking says: "If you're looking for good advice on how to be a better writer, check out Stephen King's On Writing. It's a great book, and he's a better writer than me, so his advice is more sound."
  • Huffington Post ranked On Writing on the second position in the category of one of The Best Books On Writing Books.  
  • Michael Hyatt lists On Writing amongst his favourite books on writing.


Suggested readings on writing by Stephen King

King has suggested a few books on writing in his book. I've listed them below. (All blocks are added by me.)
  1. The Elements of Style - King has referred this book more than half a dozen times. "I'll tell you right now that every aspiring writer should read The Elements of Style." - Foreword.
  2. Warriners English Grammar and Composition - "If you want to refurbish your grammar, go to your local used book store and find a copy of Warriner's English Grammar and Composition... You'll be relieved and delighted, I think, to find that almost all you need is summarized on the front and back endpapers of the book." - Toolbox, Ch. 2.
  3. Writer's Market - "You should... buy a copy of Writer's Market, the most valuable of tools for the writer new to the marketplace. If you're really poor, ask someone to give it to you for Christmas." - On Writing, Ch. 15. (On Writing is also the name of a section inside King's book.)

Have you read On Writing? Did you like it? Do you know of any other good books on writing? Tell me in the comments below.

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