Stephen King’s “On Writing” – A Comprehensive Review and Summary
There are plenty of books on writing out there, mostly by writers you have never heard of and probably never will. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is an exception. I had read many rave reviews about this book, so I went and got myself the audio book version for the long train rides on my latest European vacation (but ended up listening to it everywhere I went and finished it in the first couple of days).
The verdict? Extraordinary. One of the best books about writing I’ve ever come across. 5 out of 5 stars!
Nevertheless, what started off as a short post about the book has turned into the full-blown thesis below, so I apologize in advance. The lengthy middle section on Part II though is useful for those who want an idea of what King’s views are in relation to the craft of writing.
The book is not a mechanical guide on how to be a better writer from a technical standpoint, though in the middle section King does discuss the fundamentals of the craft. Stylistically, it is similar to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, in that it is a very personal book that discusses writing through the author’s personal stories, experiences and anecdotes, all told with good grace and humor. You don’t just learn about writing techniques in On Writing – you also get to learn a great deal about Stephen King, his family, the struggles he has endured, both pre-fame and post-fame, and what makes him tick as a popular horror novelist that has sold hundreds of millions of books worldwide.
There are essentially 3 parts to this book. Part I is all about King’s life, and is autobiographical in a sense. Part II is all about the craft of writing from King’s personal perspective. Part III talks about King’s life after his tragic car accident that almost ended his life and writing career. All 3 parts are equally instructive and compelling.
Parts I & III– All About Stephen King
The book begins like an autobiography on Stephen King, the writer. It starts off from his childhood and goes all the way to that first big success and then on to superstardom. It’s filled with lots of little humorous tales about the outrageous things he got up to. After all, it is a memoir.
At first, I was concerned – where was he leading with this? Is the book called On Writing or On Stephen King? I got the book with the hope of learning more about how to be a better writer, not to learn everything about the author! That being said, King does tell his story with a lot of skill, keeping it interesting, intriguing, funny and inspiring.
Then you start to realize that it isn’t just a self-indulgent story of King’s life. There is a common theme running through his life, and that theme is writing. He loves to write and he writes for the love of writing. Like most other successful writers, King went through years and years of rejections (starting when he was just a kid). He held ordinary jobs because he had to support himself and his family. He struggled.
But he never stopped writing and honing his craft, largely thanks to the encouragement of his wife Tabitha, who happens to also be his most loyal supporter.
King tells one of the most inspirational and uplifting stories I’ve ever heard – how his breakthrough novel Carrie earned him an initial $2,500 for the hardcover rights (not much even for those times), and then how he scored a life-changing $400,000 for the paperback rights (split equally with hardcover publisher) when the most he expected was $60,000 (half of which would be his). Not bad for a guy who would have earned $30,000 over 4 years as a teacher.
However, success manifested itself in strange ways, and the next section dealt with King’s fall into alcoholism and drug abuse. Amazingly, some of his most famous novels were written during the darkest phase of his life.
Anyway, don’t be put off by the long start – King does eventually get to the craft of writing in Part II. However, this first part is also very instructive. If nothing, you learn that the path of a writer is a long, difficult, and eternal road.
Part III is significantly shorter. It tells of King’s horrific car accident at the hands of a loony driver – one that not only nearly ended his writing career but just about killed him. I thought King showed a lot of restraint in this section – he doesn’t hurl abuse at the driver who turned his life upside down and made even simple tasks such as sitting incredibly painful for him. He merely describes what happened like a good narrator (including the agonizing pain he endured) and leaves it at that.
Part II – The Craft of Writing
The second part is what most people buy the book for – King’s guide to the craft of writing. It contains a lot of the same advice you might find in other writing books, but King adds his own personal touch and insight from his years of experience.
Here’s a summary of some of the most salient points I got out of this section and what I thought of them. Please note that I cannot guarantee that it is an accurate or complete reflection what is actually in the book because they are merely from scribbles I took down when listening to the audio book. Of course, you will get much much more out of it by reading (or listening) to the book, which provides a lot of in-depth discussion and useful examples. This is really just a personal reminder of things I need to look out for in my own writing and a critique of King’s advice.
The Elements of Style
First of all, get yourself a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. King raves about this book and mentions it more than a couple of times. In his view, all writers should read this short but essential book.
I need to get myself a copy.
King’s writing style is based on characters. In his view, stories and characters are not really created, but are waiting to be uncovered like archaeological artifacts. He usually starts his novels with just a premise and goes from there, meaning his characters and plot tend to form over the course of the novel rather than get planned out from the beginning.
It may be a viable method but I find such an approach to likely lead to dead ends (and I feel King might have the same problem with some of his horror novels, which have a tendency to crash to a crappy finish with unsatisfactory solutions).
When King talks about good writing, he is not talking about writing masterpieces or literary award winners. He’s simply talking about writing that is above competent and readable, and perhaps, publishable. In his view, there are two key criteria to ‘good writing’: (1) a good grasp of the fundamentals; and (2) having the right instruments. These criteria will not make good writers great or bad writers competent, but it can make good writers out of merely competent writers.
So what are these fundamentals and tools? See below. I should say in advance that these are things you would expect to find in most other books on writing and shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
King hates adverbs (you know, words that mostly end in ‘-ly’). Loathes them. Not that they shouldn’t be used at all, but they should only be used when strictly necessary. On the same point, King brings up the issue of using adverbs for dialogue attribution – for instance, ‘she said slowly’. Again, the rule is to use it only when necessary. If the dialogue itself already tells the way in which it is expressed, then there is no need for the adverb. King’s preference is to just use ‘said’. However, that being said, he also admits to using adverbs more often than he should.
Personally, I admit I have a tendency to resort to adverbs. Because it’s easy. It tempts you to use it so you don’t have to think of a better word or come up with better dialogue (in the case of dialogue attribution). However, cutting out adverbs is something I’ve reserved for the second draft.
Another thing King frowns upon is using passive voice. For example, instead of ‘he rode the horse’, using ‘the horse was ridden by the man’. King attributes the use of passive voice to fear. People that usually write for business purposes (like me) have a tendency to overuse passive voice. I think I recall reading somewhere that it comes across as more professional and more objective. Anyway, it’s another thing I need to cut out come second draft time, but I think I’ve already started to avoid it instinctively as I’ve progressed with my novel.
It’s obvious, but grammar is crucial for good writing. It’s something writers need to get right. As simple as that. There are some small exceptions which a lot of writers employ, such as the short fragments typically found in writing these days (see previous sentence), but for the most part, it’s advisable to stick to correct grammar.
Don’t apply incorrect grammar and punctuation on purpose, even when you know it’s wrong, just to be different and creative and stylish. That is, of course, unless you are a famous writer already that people consider to be genius so you can do whatever you want (eg Cormac McCarthy).
Cut Useless Words
King believes most writers, especially inexperienced writers, have a tendency to put in too many useless words. Good writing involves cutting them out and getting to the point.
This is something I’ve struggled with all my life, even with high school and university assignments. I just can’t help myself, and I think it shows, even from this post! Oh well, better keep moving…
King has a simple tip with vocabulary – use the most appropriate word, and usually, that is the first word that comes to mind. The only way to improve your vocabulary is to read more. When writing, don’t stop so you can think of a better word, and don’t put in words that you don’t really know. If you don’t know it then there is a good chance that other readers won’t know either. The aim is to allow readers to read smoothly, and making them wonder what a word means (or having to check up what it means) runs against that objective.
I’ll be the first to admit that my vocabulary is not all that crash hot. It stems from a lack of reading good books throughout my childhood and adolescence. Consequently, I do find myself struggling to find the right word at times, even if it’s for the first word that comes to mind. As King says, however, the only way to improve is to read more!
For King, the 3 elements to a story are narration, description and dialogue – meaning plot is not one of them. As noted above, King’s stories usually start off with not much more than a premise and the characters, which he allows to let loose to see where they take him.
I still have a bit of trouble fully appreciating that approach, but it’s obviously one that works for him. I do allow my characters to roam free a little, but it’s usually within the confines of a single scene as opposed to the entire story.
Descriptions make the reader a sensory participant in the story. The key is to visualize what you want the reader to experience. However, there is a fine line when it comes to descriptions, as there is a danger of describing too much, which slows down the pace, kills the imagination and bores the reader. I have to say I have sometimes found this to be the case with some of King’s writings.
King’s advice is to use your descriptions but not do too much – simply say what you see and get on with the story. It is important to pick the right details that stand for everything else. Particularly useful is the advice to avoid too much description on individual attributes of characters. There is no need to go into depth on the precise height, weight and hair and eye colour of every character you come across. It’s boring. King advises writers to put down the first visualized details that come into your mind – the priority is to keep the ball rolling.
Dialogue is difficult to get right, and King’s advice is to let the dialogue be honest to the characters and to allow each speaker to speak honestly.
I’m also struggling with dialogue for my characters (I’m struggling with a lot of things). It’s easy to make the mistake of making every piece of dialogue look like it comes from the same character. I’m really going to have to put in a lot of work on dialogue in my second draft to allow the characters to distinguish themselves and stand out from each other.
Showing and Telling
Another tenet of good writing is to show, not tell. This was the subject of one of my earlier posts on writing. Of course, it’s not always possible to do that, but King believes ‘show’ should always be preferred to ‘tell’ whenever possible.
Personally, I’m glad to say I am starting to get the hang of this, but sometimes I wonder whether it is better to just tell it using a simple sentence rather than showing it through pages of conversation and action?
King calls paragraphs the beat in your head when you read, the fragments in the prose. It’s easy to overlook it, but how you structure the length of your paragraphs can be very important. King’s recommendation is to learn the beat and let nature take its course.
It’s not something I ever gave much thought to, so I found this particular part rather instructive.
Back Stories, Info Dumps and Flashbacks
King says back stories and info dumps should be kept in the back of the mind. Also, try and avoid flashbacks wherever possible. Of course, there are exceptions – there are plenty of great books with lots of flashbacks and back stories. But the key is questioning whether it is really necessary and whether there are other more effective ways of getting the information across. King notes that JK Rowling is particularly good at the info dump and back story retelling in the Harry Potter books, so take a look at them if you want to see how it is done well.
My own novel has its fair share of flashbacks, but I’ve tried my best to control the back stories and info dumps. It’s probably something best to come back to once the first draft has been completed.
Close the Door
King believes it is very important for writers to have their own private space when writing, a place with no distractions. He recommends a regular place to write, and to close the door when writing. It shuts out the rest of the world and the distractions, and lets people know you are working and you are serious.
I don’t always close the door when I write, but I admit I write best when I am totally focused and not being distracted by what’s outside the window or in the next room.
Reading and Writing
Stephen King says that reading and writing is the only way to improve as a writer. Writing is a craft that is best learned through doing. King puts a great deal of emphasis on reading. Writers need to read in order to improve, and it’s not only through reading good literature – you can learn just as much from reading a good book (teaching you what to do) as a bad book (teaching you what NOT to do).
What to do after the First Draft
King’s advice is to complete that first draft within 3 months. It’s probably not a realistic deadline for those that have day jobs and other unavoidable things that consume their time.
Anyway, after completion of the first draft, however long it might take, King advises you to let go of it for 6 weeks before going back to it so you would have forgotten it. Reading your own work with a pair of fresh eyes is extremely important. Start writing something else in the meantime. This I agree with, but 6 weeks can be a painfully long wait! I’ve read elsewhere that a week or two might be sufficient, but I suppose it’s up to the individual.
When revising the first draft, King suggests you concentrate on both big things such as inconsistencies, plot holes and character motivation and development problems, as well as small things, such as misspellings. Make notes about where problems are, mark up the manuscript and check your notes when revising. Get rid of adverbs and add in clarifications where necessary. Ask yourself whether it is coherent, whether there are any recurring elements or themes, and what to do to make those things clear. You may need to add or delete scenes. The key is to make the story and characters resonate with readers.
Symbolism and Theme
For King, symbolism and themes in your novel are things that come in at the second draft stage. They should not be things you purposely go out and put into your story. Rather, you should focus on the story itself and when only explore symbolism and themes if they become apparent when reading the first draft.
King’s Rule for Second Drafts
King’s personal approach to second drafts of novels is to tighten the first draft by 10%. So if you have a first draft of a story that is 100,000 words, try and tighten it to 90,000 words for the second draft.
In my opinion it’s just his personal approach and a loose guide at best because everyone will have their own preference. King does 2 drafts and a polish, whereas some writers need 4 or 5 drafts and dramatic changes every time. Besides, not everyone can churn out first drafts that are good enough to be published just after one additional draft and a polish.
What to do after the Second Draft
King does not show anyone his work until he has completed the second draft. This I wholeheartedly agree with, because (especially for writing novices) it can be daunting to ask others to read your work. King shows his completed second drafts to 4 or 5 people. Some say that readers should not be your friends, or else you won’t get honest feedback. King disagrees – he says you should be smart enough to gauge the reactions, even if they are your friends.
I must say I agree. It is scary enough showing your work to your friends, let alone people you don’t know. And if a friend tells me it’s ‘not bad’, I’ll have a pretty good idea that they thought it sucked.
Agents and Publishers
On agents and publishers, King says that it is not impossible to get an agent/publisher with an unsolicited manuscript these days, and there are ways to get into the industry. He recommends building a portfolio, submit to magazines relating to your genre and to try and get publishing credits to your name. He encourages writers to research the market – look through Writer’s Market to find an agent that might be interested in your type of book. He says that it is important to go into it looking like a professional, in that you need to make sure your manuscript and query letter are done right. As he says, you cannot make agents/publishers like your manuscript, but you can make it easier for them to like your story.
King generally does not find writing courses to be very helpful on the whole as the creative flow tends to get stopped. In fact, he’s rather critical of them, despite understanding how they may appeal to aspiring writers.
Again, I find this to be a generalization and not much more than a subjective view. There are many different types of writing courses and writers – some people might need a course to get them started or give them more confidence. I suppose what he is trying to say is not to rely on them too much or expect them to change your life. That I agree with.
Writing For the Right Reasons
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, King tells you to write for the right reasons – for the joy and rush and excitement of writing – not for the money, not for success or fame, not to impress anyone. Can’t disagree with that. Does impressing yourself count?
Before I read On Writing, I considered myself a slight to moderate King fan. For me, most of what I knew about the author came from the horror movies and mini-series adapted from his novels. There are too many to count. The ones that have been stamped deepest into my memory are It (thanks to which I am still not a fan of clowns), The Stand, Pet Cemetery, Sleepwalkers, Misery, Carrie and The Shining, but there are at least a dozen more.
I had only read one of his full length novels – The Dark Half – which I found to be okay. A bit long and a bit slow. But I did read it when I was much younger and had a shorter attention span, and the book was probably beyond my comprehension level at that age.
On the other hand, I had read some collections of King’s short stories and novellas. I found Nightmares and Dreamscapes to be reasonable, littered with some good and some bad stories. However, my favourite King book has to be his non-horror work, Different Seasons, which includes two novellas that were made (pretty faithfully) into two of my favourite movies of all time, Stand By Me (adapted from The Body) and The Shawshank Redemption (adapted from Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption). I found both novellas (and films) to be incredibly powerful and moving, and was amazed at what a terrific storyteller Stephen King can be, and it doesn’t even have to involve anything supernatural.
As a popular novelist, King has obviously had his critics throughout the years, but there is no denying that he can write. Maybe not awe-inspiring literature, but he definitely has a firm grasp of the fundamentals of writing, and he can certainly tell a good story. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is an instructive and insightful book, one that is filled with useful information for the aspiring writer and immensely enjoyable to read (or in my case, listen to). I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the craft of writing or just wants a good read.
[PS: I finally got this review out of the way. I had been working on it on my numerous long train rides throughout Europe but never came close to completing it. Now I can finally move on with my life.]