Almanac Book Review: Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ reviewed by Ben Kirkby

 

 

 

 

 

 

Until recently, I’d never read one of Stephen King’s books, but his name and many titles speak volumes about his tremendous writing credentials. In On Writing King provides many lessons in a straight-forward and down-to-earth way. Part memoir, part how-to guide, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a must read for anyone aspiring to the craft. In doing so, I naturally felt the need to take a few notes.

 

His first section is autobiographical, telling of his upbringing and his early writing pursuits. He didn’t have the easiest childhood. He and his brother were children of a single parent in a struggling household. Even from a young age though, he showed a love for crafting stories, which evolved into work he did for his brother’s small newspaper.

 

I related to King’s reference to one of his first serious writing jobs, sports reporting, given some of my first published work was also sports related. Here’s hoping he and I may yet share other parallels.

 

King admits he didn’t much like his first book Carrie. It’s almost disturbing to think that, had his wife Tabitha not fished the start of it out of the trash and insisted he finish it, the world might not have come to know his name.

 

I imagine that he wouldn’t have continued to see the success that he has were it not for his consistency and discipline. These arguably also played a role in his later career where he eventually overcame a dark period battling with drug and alcohol abuse. Much of these two aspects boils down to his mastery of writing’s essentials. The book’s second half goes into great detail on the practical aspects of writing.

 

It’s here the educational tone of the book shifts up a gear. What he calls the writer’s ‘Toolbox’ I found to be particularly encouraging. He states that the basics of writing ultimately boil down to “vocabulary, grammar and elements of style”. This gave me an immediate boost in confidence. It’s that simple, huh?

 

King makes many of the same comments that people often make about my own writing. Write economically. Make every scene service either your plot or characters. Make sure your backstory’s worked out. Hearing the same advice from multiple sources really nails home its importance. Putting it into practice however is harder. For example, I still struggle to make my writing less cluttered and wordy, but King’s lessons on style are a good way to sharpen this. What’s useful about his advice is his way of pointing out dos and don’ts. As a person who learns by example, I found this particularly handy.

 

For King, vocabulary doesn’t just consist of a sizable word pool, but also appropriate use. What’s harmful he says is “looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a house pet in evening clothes.” – embarrassing for both of you. His main point on grammar is to ensure sentence construction consists of a noun and a verb. As for style, King insists on leaning heavily towards using active verbs, this being where the subject is doing the action rather than vice versa (passive). “The writer threw the rope” is just way more succinct than “The rope was thrown by the writer”. His other main point here is to avoid adverbs where possible. Using a stronger verb makes things a lot more stream-lined, but you should still keep vocabulary in mind. Don’t get too fancy with your word choice. You want your writing to be crisp.

 

He makes an interesting statement here about paragraph length as an element of style. The shorter the paragraphs in a book the easier a read it’s likely to be. Heavy-going books contain more narration and description, amounting to longer, denser paragraphs. He states that a paragraph’s main purpose is to deliver and explain a point, as effectively and economically as possible. This point should ideally service either the plot or character development.

 

King’s knowledge is also valuable on the topic of backstory. He says that backstory is ‘back’ for good reason and doesn’t need to be told in absolute detail, but that it’s important to make sure you’ve researched everything relevant, so you know how it plays into the plot and affects the characters. This largely includes details of a book’s context and setting. If you’re writing a war story you should know the relevant history and military procedures, whereas with a crime novel you need to be familiar with police, investigative and criminal practices. Stuff like Science fiction or Fantasy on the other hand require you to invent a lot yourself. Whichever field you choose though, you’ve always got to do your homework.

 

King’s words about habit and routine have influenced my own writing practice of late. A good writing space is one where you feel comfy but not distracted. For example, I know a public setting with too many strangers close by isn’t for me. Just ask my friend Jim about the time we were in some densely packed library study booths. It’s also affected my discipline too. With King advising a daily target of 1000 words, I’ve been pushing myself more and more towards achieving this.

 

Jim, Amy and Rob are close friends of mine who are also writers, and we often spend time discussing, reading and helping with each other’s work. One particularly interesting comparison I discovered was how King tells of his inspiration for the book Misery. The premise of a crippled writer held captive by a psychotic and obsessive fan came to him in a dream while on a flight. Interestingly, my friend Amy says she also gains writing inspiration from dreams, with supernatural themes often popping up. It’s certainly given her a lot of material. Ultimately, inspiration is plentiful in a ridiculous number of places if you just keep an eye out.

 

King also breaks down story with elegant simplicity. In essence, a story is as simple as three things: narration, description and dialogue. Plot is a lot less relevant than most people think and shouldn’t be a dictating factor in the process. Plot development is fine so long as it’s surface level. What you want is for the characters to drive the plot rather than having it drive them. I wouldn’t say I entirely agree with this, being someone who likes an outline. Still though, it’s something I try to treat more as a guideline rather than a rule. You should always still give your characters a sizable degree of control.

 

I was especially intrigued when King brought up the topic of theme. Coincidentally, it’d been something my friends and I were discussing around the same time. King says theme isn’t as important as academic obsession suggests (as a student I can relate) but it should still maintain a presence. It’s something a writer should decide on after finishing their first draft and analysing it to see what most comes to mind and what their story is about. Theme is ultimately about the message your story’s sending, the underlying meaning of it all. Jim is close to finishing his own work, so these thoughts are particularly relevant for him. Naturally, I’ve taken the opportunity to share what I’ve read, saying that the second draft is where you pick out the themes of importance and really turn them up. King cites prominent themes in his own books: the Pandora’s box of technology, reconciling the possible existence of God with a world full of terrible things, the line between fantasy and reality and the influence of violence on good people. “You undoubtedly have your own thoughts, interests and concerns, and they have arisen, as mine have from your experiences and adventures as a human being,” King says. “You should use them in your work.” The only time King says putting theme before story works is with things like allegories or satire, as making a point is usually what’s more important in these works. Theme is more often something you discover. Your story’s statements and messages will become more apparent to you in telling it, allowing you to then put more of the spotlight on them.

 

Looking ahead, I think King’s words on revision and re-drafting will also come in handy soon. I haven’t finished the first draft of my own book, a sci-fi intrigue story, but it’s good to know this stuff in advance. King says in your first draft you should simply get the story down. The second is about fixing, improving and making appropriate changes. In the third (which he doesn’t entirely consider an additional draft) you should polish and smooth out anything you may have missed, while still making any additional changes that come to mind. The example he provides of a small section of an unedited first draft followed by a second version showing and explaining all its changes is especially helpful. In a big way, re-drafting is simply going back and making sure your work does everything it needs to.

 

King also offers some particularly helpful tips about publishing, and for dealing with agents and publications. The example he provides of a cover letter and the explanation behind it are a valuable bonus for the reader/writer. His key reminder here is that presentation will get you a long way.

 

A mantra King repeats throughout On Writing is “read a lot and write a lot”, something many writers say. Like King himself admits, I’d say I’m a slow reader. I often feel like it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me like with some people, and that I avoid reading too much at once as it strains my ability to adequately remember and process. However, I’ve come to acknowledge from reading more that you only get better with practice. I’ve tried following King’s advice on the ease of reading and how many places are suitable, bringing my book wherever I might have some spare time. Tram, train and bus trips are good examples, and reading’s certainly more rewarding than just looking at my phone. As for his advice on writing a lot, it’s something I make a point of doing every day. My friends tend to write a little less often but the chunks they get done are usually a lot bigger than the little ones I churn out at a faster rate. Our overall output tends to be pretty even, but again, consistency is what’s important.

 

King points out that it’s important to remember who your ‘Ideal Reader’ is. This is who you’re primarily writing for, and who’ll most likely be the first person/s to read your work.  In his case it’s his wife, whereas with me it’s my close friends (and fellow writers) Jim, Amy and Rob. King points out all the ways in which such a person is of particular help. Usually they’re on point about what’s good and what’s not, and their reactions are typically very telling. I know this to be true from experience. Your Ideal Reader/s are people that care about your work and that you can trust. Helping you is in their best interest. You’ll always get an honest response, be it disappointing or uplifting.

 

Perhaps the most impactful part of King’s book is toward the end. Here he switches back to autobiographical style to describe an incident that occurred while writing On Writing. While out walking during a family holiday he was severely injured when hit by a van. This section, detailing his brush with death and torturous recovery puts a lot of his points into perspective. For King, writing was something that helped him immensely in the aftermath of his ordeal. He ends this story by using it to demonstrate the meaningfulness of writing, and how positive and enriching an effect it has, both for him in a dark time and also, potentially, for other writers. As King puts it: “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

 

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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About Ben Kirkby

Ben moved to Melbourne at the start of 2016 from country NSW. Shortly after declaring his intent to live in Melbourne permanently, his uncle Sam suggested "If you're going to live here you've got to get along to the footy at some point". After seeing his first football match (Hawthorn vs Sydney, round 9 2016) Ben's interest in AFL took off in a way highly unexpected by both himself and his extended family. Ben's team alignment was uncertain for a time, seeing an interest taken primarily toward Hawthorn during much of the 2016 season, but during the finals series he declared his intent to follow the way of his cousins and uncle and become a Richmond Supporter, primarily on the grounds of them being the team he most wanted to see win, among a long list of other reasons. Needless to say the following year saw him very happy with his choice.

Comments

  1. Very interesting Ben, sounds like a must read for any aspiring writers out there

  2. And great point about making plot and character serve the story.

    This is often so in the best sports writing; such as we read on the Almanac when we can.

    I also like the way you distilled King’s words on experiences as a human being.

  3. Thanks Ben.
    I loved this book.
    It was recommended to me by an editor who read a draft of what I thought might become a novel.
    That idea for a novel stalled.
    But I very much enjoyed the book “On Writing.”
    Thanks for reminding me of it.

  4. Great piece Ben. King pulls no punches in his analysis of what’s required to be a good writer, but I think your final para regarding his point about the purpose of writing is most telling. Looking forward to reading more pieces from you during the year.

  5. Thanks, Ben. I found this intriguing and fascinating.

    I have only ever read one King book (“Pet Cemetery”), and it just did not do anything for me.
    But “On Writing” might just be worth a look.

  6. Ben The Artist says

    Thanks for the comments people. I’d strongly recommend Stephen King’s book, either for the sharp advice he gives or for the biographical side if that’s more what you’re into.
    And his knowledge about writing isn’t just great for fiction. It can also be applied to a whole lot of other kinds of writing, including the kind that may feature here on the almanac. It’s got plenty to offer for any writer in any field.

  7. Yes, I'm that Jim says

    Nice work dude. A pleasure as always to see your work officially published on this site and out for the world to see. Your success is our success (and happiness). From what you tell me, it sounds like I need to take a look at the “writers toolkit” section of this book. Sounds mightily helpful.

  8. Oh hey, It's ROOOOOOOOBERT says

    Great work there Ben, though I haven’t read a Stephen King novel myself, your awesome piece not only shows why King’s writing is so acclaimed, but what other aspiring writers can learn. It’s a great piece Ben!!

  9. matt watson says

    I’ve read almost all of King’s books. And I read On Writing.
    And used parts of it to suit me.
    Particularly the advice to write every night. 1000 words.
    Think about it. If you write 1000 words each night, in a month you’ll have written 30,000 words.
    Most novels these days are about 100,000 words.
    About three months…
    So write.

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