On Writing

Review: Stephen King’s On Writing

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” – Antoine de Saint

on writing by stephen king audiobookWould you love to write like Stephen King? I would. What would it be like having every book you pitched to a publisher picked up and made into a blockbuster movie?

Stephen King has always been a giant lurking in the backyard of my mind that I’ve been trying to ignore. It stems from, I’m sure, being absolutely terrified by the movie adaptation of It when I was much too young to have been allowed to watch it. The end result was that I only really discovered his written work much later in life, and to be honest, I sincerely regret that.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer like him, though. Never mind that I got into his books late, never mind that he has like a million bestsellers out there, I wanted to be free to write what I want, just like him. It was my dream even before I became serious as an indie writer.

Other movie adaptations of his work kept me fascinated and amazed at his variety of interests and the singularity of his style. The Shining, Salem’s Lot, Carrie, Misery, all these works, and more, I’ve seen before I’ve read. This may be the single greatest literary regret that I have. I’m making a personal concerted effort to read through these stories, as King himself says, “to be a writer you need to read a lot and write a lot”.

Now I have the chance to get into the King of horror’s head:

This week, I’ve been listening to the audio book version of Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s read by the author and as such it brings out every intended nuance in King’s own voice. If you like Stephen King’s books, and wonder where some of those brilliant ideas come from, he straight up tells you, in his own voice. If you’re like me, and you want a little of the expertise that King has acquired over the years, he straight up tells you in this book. It’s pure gold: entertaining, thoughtful, reflective, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes unapologetic, always thought provoking, this book (or audiobook) should be included into every serious writer’s study material and every serious reader’s reference section.

The master’s voice

My primary concern was with the craft of writing, and here, Stephen King delivers something fierce. After a brief memoir of his childhood and early writing experience, King goes straight into easy lecturing mode. He uses his own works, sometimes irreverently (you’ll laugh, as I did, at what he considers gaffs in his writing), and other works of great fiction and great folly to effectively illustrate his positions. He also often refers to another giant of writing instruction, The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, which is the only book on writing he himself recommends. His narrative style, like his fiction, flows naturally, and it was a real treat to hear it in his own voice. The only reading, in my opinion, that trumps this one is James Masters’s audiophilic readings of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files novels.

King’s toolbox building kit

Even if you are unable to receive this work in the words of the author himself, the content does not diminish. King takes the position of a Seat of the Pants writer to an art form, and describes the methodology he employs to unearth the story that’s already there, like a fossil. Personally I find myself somewhere between Pantsing and Plotting, so his Tao is invaluable to me. This is especially true after reading dedicated plotters guides from Dwight V. Swain and Larry Brooks.

King does not deign to give you a guide as to how to write, what and where, but he effectively gives you guidance as to where to acquire and create the tools you need to unearth your story. The toolbox metaphor is a strong one in this case, and pervades the work. King wants you to build your own, and that’s a great thing, and takes you by the hand and shows you the way. He wants you to marvel at the joy of the craft, and become lost in it. He wants you to enjoy it about as much as he has.

Always season with salt

Herein lies, however, my only, and greatest criticism of his methodology. King has a romantic viewpoint when it comes to art. He believes that there is a divine distribution of talent, and if you have it, you can be great. If you don’t, well, unlucky; you’ll never be a great writer. He believes that some things just can’t be taught, like, in his opinion, an ear for dialogue and “writing talent”.

Of course, that is only a reflection on how he experienced the process of creating a novel, but I fear that some who listen to him might feel discouraged when they receive negative feedback. Once the thought “I may not have the talent to be a great writer” sneaks in, it might be the first sign of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As with any and all advice given to you on a subject, it worth mentioning to always take it with a pinch of salt. Use your discretion. Take what you need, and throw the rest to the wind.

As King mentions, the great often do not know what makes them great. King, through intense introspection and self-study, has come to terms with what made him great as a writer, and in On Writing, he distills this knowledge and hands it to you. How you use it, barring plagiarism I suppose, is up to you. He has no problem in dealing with criticism. Neither, should we.