People forget sometimes that King was in fact a High School English teacher for several years while he wrote Rage, The Long Walk, and Carrie during his spare time. I think that teaching urge has never really left him, and On Writing is the result.
You still have to go buy the book yourself if you want to know all the little tricks hidden inside it. I am shamelessly promoting the idea that you go give Stephen King some of your money. That said, here is a brief synopsis of this funny, thoughtful, indispensable book about writing from the master himself.
The first half of the book deals with King’s early life. And when I say that, I DON’T mean it’s a boring litany of childhood. He sticks to a timeline that shows you how he grew up to be a writer and the influences that shaped him on the way.
- The scary movies he loved so much as a kid that worked their way into his writing.
- The time his much smarter older brother almost killed them both with a science fair project.
- Early literary efforts in all their sophomoric-humor glory (POW!)
- Working for the school newspaper and screwing that up with too much satire so that the administration farmed him out to a local paper to write Sports copy (“There had been discussions about me . . . and how to turn my ‘restless pen’ into more constructive channels” p. 55)
- How the different jobs he had worked their way into his writing and became his first novels. I particularly liked the genesis of Carrie, from a janitorial gig.
- And finally, how he was an alcoholic that graduated to cocaine for most of the late 1970s and 1980s until his wife staged an intervention and he made the choice to stop. This part is presented in unflinching honesty. He doesn’t try to make any excuses for his habits other than that he was an addict.
The humor in this personal depiction part is razor sharp, with memories sprinkled through like breadcrumbs that lead the way to future storytelling. If you are a reader of King’s works you will easily spot how parts of him made it into each novel. It’s fascinating to absorb.
Part 2-What Writing Is
King says writing is telepathy. Taking an idea or image from the author’s mind and injecting it, across time and space, into the reader’s. When you think about it that’s pretty accurate. Also, awesome.
Getting into the nitty-gritty, King writes about your author toolbox. The ideas are up to you. Everything you write, however, will be done with your own personal set of universal tools.
- The most commonly used tools go on the top, as the sturdy foundation of your kit: vocabulary and grammar. He includes good, descriptive, sometimes funny examples of how and why you should acquire these basics, and his infamous advice about adverbs. Plus a lot of pitches to get, read, and love Strunk and White.
- Next, the structure and style that will be your more intricate, detail tools. This gets into paragraph construction, dialogue attribution, fragments vs. whole, correct sentences, clarity, and brevity. Takeaway thought here: “Writing is refined thinking” p. 131.
- Third will be the instruments you, personally, need for your fiction. Plot development, pacing, symbolism, theme, character creation and the wild rides that belong to your genre, your ideas, and your voice.
After the toolbox King gets a little more philosophical, digging into the how and why of writing. He examines his own writing schedule and offers some suggestions for yours. He also goes after some of the well-known writing advice that’s out there. To wit, on ‘write what you know’: “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.” (On Writing, p. 161.)
He tackles the plotter vs. pantser debate with flair. In his view, ideas are found objects which you, the writer, must unearth and then polish up with all the little tricks in your toolbox. This part also contains an interesting exercise on writing a situation, inviting you to try pantsing a bit. Many of his readers have actually done this, and submitted the results on his website. There are also great examples of showing vs. telling that he draws from the antagonist in Misery and the situations in The Dead Zone.
Near the end of the book he derails a little into description of the accident that might have killed him, when he was hit by a van while out walking in 1999. Yes, this part takes away from the writing portion of the book but it’s his book/memoir and he can put that in if he wants.
Part 3-On Living: A Postscript
He finishes this manual by giving a detailed look at a few page draft of his (it happens to be of then-in-progress short story 1408) followed by the revisions/edits of those same pages with explanations about what and why. Then a list of books he had read in the last few years, because he advises you to read a lot and you might as well have some ideas for that.
You Said This Was a SHORT Synopsis?
It is. And you should still go get this book if the synopsis was at all interesting to you. I said, above, that King talks about symbolism and theme. What that doesn’t tell you is that he writes pages and pages of in-depth examinations of how this works for him and how it might work for you. There is SO much more contained in the book that can’t be explained in one small page on a blog.
To finish, I’ll leave you with the most quoted advice from Stephen King and On Writing:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” (On Writing, p. 145.)
Go get this book. Make it part of your toolbox. You’ll be happy you did.
header photo courtesy Stocksnap.io and Aaron Burden
I’ve read “On Writing” three times. I used to live by every word of advice Mr. King gave about the writing process. Then I got older and got a lot more writing under my belt and realized that his advice about the process was presented too rigidly. He doesn’t really acknowledge the natural diversity of the creative process. Not all authors can work the way he does. Also, how schmucky did I feel about myself that I couldn’t generate something fantastic in just two drafts? Ugh. Oh, wait. King is a complete outlier in that regard. Most successful authors average five to eight drafts. I still love King’s work, and I still value his thoughts about the industry and the process, but I can see now that he’s just one guy with opinions that I can take or leave as I see fit. The book is absolutely worth a read (or three), but new writers should be warned that King presents his advice inflexibly.
I laughed out loud reading his advice for writing at least 1,000 words a day, every day. As a mom of three who freelances too that was just not going to happen. I like what he has to say about theme, plot, and pacing. The main value I get from this book is the window into his process, because I can take that information and make it turn into my own process. But yes, I agree On Writing is only one of many valuable books to get and read over and over 🙂