|Purchase: Amazon | Chapters|
Length: 297 pages
Genre: Non-fiction, Writing
Start date: Aug. 18, 2010
Finished date: Aug 26, 2010
Where from: Chapters-Indigo
Why Read: I'm a Stephen King junkie & I'd heard that this book was one of the best about writing as a craft. I hope you don't scoff at this but, in the last 30 or so years, who would know best about how to succeed as a writer?
Summary: Celebrating the 10th anniversary of his original edition, the popular yet critically respected horror-suspense-often fantasy writer Stephen King churns out a part-memoir, part-writers craft 101 that attempts to explain what an amateur writer as he once was can do to succeed and appreciate both the beauty & ugliness of the craft.
There is no doubt that Stephen King is the most successful American writer still alive, still in print, still publishing new material at a respectable rate, and still popular amongst a number of demographics. He has come to earn more respect in the academic field, surpassing yet obviously relishing the title of "popular writer." As Roger Ebert commented, "A lot of people were outraged that he was honored at the National Book Awards, as if a popular writer could not be taken seriously. But after finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery." So stifle those sarcastic coughs once again.
The art of writing well is nothing new, and if you expect the King of Popular Fiction to crack open his treasure trove of highly coveted secrets to his success, you will be baffled to find that there aren't any. Seriously. What King does accomplish with On Writing is the ability to re-examine the craft in light of his success and attempt to modestly explain how he made it, warts and all.
The first aptly titled section "C.V." (curriculum vitae) is a memoir of sorts that provides some interesting anecdotes of his childhood with startling clarity that he claims are not entirely influential in his choice of genre, but nevertheless support it: dropping a cinderblock that crushed his foot, being tortured by a reckless babysitter who sat on his face, enduring several needles into his eardrum, and the hilarious description of the areas affected by wiping his ass with leaves of poison ivy. How could such events not persuade him to write about the horrors of human nature & the cataclysmic events that transpire because of them?
Toolbox is a foundational chapter that reflects on the basic concepts of writing: vocabulary, grammar (especially his hatred of adverbs, which makes me want to seek & destroy all words ending in "-ly"), language, and style. There are clear-sighted examples from some of the most respected writers, and those that never saw the glory years of being a famous writer. King suggests that when a rule ought to be broken, you need to be able to justify it on a number of levels. What is good for the writer goose may not always satisfy the publisher gander.
On Writing, the gutsiest chapter of the book, recounts experiences with rejection, finding the right agent, and addresses the most sought-after question every author dreads: "Where do you get your ideas?" He offers a pat answer to this, but it seems to satisfy the glibness of the question: Think of a concept, even a familiar one, and connect it to another concept (with the same criteria as the other) that in combination have never, to your knowledge, been written on. Simple? For sure. But, in essence, that is the formula of a good idea and accounts for originality. He goes on to prove this formula successful with how he developed the idea for his breakthrough success, Carrie, which I won't spoil for you, but shows how plausible developing an untouched, unseen idea can be.
On Living is a follow-up of sorts that recounts his painful recovery from a 1999 accident which nearly cost him his right leg after being hit on the side of a road by a reckless driver. His scattered memories of the accident, along with his slow therapeutic treatments that allowed him to return to the book (this one) that went nearly unpublished.
The book concludes with a practical lesson in editing. A portion of the 1st draft of his short story "1408" is presented cleanly, then a 2nd draft of the same portion is marked efficiently and self-critically with a postscript that comments on his edits. The clean draft shows a promising story, but even I could see areas that may be trimmed for overzealous description, and sure enough, several of them were attacked with the coloured pen, yet he surprised me by changing some lines that I felt worked just fine. There was even one that I liked but got cut. The lesson which he cites often, "Kill your darlings," suggests a willingness of the author to edit what ultimately will ruin or, perhaps less hyperbolically, mar your manuscript with unnecessary description, redundencies, or (horrors!) ridiculous adverbs.
The final touch is one many faithful readers have wanted for a long time, and that is to know what Stephen King reads. He provides a short list of titles he has read in the last few years, even though they may not have been newly published in that time. His choices are variable, including Dickens, Faulkner, Conrad, Graham Greene, Maugham; multiple titles by historical war fictionist Pat Barker, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, and Ian McEwan; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, E. Annie Proulx, The Poisonwood Bible, Anna Quindlen, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, fellow horror writer Thomas Harris' Hannibal, and even popular authors Michael Chabon and Michael Connelly. And he could not possibly exclude his wife and most fervent critic Tabitha King, whom he praises in the book as being an atypical muse who is not afraid to put the vice of egoism in check, not that King has much of one in the public eye, and is second only to himself to aptly critique his latest project.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his popularity, his reign of the bestseller list, his perseverence, and likely because he still feels the need to justify his success, King has produced a writers' bible from which, as he claims, any decent writer can become good. He does go on to say that no "good" writer can rise to supremacy, though I think he is being modest in this respect, as this memoir-cum-guide would not have been acceptable by the masses unless it was preceded by a slew of equally popular & critically acclaimed material. Who else but King?
Rank: (A+)- Highly recommended (especially if you want to be a published writer, high school English teacher, English college professor, are a huge fun or even mildly interested in King as a writer, and/or if you want to know the meaning of his success--basically anyone who would scour this review!)