Friday Reviews: On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen KingOn Writing

Stephen King

Near the end of the 1990’s, Stephen King decided to write a book about writing. Reluctant to be one of those writers who talks out his ass about what he does, King opted to keep the book short. That did not make it any easier. He put the book aside for a while and came back to it in 1999, during which the fateful encounter with a Dodge minivan nearly killed him.

It was this book King returned to when he was finally able to sit at his computer once more, and the results of that accident make up a major portion of the last third of this book. The first third is… Well, it’s not quite an autobiography, but it does show the evolution of a writer. He traces his origins growing up with his older (and admittedly smarter) brother and their single mom. It wasn’t an easy life, but Mrs. King, abandoned by her husband when King was just a toddler, imbued her boys with a strong Yankee work ethic and her mischievous sense of humor. That allowed King to edit the school newspaper, work as a sports reporter in high school for a local paper, and to work his way through college, where he met the future Tabitha King.

The middle section King devotes to the writer’s toolbox: Vocabulary, grammar, dialog, description, and theme (among others). He extols the virtues of The Elements of Style, of Elmore Leonard’s rule to “omit needless words,” of reading constantly and writing constantly. Writing, he says, is not easy, but it’s possible if you want to do the work.

The most important lesson he imparts is one I’ve seen too many writers I’ve known personally fail to understand: Art is a support system for life, not the other way around. There are a few really successful writers I’ve known over the years who did not heed that advice, and they’re absolutely miserable for it. The ones who do heed that advice may or may not be happy, but the craft is not destroying them inside

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Writing Tomes

I’ve actually avoided books on writing over the last few years. A lot of them are written by writers who don’t have the success to justify 200-400 pages of advice. There are similar books and blogs about marketing your books and finding a publisher. Still, there are a few books over the years I’ve found helpful.

The first serious writing book I read was Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. For the first time, I got to look under the hood of paperback novels to see how they were put together. It was still a daunting task to write a novel. Two hundred or three hundred pages? Really? That’s a lot of typing?

It was 1988 or so, and word processors were a rumor to me. I had an electric typewriter with automatic margins and correct tape. Real state-of-the-art stuff that I never really learned how to use. But I could clack away on the typewriter just the same. After reading Block’s book, I tried to write a novel. After several false starts, I wondered if it was endurance. Block recommended an outline, so I wrote a novel that will never see the light of day. For one thing, I literally used Licence to Kill, the James Bond movie, as my outline.

Then I moved to Cincinnati and discovered the Canon Wordstar. This gave way to a Packard Bell with Microsoft Works. Yes, they had programs that looked like typing and would format your text and set your margins for you. Helped that I learned to really type about this time. I reread Block’s book and made a couple more serious attempts at it. By 2002, I was working on the early efforts that became Northcoast Shakedown. It was around the time I shopped it around that the next writing book that actually gave me something came out.

After the accident that nearly killed him, Stephen King put out his famous memoir, On Writing. Part autobiography, part writing clinic, On Writing was simply one guy talking about what he did for a living and how he came to do it. I think I got more out of the biographical part. Obviously, I’ll never have the success King has had. I doubt any writer will again. But the pitfalls of success that snared King can happen to anyone in any walk of life. But there were things that gave insight into what gives King’s writing its humanity, something a lot of horror writers fail miserably at. Before I started each follow up to Northcoast Shakedown, I reread On Writing and Writing the Novel From Plot to Print.

Now, as I dust off Holland Bay and lay the groundwork for a science fiction novel, someone recommended to me The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Vogler basically condenses and expands on Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Vogler writes from the standpoint of screenwriting, but the “hero’s journey,” as he calls it, applies to novels as well. Apply it without imagination, and the hero’s journey looks just as formulaic and trite as its critics accuse it of being. Applied skillfully, and it becomes a roadmap for a writer to put together a screenplay or a long work. Vogler also makes it clear that this is not the only type of storytelling. It is, however, what Hollywood uses to judge a screenplay. If you look at the best movies, most of them (not all, but most) confirm the validity of the hero’s journey. If you look at the worst ones, either they fail to follow the hero template (or any other type of storytelling out there) or they simply follow it by rote, adding nothing new or of substance.