I read this some months ago, but hey, I’m already way behind with my reviews. What really struck me was that:
1) he came across as a thoroughly decent human being
2) he was candid about his issues with alcohol and the effects it had on those around him
3) his dedication to his craft. The image of his rejection slips stuck on the nail, which became a spike because there were so many of them, is still very vivid for me.
If you’re even vaguely interested in writing, read it.
I’ve never read anything by Stephen King, nor seen any of the movies based on his books. Not that I ever thought that there was necessarily anything wrong with his work. I’d simply not ever been interested in horror as a movie genre. I read it just fine, but on the screen, thank you but no. And that prejudice probably prompted me to not pick up one of his books. So when his On Writing was enthusiastically recommended to our writing class earlier this month, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a fascinating story on the making of a writer.
On writing; a memoir of the craft is part biography and part ‘this is how I do it folks – maybe it’ll work for you’. He lets his life story do his work. His journey in perfecting his craft was not a smooth one. Maybe the best craftspeople are forged through adversity. King’s father left the family when King was two years old. His mother worked at a variety of jobs but financial hardship was an ever present reality. Leaving high school, he worked in a fabric mill, and after he qualified as a teacher spent time working as a laundry labourer while looking or teaching work. On the way he married Tabitha Spruce (who he met in the library stacks at the University of Maine). He wrote that, “[f]from a financial point of view, two kids were probably two too many for college grads working in a laundry and the second shift at Dunkin’ Donuts” (p. 71). His first two published novels were written in the laundry room of the large trailer that they were living in (p. 177). So when King talks about what’s necessary for a writer to become good at their craft, he talks with the authority of one who has had to do it tough himself.
On the way King deals with the questions all writers get asked at some point. Quite early on, he makes it clear that ‘there is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere… (p. 29)’. He then describes process of coming up with the central idea for one of his early short stories, which he got when his mother was licking the type of shop coupon stamps that disappeared by the 1970s. These turned her tongue green. He thought how nice it would be if you could make them yourself, and a story was born.
Writing was a passion for him from early on. He wrote for a mimeographed newspaper that older brother Dave produced in high school. When he produced his own newspaper (as it turned out it ran for one issue), he learned that you have to be careful when you write about real people. Lampooning an unpopular teacher landed him a couple of weeks’ suspension.
But out of that incident came his first paid writing job, as a sports writer with the local newspaper. Not that King knew much about sports, but being willing to learn to get the gig is something else that a good writer should cultivate. The editor “taught me more than any [English Literature class], and in no more than ten minutes (p. 54)”. His editor said that “when you write a story, you’re telling the story… [when] you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story (p. 56)”.
If there are two central issues that King returns to, the first is the need for persistence. When he received his first rejection notice, he stuck it on a nail stuck in his bedroom wall. But,
By the time I was fourteen… the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begin to get rejection slips with hand-written notes a little more encouraging… ‘This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.’ (p. 34).
The second central issue is that if you want to be any good you have to spend time at it. There are no short-cuts dangled in front of our eyes. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot (p. 164).” He goes on;
“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on, Every book that you pick up has its own lesson or lesson, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”
Why so many books? ‘The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… [constant] reading will pull you into a place where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness” (p. 171).
What constitutes ‘a lot’ of reading and writing? ‘The sort of strenuous reading writing program advocate – four to six hours a day, every day – will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them.. (p. 171). That’s twenty eight to forty two hours a week, folks – about a full working week. Well, I don’t much like watching TV anyway. Helpfully, he gives aspirants hints on where to read (though you probably won’t need these). He takes books everywhere (a writer after my own heart). “The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows” (p. 168) So movie lounges, checkout lines, the toilet, on your way to work are all fair game. At the time of writing he listened to between six and a dozen audio titles each year.
As you’d expect from a successful writer taking about writing, there is a wealth of ideas to savour. He describes the sort of toolbox that a writer needs. Like a toolbox, the tools you use most are at the top. “The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary (p. 125).”Good rich vocabulary can produce a good heart prose, and he gives some fine examples from Lovecraft and Cormac McCarthy. But simplicity has its own virtues, and he gives us his favourite simple passages from Hemingway, Sturgeon and Steinbeck
Next is grammar. “Take a noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence (p. 134).” A writer needs to know why some things work and others don’t. But it’s not enough to simply say avoid the passive voice, because your writing will be the stronger for it. King re-writes some sentences from passive to active so that we see what he means. More helpfully, he gives us his opinion of why people use it anyway:
I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with; the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England… I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice also lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty (p. 136-137).
Other specific advice covers adverbs (hint – don’t trust them). This is especially so in dialogue, where the best form of dialogue attribution is said. All writers slip into it sometimes, either timidly, or because of the onrushing deadline, but he reminds us that if we’ve told our story well enough, the reader will know to read that dialogue exasperatingly (p. 143).
There is a core simplicity in the English language… but it’s a slippery core. All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine (p. 144).
As we delve deeper into King’s toolbox, we come to the paragraph, which he argues is the basic unit of writing. It’s ‘the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words” (p. 152). The paragraph structure tells us something about a work;
You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs – including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long – and lots of white space… Hard books, full of ideas, narration, or description, have a stouter look. A packed look. Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent. (p. 145)
How those paragraphs come together depend the way you want to use narration, description and dialogue (the three parts of a story – p. 187) to bring it to life. Plot is by and large not part of King’s universe;
I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless…; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible… I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much write themselves (p. 188).
The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. (p. 190)
And to make sure that we get it;
Please remember… that there is a huge difference between story and plot. Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest. (p. 197)
I really recommend doing the exercise that he gives us soon after this passage.
King told us earlier how much reading and writing we should do each day. How much writing is that. He tells the (probably) apocryphal story of James Joyce. Joyce seemed to be struggling to get his words onto paper;
‘How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.
Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled face down on his desk):
‘Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you!’
‘Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!’ (p. 172)
More helpfully, King tells us that he likes to get ten pages a day, which is about 2000 words, which is a good-ish length for a book in three months (p. 176). Sometimes those pages get done before lunch, sometimes in the afternoon, and occasionally around teatime (p. 176). To manage your goal (perhaps begin with 1000 words a day), you need one thing: a door that you are willing to shut (p. 178). By the time you get to your second draft, you should be looking at cutting your work by around 10% (p. 246). So if you’re looking at a 200 page work, your first draft needs to be around 220 pages.
This was simply a joy to read. The advice is invaluable, but it was told by someone who was, quite simply so very likeable. When he was writing this book, he struck by a truck while out walking, It made it a hard book to write. Perhaps his candid discussion of his struggle with alcohol did as well. His descriptions of family and friends are lovingly drawn. He comes across as a nice guy. Not because of how he describes himself, but because of the way he describes those around him.
Of course, being a successful writer, we learn about the path that led to the publication of Carrie, his first novel. His family were, if not on the streets, at least living close to Penury Road. I wanted him to get a big fat cheque, as much for Tabitha’s sake as his. The discussion of Carrie’s gestation is itself fascinating, and you should read it for yourselves.
You should borrow or buy a copy of this and read it. Right now. But before you do, I’ll leave you with Stephen finding out that his agent had sold the paperback rights. It was worth $400 000, of which Stephen would get half. In 1973, that was an enormous sum of money (and it’s still not a shabby sum today). He tried unsuccessfully to call his wife with the news. On his way home, he bought her a Mother’s Day present – a hair dryer.
“When I got back home she was in the kitchen, unpacking the baby bags and singing along with the radio. I gave her the hair dryer. She looked at it as if she’d never seen one before. ‘What’s this for?’ she asked.
I took her by the shoulders. I told her about the paperback sale. She didn’t appear to understand. I told her again. Tabby looked over my shoulder at our shitty little four-room apartment, just as I had, and began to cry.” (p. 95)
At that point, so did I.