Stephen King - On Writing
Why read this?
This title appealed to me as I had read a King novel and resonated with his style of writing completely. So much so that I was eager to discover how he developed his stories, where his idea’s came from and what format he used to structure his novels. I looked forward to reading and hopefully learning from this established and successful author.
I was comfortable with King’s writing style immediately and soon settled in to hear about his experiences in life - beginning as a young boy - that would later influence and even play a part in his books. The beginning chapters tell of the numerous house moves that he and his older brother endured as his mother struggled to settle and hold down a well paid job. It wasn’t long before I recognised the cellar of Annie Wilkes remote home in the book Misery in one of his brief stays with a relative. This opened my eyes early on in the book - I was turning the pages quickly as the story of his life is interesting and entertaining - I anticipated more insight into the mind of Stephen King and read on.
I found a section about his visits to hospital with an ear infection, when very young, particularly interesting as he remembers the pain of his treatment so vividly and the promises of this won’t hurt and you may feel a small nip that were clearly untruths that adults in the medical profession often use. I could relate to this section as I too have had those promises and then the following torturous pain! I realised once I had read this section that I too had lots of vivid memories that could come in very useful when penning a story - or typing it as I would be doing.
Later in the book I was amazed to read that the early pages that King drafted for Carrie (his first successful novel) were tossed into the waste bin! If his wife, Tabatha, had not found them and encouraged him to continue then the book and film would not be with us today. This and the fact that he received numerous rejection tabs for his early offerings reassured me that even a writer as successful as he is began by doubting himself and being knocked back. This was inspiring and with the tip of ‘write for fun’ I felt motivated to get motoring with my own work.
I greedily consumed the pages that described how he came upon the concept of Carrie. It was fascinating. He tells the reader that ideas come along as flashes of insight sometimes and you as a budding author just need to learn to recognise them. This made perfect sense to me as I have found myself if I sit and struggle to get an idea rolling nothing comes and if it does it is contrived and therefore not my best work. However, when that flash (which is exactly the right description in my opinion) occurs I grasp it with both hands and bolt for my notepad to jot it down so that it is not forgotten. The flash provides imaginative and meaty storylines.
As the book begins the actual how to or as Stephen likes to call it toolbox section I am in my element. I’m with my writing guru here as I feel so comfortable with his philosophy - so much like my own. I wanted a little direction and I got just enough but not so much that it took the fun out of the craft that is writing. As is often said - in order to learn and improve with your writing you should read a lot and write a lot - that is self explanatory but a very important tip and is included in Stephens account. Stephen makes a point of repeating it occasionally to make sure you understand that it is the most important thing to do in order to advance and develop as a writer - he acknowledges the benefits of reading a bad book too. You learn how not to write when you encounter the bad ones. With the good ones you are inspired and sometimes overwhelmed - ‘just remember to have fun’ says Stephen, as that is when you write your best stuff. The key is to enjoy what you do - this really appeals to me.
I could not believe that I am so similar to this guy with my impulsive and unruly imagination - at times mischievous! Stephen King may have an idea what will happen in his books but he never has a plot - this is great news for me as I cannot stick to a plot, so many things take place once you begin to write that the outcome may not look anything like what you planned when you plotted the story of events. It is great to utilise the what if - I love those two words and Stephen does too. For example: what if a bunch of vampires arrive in a small town (Salems Lot). It feels like you are given a licence to go with the flow and see what happens. As he says - in real life there is no plot so why restrict yourself when writing fiction - the world is your oyster, go have fun.
In Stephens toolbox there is not too much and I like that as it is not off putting. For Stephen the most important thing to remember is the story. Story is paramount, it is the reason you put pen to paper in the first place isn’t it. I understood what he was getting at straight away as it is so easy to get carried away with themes, symbols and description and before you know it you have lost the story and gone off on a tangent. He reminds you that what he calls constant reader (your readers) will soon become bored and stop turning the pages if you wander off for too long from the story. We all pick up a book to enjoy getting lost in the world of the storyteller, escape for a while, if the book becomes bogged down with too much description it turns me off and I really struggle to continue. So that is invaluable advice.
So far we have read a lot, write a lot and stick to the story whilst adding in a few what if’s here and there and totally disregarding a plot. I like this a lot as it keeps the whole experience fresh and fun. I can have a good time when my imagination is free flowing without restriction.
I love the way Stephen describes writing a good novel - he says that you should imagine that you are unearthing a fossil, there are many bones and each new discovery of bone is another part of the story. This makes sense to me. It is just how I am when I write as new ideas just pop into my head from nowhere and I allow them to go wherever they need to.
There are other items in the tool box which will be of no surprise which include grammar and basic English skills. He keeps these sections to an appropriate length so that you have a good understanding of what he is telling you to do with it. And not. For example: Stephen advises the new author to avoid using adverbs and after reading three examples of sentences that included them and then the same three without I agreed that they were not needed and in fact the sentence was more powerful without them. Of course even he has used the odd one or two and he has his reasons - sometimes it is necessary and even beneficial to pop an adverb in but the onus is to keep them to a minimum.
Stephen gave good tips about writing the first draft and it is something that I have used. It is called a door. Keep it shut whilst in first draft and don’t share any of the story until the draft is completed. It makes good sense to me as I agree that it is important to get the story down on paper before it loses its freshness and whilst the excitement is there. If you start analysing and editing your mind is employed in that task and is taken away from the all important story. The door can be open for the second draft and he says to leave at least six weeks before re reading - this enables you to read your work as if someone else wrote it. This is when you will see themes and symbols appear and you can develop these from now on. This advice sounds good to me and is something that I will do in the future.
Another tip to have an ideal reader is one that I will employ. This reader should be who you had in mind when writing the story and someone that will not be afraid of speaking the truth - this is sound advice in my opinion as it is no use having someone eager to please, you need the honest truth in order to progress successfully. Hand out to a few others to get different perspectives too - everyone is different so not all changes are necessary as you can’t please everyone. Sounds good to me.
I found an example short first draft of a story refreshing to read and enjoyed attempting to guess any corrections. Examining the hand marked editing process and seeing what got cut and what was added was both interesting and helpful. I found that I had learned more than I thought I had after seeing what changes were made. This is the kind of thing that works for me - seeing a work in progress as an example.
The book is finished off in a unique way by printing the winning short story of a competition that Stephen helped to select. At first I wondered if I fancied reading it, once I began I understood why it won. It was good.
Sourcing the book…
Amazon.co.uk - £6.79
Also similarly priced at WHSmith and Waterstones
I would have enjoyed reading this book and found it fascinating whether I was beginning some fiction writing of my own or not. As it happens I am and I have learned an awful lot. It is evident from early on in the book that Stephen uses his own experiences within his stories and I found myself stopping and thinking - wow that was used in Misery down in Annie Wilkes cellar. The movie adaptation of Carrie stays with me from years ago and I clearly remember the crucifix that hung in her mothers living room - this was also one of King’s early encounters that stuck with him. For a budding writer this is inspirational and enlightening as a whole world of resources is stored very neatly away in my mind and I have taken King’s advice to write about what I know - I have a wealth of experiences to draw on that I never dreamt would be of any use to me. If I close my eyes and bring back a memory of being in a dentist chair at the age of just 14 I can recall my terror as he began drilling into a tooth before ensuring the site was suitably numb - it wasn’t! I have a vivid recollection of the scenario as you can imagine. He has lived an eventful and colourful life, battling an alcohol problem successfully and later in life being mown down by a truck that was driven by a guy on his way for a chocolate bar - I could just see one of his characters doing that! The tips and toolbox guide are easy to understand and don’t bog you down - at the end of reading the book I felt ready to get going with great excitement with the intention of having some fun with my story - remembering the golden rule of sticking to the story. After reading the book and continuing work on my project I noted that my writing had already begun to change - for the better. If I find myself adding an adverb to a sentence I re read the words to see which way sounds better, what has the best impact and says what I want the reader to understand - up to now the adverb has been deleted and Mr King is right. I’m impressed with this book and it will be my companion for some time to come. I can highly recommend it to anyone not just a new writer.
Also published on Dooyoo