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“On Writing”—Book review

On Writing by Stephen King For the record, I don’t read Stephen King books. And I regret ever seeing Stephen King movies. When his first break-through novel-turned-movie came on TV, I watched Carrie.

Mistake. Because King knows how to show a story you won’t forget. And I’d rather forget a story like Carrie, but I still haven’t.

So why did I read his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft? (And even in less than a month—I usually take much longer to finish a book.)

Because he’s that good.

He knows what he’s meant to do, so he does it. “If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”

This book is half memoir, half instruction. In the first part, King tells his story from childhood onward. In the second half, he reveals his toolbox. I profited from reading both.

His writing tips include,

Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. 

…One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.

Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip” and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to ___ [well, this book contains a few expletives, too, so watch out for bad language.].

But you get his point. You always get his point.

He talks about grammar (you either know it by now or you don’t), about adverbs (delete most of them). He tells you it’s the paragraph, not the sentence, that is the basic unit of writing: “You must learn to use it well if you are to write well. What this means is lots of practice; you have to learn the beat.”

He believes you should use bells and whistles if they improve the quality of your writing, but never if they interfere with the story.

He says edit ruthlessly. (Amen. I rarely read a handout or bulletin without mentally bleeding red ink; fewer words, fewer words!) He says about back story:

The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.

He answers this question: “Do you do it for the money, honey?”

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did.

…I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

And as most writers would guess, he also talks about reading.

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.

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. 

Which, in the end, is why I read this book. Sure, I’d like to learn from a skilled master how to be a better writer, but I read On Writing because I knew it would be good reading.

And it was.


elizabeth said...

So interested to read this book now...have never read a Stephen King book either, but secretly have a love for the movie Misery...but let's just keep that between the two of us! :)

Renee said...

I have never read Stephen King either, but this book intrigues me and I am sure I could learn a lot from it...thanks for the review! Makes me want to read more.

Lisa notes... said...

It really was interesting to read--even the first part about his life. He is just a good writer--it makes a difference.

Stephani Cochran said...

Wow Lisa, this was so fascinating to read. I learned a lot just from what you shared here. I would not normally read a Stephen King book, but I may have to try this one out. I'm trying to read more. I do find myself tempted to write more flowery sometimes because I don't think what I write sounds quite as inspiring as what someone else may write. I guess I just need to be myself! Thanks for sharing this!

Unknown said...

Same here. I don't watch Stephen King movies, but I did accidentally see Carrie. And the one about the car was playing in the break room at Circuit City a lot.

Great point he makes about not dressing up your vocabulary. I laugh inside when people use big words wrong, so I try to avoid doing the same thing myself lest someone smarter than me laugh at me internally as well. (That point will be in one of my next notes too.)

Lisa Spence said...

Putting it on my wishlist...


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