Stephen King – On Writing

I laughed, I cried, I took notes.

This book is half biography, half looking at some of the problems of writing. For anyone looking for a how to book, or some magical formula, this book isn’t it. What is wonderful is to see the frailty and humanity of a man who has been so successful and genuinely wants to encourage writers. Although he does make the point, if you are a very bad writer you will never be truly good, for the rest of us, we can and should improve.

One of the main things I find amusing is his anti-establishment wisdom. A friend of mine is doing a creative writing course and one of her tutors criticised her for a lack of plot. Stephen King says, “Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.” You can argue he has sold enough books to be able to get away with this statement and for us mere mortals an outline is a good idea. He is equally dismissive of creative writing courses, despite having attended one himself. “It is the dab of grit that slips into the oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl making seminars with other oysters.” This is good news for those of us who can’t afford formal writing courses, but he does acknowledge writing courses are a way for writers to earn a substantive living which the sale of their books don’t provide.

In terms of setting the scene and telling the story, he says, “Description begins with visualisation of what it is you want the reader to experience. It ends with your translating what you see in your mind into words on the page.” That does not involve the cardinal sin of using adverbs of course. The suggestion is that you should use active verbs and not passive ones. “With an active verb the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.” Presumably they bring more life to your writing by making your subjects do things and so keep the action moving. He says, “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of our writing until it has been done to you.”

From a practical point of view, he does suggest submitting short stories to magazines. Finding papers with the right genre for which you write and building up your CV for when you submit your novel to an agent. There is a suggestion that if you keep trying eventually an agent will sign you up, but he is American and it is a big country, with plenty of different agents. Living in the UK I would argue there may not be as much opportunity. Also short story writing is a particular craft and not everyone wants to do this.

On the whole I found it entertaining and hugely inspirational, but not particularly practical.

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