Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes
May 20, 2008
In April 2006 I attended a workshop, Creating for Creators, run by Robert Fritz (author of Your Life as Art, among other books). To those of us participants aspiring to be (better) writers, Robert recommended that we read Stephen King’s On Writing. What a great recommendation!
Stephen King is a class act – down to earth, likable, extremely funny, if On Writing is any measure – and someone to be trusted. King is both a regular guy, with whom you would enjoy having an informal conversation, as well as - no one needs to hear this from me – one of the top novelists of our day.
King demystifies the act and the art of writing fiction, and shares his perspectives on the mindset, discipline and hard work that it has taken him to create his novels over the past several decades. In earlier years he had to overcome tough financial circumstances, over-reliance on alcohol and other unsustainable substances, and his infamous near-fatal injuries sustained when hit by a van while out walking one day in 1999. King is truly an endearing person.
The first part of the book is autobiographical, describing, among other things, the wild adventures of Stephen and his older brother David. Stephen’s father left the home early on, leaving Stephen’s strong-willed mother to raise the boys – a gritty life in rural Maine, with stints in Wisconsin and elsewhere. In summary, King worked very hard for each of his accomplishments; nobody handed him anything. The nail on his wall – later replaced with a larger spike – onto which he impaled his countless rejection letters from publishers, is testimony to King’s tenacity.
Here are some of King’s thoughts:
King offers a somewhat contrarian view of the elements of a novel. In his approach there are three parts: narration, which moves the story from Point A to Point B; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader, and makes him or her a participant in the story; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech (page 159, paperback edition). King “distrust[s] 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… Plot is… the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” )Having used a plot-driven approach with a novel I am writing, and not being pleased with the results, I buy into King’s thoughts.)
King prefers to start with a situation; the characters come next. He wants to put characters in some predicament, and then watch them try to work themselves free (page 161). King’s job, as he sees it, is not to help the characters work themselves free but, rather, to “watch what happens and then write it down.” It’s all about forming mental pictures and then documenting what you see, as truthfully and authentically as you can.
King candidly describes the challenges of weaving in the back story that every novel has no choice but to possess… include too little, and the main story has insufficient foundation; include too much, and the main story is buried. King also addresses the heart-rending job (for writers, at least) of “killing your little darlings” – removing sometimes really good material from your novel, if it does not contribute to the story.
The big bonus with this book that I never anticipated is that it is laugh-out-loud funny in all sorts of places. King’s humour is enduring, clever, insightful, and not at anyone’s expense.
I have spent the last three years writing a 315-page novel. I am not happy with it, and prior to reading On Writing I was seriously contemplating abandoning my novel. I now plan to do to a major re-write, and this is due to my having read King’s discussion of what he went through when writing The Stand; it reminds me so much of my situation with my novel. King has reassured me that the position I find myself in, or which I have created for myself, is not necessarily awful, unusual or irreconcilable. It may simply be a stop along the way toward creating a better novel. When I read about King’s management of editing and drafts, it all looks so familiar, and I am grateful for indications from him that I may be on an OK track after all.
Other related books I can recommend are On Writing Well – an informal guide to writing non-fiction, by William Zinsser, If You Want to Write – A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Euland, On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner, Your Life as Art, by Robert Fritz, and The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White.