OnWritingAbout twelve years ago, Stephen King published a book called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book is fantastic. Let me give you my summary of the book and then we can talk about it a little.


Near the bottom of this post (2nd to last paragraph), I talk about the endings of  'Salem's Lot, Misery, The Stand, It, and The Dome. I also (of course) reveal details about On Writing, but you would have guessed that, right?


Mr. King opens with an autobiography of sorts. He mostly covers the parts relating to his writing career, but you get other little stories as well. His style and his voice are so clear. This section is just as engaging as one of his novels, but in a way it's even better. If you've read a bunch of King, you've probably made a habit of picking up little details about the author from his characters. So many of his main characters are writers who seem to reflect him clearly: Ben Mears in 'Salem's Lot, Jack Torrance in The Shining, Thad Beaumont – The Dark Half, Paul Sheldon – Misery. It's hard not to equate these guys with Stephen King. They're each a thoughtful adolescent in a grown man's body, trying to do well for the people he loves. But in this book you don't have to peer at a reflection. He's standing right in front of you, showing you every detail.

By the way, there's a great article on Wikipedia which lists all the novels written in SK books by SK characters.

King talks about not having an answer to the "Where do you get your ideas?" question. But after claiming ignorance, he demonstrates the process. He was nineteen or twenty when he worked briefly as a summer janitor in Brunswick High School. There he cleaned the showers in the locker rooms and witnessed that the girls' shower had curtains and tampon dispensers. While recalling that at another job, he remembered a story from Life magazine – telekinesis emerges with puberty and then "Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea." That idea turned into Carrie, the first book he sold.

After the autobiography, King addresses the toolbox you'll need to write:

  • Vocabulary – keep it simple; don't try to show off; find the right word.
  • Grammar – kept it simple; make it active; don't use adverbs.

Mr. King dedicates the last half of the book to the process. He has firm ideas that he delivers as edict.

  • You must read and write a lot. There's no other way to understand the craft.
  • Write your first draft behind a closed door, but for your second draft, leave the door open. King believes that your good ideas will evaporate in the light of day. You must grow them secretly, in the dark, like mushrooms.
  • Books should be composed of narration, description, and dialog. No plot! "Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest."
  • His books generally come from a "what if?" question that forms in the collision of ideas: "What if a young mother and her son became trapped in a stalled car by a rapid dog? (Cujo)"
  • Backstory and research belong in the far back. It's easy to become enamored with the knowledge you've collected in your research. You become so fascinated, that you spend twenty pages describing a process that nobody cares about.
  • Write for your Ideal Reader.
  • Before you revise, leave it alone for six weeks. Then use this formula: "2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%."
  • Flashbacks are corny.
  • You don't need writing classes. You need experience.

He gives you all these rules along with the events that led him to these revelations, or at least his thought process behind them. I find it easy to just accept all these ideas as facts. He is enormously successful. If feels like that should count for something. King is careful to say that just because he's sold books doesn't make him an expert on the process. After all, he was born to write. Perhaps he's just a prodigy? But he did learn the craft from scratch. He started young and mostly taught himself, but he did end up sitting on a stack of best sellers.

About one thing I'm sure he's correct–at some point you have to understand the thing from the inside looking out. It makes no sense to try to study writing until you've spent a decent number of hours banging away at it. You have to learn the frustration of trying convey tension in a scene before you can step back and recognize where someone else pulled it off flawlessly. Only then can you analyze the technique and really be instructed by it.

This book is capped with a detailed, present-tense, frank picture of his accident (when he was hit and almost killed by a van). Finally, you get to see a passage of 1408 in its first draft, and then after his hand-written revision. It's a brilliant lesson. 

I'll repeat what I said up top: this book is fantastic. In fact, I love almost all the books he's written, but this book is my favorite. It finally helped me put a reason behind why I generally love his books but hate his endings. I like intricate, twisting books, and he's got plenty of that because he just goes wherever the story takes him. Nobody knows where the characters will end up. But they eventually have to end up somewhere, and that's where a lot of his books fall down. Somewhere in the last 10% of a King novel you're going to find that spot where he knows it has to end, but he isn't quite sure how to wrap it up. Some turn out great ('Salem's Lot–kill the boss, chase the rest; Misery–kill the bad lady, haunted forever) but some take a wrong turn and just stop (The Stand–hand of God blows up the nuke? It–the clown was an alien spider?? The Dome–bored/mean alien kids???). That said, the first 90% is generally so good that there's no chance I'll stop reading. 

If you have any ideas you'd like to write, or just like a good book, read On Writing. Have you read it already? What did you think?


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