Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Review: On Writing

I must confess to not having read a lot of Stephen King (despite having seen a number of movies based on his novels or short stories), which might have been my loss, since this book is definitely the work of someone who's thought hard about writing (Kindle Edition).

The first part of the book is autobiographical, describing King's childhood, his obsession with writing and making sales, his meeting his wife, and the first sale of Carrie, which brought him into public eye. The second part of the book goes down to the nitty-gritty, on what writing means, what are the important tools in the writer's toolbox, and how to go about it.

Here's King on writing:
What Writing Is Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it --- for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists, folks like J. B. Rhine have busted their brains trying to create a valid testing process to isolate it, and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s Purloined Letter. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.

King minces no words on what he considers important. My favorite section is when he exhorts the would-be writer on reading:

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.

Sounds like an endorsement for the Kindle, doesn't it (my sipping of books has gone up 300% since I bought mine)? King goes on to emphasize honesty in writing:
Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

King emphasizes over and over again that everything is subordinate to the story, and doesn't believe at all in plotting. In particular, his preferred method appears to be to create an interesting situation, have a bunch of characters drive it, and then close. Then he lets the novel fallow for a period of months before going back to it afresh and then using his reading skills to tease out the theme, and then emphasize those in the rewrite. This system clearly works for him (and he emphasizes that at no point does he consider commercial viability during the writing and rewriting of the book), and seems like a valuable process to emulate.

The book closes with a description of the car-pedestrian collision that nearly killed King and destroyed his ability to write for a few years. As is normal in American Society, the driver of the car got off with a minimal jail time, despite King's stature. It also described his recovery, and writings' importance to him as that.

Two appendices round out the book, one, a sample story before and after a rewrite, to illustrate the process (and to show how ruthless King's edits are --- one should strive to do the same), and excellent insight into the process. The second is a list of books that King found good reading --- by no means are these all high brow books (all of Harry Potter is in there, for instance), but given King's emphasis on story, that's understandable.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and will pick up more of King's novels as a result. I'm typically not a writer of fiction, often considering myself a journeyman, writing book reviews, trip journals, and other practical manuals rather than a creator of worlds and characters, but if I ever decide to go in that direction I'll be glad to have read this book (and shall return to it). Highly recommended.
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