Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’

I enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It starts with the memoir component, which is interesting; King has an engaging style, and is honest about the struggles he’s faced along the way. Stories of his mother struggling as a single mother, and his own battles with addition provide real context to what he’s achieved as a writer. 

The writing component was a little less engaging. It’s worth hearing that adverbs should be used sparingly and other similar lessons, but it doesn’t make for gripping reading. Still, there were interesting points. King’s idea of the first draft as when you throw everything in, and then cut by ten per cent on the second draft, is an interesting idea. It’s also interesting just to read a writer reflect on his own practices, and conceptualising writing as hard work – which it very much sounds like. 

This is worth a read if you’re quite interested in writing, or a huge King fan – otherwise less so. 

Quotes

Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. 

I am, when you stop to think about it, a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit. 

Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up. 

By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with hand-written notes a little more encouraging than the advice to stop using staples and start using paperclips. 

I don’t want to speak too disparagingly of my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world and opted for the Home Shopping Network instead) …

But if I happened to be tired, or if there were extra bills to pay and no money to pay them with, it seemed awful. I ‘d think This isn’t the way our lives are supposed to be goingThen I’d think Half the world has the same idea

The story remained on the back burner for awhile, simmering away in that place that’s not quite the conscious but not quite the subconscious, either. 

The most important is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. 

The idea that creative endeavour and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. 

Let me say it again; you must not come lightly to the blank page

… while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one. 

But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on. 

Reading takes time, and the glass teat takes too much of it. Once weaned from the ephemeral craving for TV, most people will find they enjoy the time they spend reading. 

In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech. 

 I almost always start with something that’s situational. I don’t say that’s right, only that it’s the way I’ve always worked … I’m not much of a believer in the so-called character study; I think that in the end, the story should always be the boss. Hey, if you want a character-study, buy a biography or get season tickets to your local college’s theater-lab productions. You’ll get all the character you can stand. 

Kurt Vonnegut, for example, rewrote each page of his novels until he got them exactly the way he wanted them. The result was days when he might only manage a page or two of finished copy (and the waste-basket would be full of crumpled, rejected page seventy-ones and seventy-twos), but when the manuscript was finished, the book was finished, by gum. 

The truth is that most writers are needy. Especially between the first draft and the second, when the study door swings open and the light of the world shines in. 

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. 

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. 

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