Tuesday, September 8, 2015

On Writing, by Stephen King (2001)

As I have mentioned previously, I am currently reading a lot of books on writing in a desperate attempt to get the tools (and, more seriously, the motivation!) to finish writing my thesis. Quite a few of these books mention Stephen King's On Writing. Given that Stephen King is a novelist, it's not one I would have considered but my due date is soon enough that I am prepared to try anything, so I picked it up from the library.

On Writing is part memoir part writing guide. The memoir provides some details of his childhood, where he and his older brother were brought up by their mother in rural America. It was a rough childhood. I did find the memoir part a bit boring - mainly because, as King himself points out, a lot of the things he remembers clearly he has put in his books. The bit of the memoir I found interesting was his history as a writer. Even as a primary school kid, he was writing books for his mum. Then, as he got older, he was inspired by a gory horror film to write a book, which he made copies of at home and sold at school. As a teenager, he wrote short stories and sent them into magazines. They were rarely published but he kept going - writing was a compulsion for him. After high school went to college and qualified as a teacher. He met his wife at uni and they had children quickly. After he graduated, he wasn't able to get a job as a teacher so he worked in a laundry while his wife worked at Dunkin Donuts. He continued to write at night, working on the novel that would become Carrie. King knew that writers should have an agent, he got an agent. The Kings lived in poverty until he sold Carrie for the princely sum of $200,000 and his life changed. He became a huge success, had more children, became an alcoholic and drug addict, got sober and then, a few years later, got hit by a bus. There was really quite a lot going on!

In the writing part of the book, King gives his advice on how to be a good writer. His tips are pretty simple - read a lot, write a lot, and above all work hard. In fact, the number one piece of advice I took from this book was that to succeed, you need to work bloody hard (which, FYI, did not prevent me from faffing about all day yesterday on the internet and ending up with about 50 words added to my thesis. I did feel really guilty about it though, so thanks for that, Stephen!). I think every budding fiction writer should read this book for this message alone. That said, King says quite bluntly that no amount of practice is going to make a bad writer a good or even competent writer, so while working hard will make you a better writer, you can't do anything if the inspiration isn't there in the first place.

On Writing was published in 2001, and it shows. There's little in it about the internet, and I imagine  the how-to-get-published part of the book is well and truly obsolete. I would love to read an updated version and find out what King thinks about the internet, because he really hates television. He writes:

But TV came relatively late to the King household, and I'm glad. I am, when you 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. This might not be important. On the other hand, if you're just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television's electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far.

Just an idea.

I did have a few minor quibbles. King meets his wife, Tammy, in a writing class. They both want to be writers, but he said that she didn't make it because she couldn't find that extra hour in the day to work on her writing. The truth is that she couldn't find that extra hour because she was using it to look after the kids while King was writing. He had such a compulsion to write and has been such a success that I'm not sure she had any other choice, but it was definitely unfair of King to place the burden on her (also, I was a bit sick of Tammy by the end of the book. King talks about her all the time but only ever in relation to what she does for him. He devoted thousands of words to her but I know nothing about her after reading all of those words). That said, On Writing is well and truly worth a read for anyone who works with words for a living. Four stars.

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