Friday, 8 January 2016

Book Review: On Writing, by Stephen King

Not long ago we reviewed a book called How to Write A Lot, by Paul Silvia.  Silvia's book was concerned with writing research papers as a professional academic, and his main piece of advice was to schedule time for writing, set realistic goals and make a point of sticking to your schedule and working towards those goals (hardly rocket science, but still quite revolutionary if you're the kind of person who can never "find time" to write).

Silvia frequently referenced another book in his writing, one concerned with writing fiction:  On Writing, by Stephen King.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a peculiar book.  It actually contains several shorter "books" reflecting different aspects of Stephen King's relationship to the craft of writing.

It begins with what King refers to as his "CV" - a relatively straight-forward memoir which tells the story of his childhood, teenage years and early career, and charts his development as a writer.  In this section, King notes some of the core pieces of advice he received as he submitted various stories to newspapers and magazines, and notes how following this advice improved his writing greatly.

The next section is more of a nuts-and-bolts look at the craft of writing.  He offers advice on how to construct and write sentences and paragraphs, and how to edit effectively.  Stephen King talks about editing a lot in this book, and just as Silvia's advice about writing can be boiled down to "schedule time, set goals and stick with it", King's advice about writing can be boiled down to "Write freely, then edit closely".  Perhaps it can be boiled down even further:  "Draft".

King often repeats the advice to "write the first draft with the door closed, and the second draft with the door open", meaning the first draft should be written privately, purely for the author's own amusement - but there should always be more than one draft. Subsequent drafts should be cut down and tightened for an audience - and these drafts should be written without being too precious about the original material.  He frequently mentions the quote attributed to Quiller-Couch, "Kill your darlings".

On Writing also points out the need to set aside time for writing and to set goals.  King argues that writing is work, and should be treated as work.  He personally aims to write a certain number of words every day, and writes his works "one word at a time" whether he feels inspired to do so or not.

King wrote much of the book while recovering from a near-fatal accident (he was hit by a car in 1999 and badly injured), and hints of his physical condition are scattered throughout.  The last section of the book returns, to an extent, to memoir territory and deals with the accident and his decision to get back to writing.

The book also contains a section of King's story 1408, shown in it's original, first-draft form and with his editing marks to illustrate the effect editing can have on a piece of writing.

This is a great book for aspiring writers.  King is quite practical and open about the craft of writing, and the book is a genuine piece of advice written by a jobbing writer to help up-and-coming authors hone their skills.

It's also an entertaining book to read, and I thoroughly recommend it to lovers of creative non-fiction.  On Writing is not just a how-to book, but rather a book about writing, and is as interesting and entertaining as Bill Bryson's book about talking a walk in the woods.

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