Thursday, July 31, 2008

On Writing: A Review

As the final section of Stephen King's "edutaining" book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft came to a regrettable close, I was struck head-on with the sudden urge to sit down and write. Anything. I just wanted to put something on paper. My head was swimming. And believe me, when a storyteller of King's caliber is finished with you, you'll want to write, too.

Now, I normally don't need to be coaxed into writing, but I've always had one weakness as a writer and it's the same fear that cripples most every person at some point in their lives — the fear of failure.

I would sometimes — usually the closer I got to the end of the first draft — feel like the stuff I was writing was complete bullshit. Like my fraudulent attempts would rat me out as a hack. But for this, Stephen King has a solution: Fuck fear. Shut the door and just sit down and do it.

On Writing is a how-to in two very distinct parts which, after a while, start to blend into a pretty good life lesson. Parts of the book chronicle King's struggles as a young writer, overcoming a lower-class childhood and subsequent years of substance abuse. And then there's the infamous accident. The one that almost killed both him and his writing career. But these passages aren't merely bio-fluff. He uses his own backstory to illustrate the things every writer needs to keep going — Passion, determination, discipline, love, and a healthy refusal to heed unwanted naysaying advice.

The other parts of the book are devoted to the process and mechanics of good writing. What to do, what not to do. You'll want to read this section a few times over. There are so many great nuggets of wisdom in there that I can't list them all here. And why would I? You'd really be missing out if you don't read the book, and you'd really kick yourself if you don't listen to the audio version of this book. King narrates it himself, at times coming across like the little cartoon devil that sits on your shoulder, egging you on. “You know you want to write, don't you. So go ahead. Nobody's stopping you.”

Here are a few of my favorite highlights:
  • Always be truthful in your writing.
  • Get rid of adverbs — as many as you can stand to part with.
  • Write the first draft with the door closed; write the second draft with the door open.
  • Equal parts writing and reading is the best training for a writer.
  • Make sure you have a well-stocked toolbox before you sit down to write. (The tools? I'll just say Strunk & White's Elements of Style is in the top tray. You'll have to read the book to find out the rest.)
I've never read any of Stephen King's novels. Seen the movies, but never read the books. And, truth be told, I've never really considered writing a novel myself. After reading On Writing, however, I just may have to read a couple of his works. And maybe, just maybe, thanks to Stephen's kind advice, I'll try writing one, too.