One of my lifelong dreams is to write and publish a book. As a purveyor of the written word, I relish opportunities to create a polished piece of prose that can influence others or contribute to the body of knowledge in the world.
This penchant for penmanship led me to read Stephen King’s excellent non-fiction title On Writing. Partially autobiography and partially self-help book for aspiring authors, the book provided lots of useful insights into how King pursued his craft, as well as tips on how one can become an accomplished writer. While the volume is admittedly more useful for writers of fiction than nonfiction, it still provided revelation on the tricks needed to engage and excite using the written word.
Done in his breezy and highly readable narrative, On Writing (published in 2000) provided a quick tour of King’s life and the incidents which made him who he is today. Born to a poor family and raised largely by his mum (his dad ran away when he was two) in Portland, Maine in 1947, King rose over the years to become one of the bestselling authors in the world, with 32 novels, five collections of short stories, one non-fiction book, nine screenplays and several movie acting roles to his name.
Much of the credit goes to his wife Tabitha. A writer herself, she provided a pillar of strength for the writer during his early difficult years washing sheets at the laundry by day and writing by night. The greatest breakthrough came when King wrote Carrie – a story modelled after girls he met in school who were considered social outcasts. The cheque of US$400,000 for that initial story set the tone for a lifetime of writing success as one of the world’s most prolific and profitable writer.
The centre section of the book covered the techniques and methods of writing – what King considered his toolbox for writing. Topics like vocabulary, grammar, style, the use of adverbs (King hates them as they tend to distract from the main thrust of the story), paragraphing and dialogue. In his words, “Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction. If not so, why do so many couples who start the evening at dinner wind up in bed?”
In King’s world, the first draft of a book should be written with the door closed, and the subsequent drafts with the door open. An author should strive to get the first draft down in an environment that is minimally disruptive – no television, radios, computers, mobiles, and if possible family members. A writer should also think about one’s ideal reader, in other words, who you are writing for. King’s muse has always been his wife Tabitha, and he writes with her in mind.
Certain parts of the book were a little serendipitous in nature. For example, King suggests that the process of discovering a good story is to dig it up slowly when stumbling upon it like a fossil on the ground. I suppose this would work if you have a naturally curious outlook in life, and are bursting with ideas on how to weave these perspectives into a compelling yarn.
What’s the great commandment to becoming a good writer? King exhorts one to read a lot and to write a lot. Doing it from four to six hours a day, every day (except for his birthday, fourth of July and Christmas), King is a voracious reader and writer. To help wannabe fiction writers along, King even shared his own reading list of close to 100 books which he read in the last three to four years.
Other aspects of writing covered by the master author include the role of plots. King doesn’t believe in having one most of the time, preferring instead to throw his characters into a scene and “let them work themselves out of it”. The use of themes and the role of research – as finishing touches (the icing on the cake) – are similarly discussed. The administrative aspects of writing like finding a publisher and getting an agent are also covered in this slim volume.
Towards the tail end of the book, King touched on a particularly painful (and fateful) time of his life when he was knocked down by a blue van and broke his leg in many places while taking his usual afternoon walk. Describing the scene in fairly acute detail, King shared that it was his writing that got him back to where he was today. The process of rehabilitation reinforced the importance of his wife of 26 years in his writing life.
King ended the volume by providing a real-life example of how he edits his first draft by taking advice from William Strunk Jr – “Omit needless words” – and to use the formula of 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Another immortal word of advice was provided by King’s mentor Elmore Leonard which is to kill one’s literary darlings: “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings”. The example given was quite heartening to folks like me – even the great Stephen King has to edit his stuff!
On Writing is more inspirational than instructional. It serves a better role as a persuasive tool to nudge (or kick) one along to begin putting fingers to keyboard and to create, rather than a reference book on style and penmanship. While some of King’s musings appear to work better for naturally gifted writers – not everybody is blessed with his talent in uncovering raw gems of story ideas for instance – the book is still a good read for anybody who loves to read and write.