On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

By Ekta R. Garg

March 19, 2014

I have no shame in admitting that I’m not a fan of Stephen King’s books.  I read one—Dreamcatcher—in the fall of 2004 and really didn’t like it at all.  I knew then what types of books King writes, and I had heard so much about him that I thought I should give his work a try.  I found Dreamcatcher in a bookstore at a discount price, so I picked it up.

I guess I should have paid attention to the fact that a mega blockbuster author’s book was in the discount section.

So I didn’t like Dreamcatcher at all and decided to leave my encounters with King’s fictional work at that (although I have to admit, I might give 11/22/63 a try.  I love conspiracy theories; why not read one about one of the most famous assassinations of all time?)  But even though I don’t read his work, even I can admire and respect the man’s success.  So when I put the list for The Workshop together, I decided to add King’s book On Writing on the list.

I’m so glad I did.  In his book, subtitled A Memoir of the Craft, King dispenses writing advice without sounding pompous or like an accomplished author who has every right to lord his experience over others.  On the contrary, King does everything he can to debunk some of the myths inexperienced writers might believe or at least have heard.

(Disclaimer:  Any mistakes in the quotes I use are mine.)

“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we?” King says early in the book.  “There is no Idea Dump, no Story central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky…”

Although I already knew this on an intellectual level, I felt encouraged to read King state it so clearly.  In other words, he’s telling us that seasoned authors and veterans of the publishing world have to do exactly what we do to find compelling story ideas.  The major difference comes in two facts: the seasoned authors have more practice in finding those great ideas, and they already have people willing to bet on them.

King grew up as the younger of two brothers and as the son of a single mother.  His mother worked hard to provide for her little family, and King doesn’t hesitate to share the reality of his lower middle class family status.  He doesn’t dwell on it, though, and he doesn’t use it as an excuse for anything.  He does, however, allow himself to use his background and his experiences to enrich his work.  He also uses those experiences to reinforce the essential lessons about writing that every writer needs to learn.

During his high school years, the administrators at King’s school felt his writing talent would be best focused on something more productive than a parody newspaper that mocked the teachers.  They all encouraged/strong-armed him into joining the town’s weekly newspaper, so he did.  His editor, John Gould, gave King feedback as an editor would and completely changed the way King looked at editing his own work.  It all started with a key piece of advice.

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story.  When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.”

Wise words, especially for new writers.  We need to focus on getting the story done and all out first, and then we need to allow ourselves to have enough courage and bravery to delete what isn’t necessary.  Rewrite, in other words, and do it with the brutal honesty of an editor.

King continues with some of the concrete advice writers need in dealing with the various tools of the craft.  In discussing description, he says writers shouldn’t overdo it.  Let readers do some of the heavy lifting.  By leaving some white space in the description it allows readers to come closer to the story and fill in those blanks, which in turn makes the readers engage more deeply with your work.

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s,” he says.

I think the piece of advice that stood out most for me, though, was when King talked about secondary/supporting characters.  He cautions writers to stay away from stereotypes.  Don’t start by labeling characters.

“It’s…important to remember that no one is ‘the bad guy’ or ‘the best friend’…in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist…If you can bring this attitude into your fiction, you may not find it easier to create brilliant characters, but it will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction.”

Toward the end King lays everything on the line in telling writers why he engages in the craft.

“I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it.  I have written because it fulfilled me.  I did it for the pure joy of the thing.  And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”

In the end that’s a simple, succinct way to remind writers exactly why we do what we do.  Yes, huge publishing contracts are wonderful as well as legions of fans.  But in order to achieve those perks of the goal, we have to stay focused on that goal and accomplish it first.

Sage words from a man who knows just how to get it done.  I highly recommend On Writing for any writer of any genre.  You’ll find King’s friendly tone and openness to new writers empowering and exciting.

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