Thursday Writing: Stephen King’s On Writing

On my to-read shelves (which make up fully one-third of the bookshelves in my office), I have a number of writing books: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, several grammar books, and a couple on screenwriting (said to be useful for comics writers). Nearly all of these have been recommended to me by others. Most of them have been on those shelves for months.

Stephen King, On Writing

The edition I have

Last week I suddenly thought to request Stephen King’s On Writing, and instead of putting it on the to-read shelf I actually read it. Why? Partly I was just in the mood for a writing book, but more probably I was curious. The distinction between “serious” and “non-serious” writing fascinates me, and I wanted to know just what a popular suspense writer could say that could make a lot of my “serious” writing friends and teachers recommend his book.* I’ve often been depressed thinking that my books will never be the “serious” literary kind, but more recently I’ve decided I don’t care. King’s book reinforces that decision. If a “non-serious” writer can produce a writing book that is as helpful, as amusing, as galvanizing, and as… as principled as this, then frankly, who gives a crap about serious versus non-serious?

On Writing is absolute pleasure to read; King holds to the Strunk & White standard in a way that demonstrates why we all should. He’s always clear, always to the point, and there’s nothing extra. Besides that, his words are just plain inspiring. The book made me want to commit to my writing, hard, with ruthless disregard for everything that interferes! And to commit similarly to language. Of course, as a writer and artist I don’t have the luxury of committing to one craft alone, but King’s advice still holds. Read, write, and hone your tools, he says. For visual creation I add: look at pictures, make your own, hone those tools. All right then.

What I flagged to remember:

  • p156: “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
    I’m so easily overwhelmed and discouraged, I can never get this advice often enough. David Allen said the same in Getting Things Done, when he explained that you don’t do projects, you do actions. I believe he even used writing as an example: you can’t write a novel, you can only write one word at a time until you have a book. I must, must, must remember this when the big work seems too hard.
  • p158: “I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin, that’s all. If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It’s what I have.”
    There it is in a nutshell — the reason for not caring whether my work qualifies as “serious.” It’s what I have.
  • p175: “For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else.”
    This fits with what Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics: the cartoonier a face is, the more we identify with it. We have enough details to know it’s a face, but since it’s nonspecific, we can project ourselves onto it. At VONA Evelina told me I needed more sensory details in my writing, which I agree with, but here King reminds me not to overdo it.
  • p190-91: “In real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us, baby. 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.”
  • p210: “Here’s something else–if [you don’t show your first drafts to others, then] no one says to you, ‘Oh Sam (or Amy)! This is wonderful!,’ [and] you are a lot less apt to slack off or to start concentrating on the wrong thing… being wonderful, for instance, instead of telling the goddam story.”
    I know I’m not supposed to show early drafts to people who’ll criticize heavily, but King makes a good point about not showing it to supportive friends either. I’ve definitely gotten caught up in “being wonderful” before, and neglected my work as a result.

This was a transition week anyway, but after reading King’s book I am even more excited to get going.

Come back tomorrow for an Open Mic guest post from Ré Harris!

*Apologies for throwing quotation marks all over the place, but I realize “serious” and “non-serious” are just stand-ins for people’s prejudices and preconceptions about literature, so I use the quotes to remind us not to take the terms, well, too seriously.