Book Review: “On Writing” by Stephen King

This book is both a memoir of Stephen King and a how-to on writing fiction. King’s early life growing up with a constantly-moving mother and a genius elder brother was very interesting. I wonder if the shifty environment he grew up made him who he was/is – striving to horrify people with his talents in hunting for the fears and dark side of the readers/viewers. He also went into great details of his fight against alcoholism and drugs. But when it comes to the question of doing it for the money, he replied, “I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it… I’ve written because it fulfilled me.. I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.” You can tell his passion for the art in his last chapter “On Living” where he described how he fought to survive from a freak accident and how writing got him back to life.

Stephen King taught us the merely mortal how to write fictions. Key advises:
1. Write often and read often. He himself wrote continuously while growing up and had a hook where he spiked all the rejection letters on his wall. Now that’s encouragement. Even for him, he reads constantly up to 70+ books a year. “Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.”

2. From stories to theme than from themes to stories. This one surprised me. Most of the time, he just let the stories develop into themes instead of constructing the stores based on a certain theme. I guess that’s why most fictional writers don’t know how the stories would end when they started writing. Very interesting. “When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”

3. On editing: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Always try to reduce the first draft and target 10% reduction. “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 the story.” “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway— it belongs to anyone who wants to read it.”

4. Put your desk in the corner… Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

5. Writing is Telepathy. Build your toolbox: vocabulary (put on the top shelf but don’t make any conscious effort to improve it), grammar (read The Elements of Style), use active tense and reduce use of adverbs.

6. Writing takes discipline. King writes roughly 10 pages (2000 words) a day and finishes a novel in three months. He writes in the mornings. The secrets: stay healthy and stay married. Write what you know and what you love to read.

7. Stories and novels consists of three parts: narration (A to B), description (creates sensory reality) and dialogue (bring characters to life through their speech). “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” King went to a few examples for each of the 3 parts.”Practice is invaluable (and should feel good, really not like practice at all) and that honesty is indispensable. Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity (and without using a lot of tiresome, unnecessary adverbs).”

8. Have an Ideal First Reader to review your work. Like King’s wife and Alfred Hitchcock’s wife.

9. “As a reader, I’m a lot more interested in what’s going to happen than what already did.” Be judicious in the use of “back stories.”