24/02/2014

On Writing (by Stephen King)

I'm quite a collector of books about writing, often bought or requested via my wish-list based on the recommendation of other writers. However, it took me a long time to decide to buy this book, and even longer to start reading it. I am not remotely interested in horror or violence, and had never read anything by the American writer Stephen King. But the reviews were positive, and it sounded different from other writing books, so finally I bought it and started reading it early in December last year.

'On Writing' is subtitled 'A memoir of the craft', and begins with a potted autobiography. In the run-up to Christmas I lost interest after a few chapters, but this year I'm determined to read more books about writing. So I started it again towards the end of January, and set myself at least ten pages per day.

The first section of the book, once I got into it, is interesting as a biographical background, including one or two amusing (and terrifying!) incidents in King's childhood. There's an light-hearted accountof his early teenage writing, some of which was dire - but under it all I could sense a determination to keep writing, and to be published, which have been the theme of most of his life.

The second - and main - section of the book consists of some general tips about writing. Not many specifics - those, as King says, are covered in other books - but his personal take on the importance of, for instance, reading extensively, writing with honesty, and eliminating adverbs. I didn't learn anything new, but there were some useful reminders and I felt inspired by his enthusiasm and dedication to his craft.

I liked the image of a writing 'toolbox', in which we must have basics such as vocabulary and good grammar, and I also liked the cavalier way he treats the idea of plotting, and the importance (or otherwise) of themes and symbolism. Examples are given, and it's written in a down-to-earth friendly style, my only annoyance being a sprinkling of bad language that grated as I read it. He insists that swearing is 'honest' and realistic, but in the context of a book like this it felt out of place.

The last part of the book was autobiographical again, about a traffic accident and its aftermath - interesting, but not really relevant to the rest of the book, other than seeing the way that King started writing again as soon as he could, despite extreme pain. Possibly the most useful part of the book was at the end: the first draft of part of one of his stories, followed by an edited second draft, with explanations of why he changed or cut certain sections. He follows the principle of the second draft being 10% shorter than the first one, and I could see that the second draft was tighter and more readable than the first.

I'm still not going to read any of Stephen King's novels; I don't want nightmares, and still have no interest in reading anything violent or with more than mild suspense. But I'm glad I read 'On Writing', and would join the throng of those recommending it to writers, both beginners and those who are established. But be warned that there's the kind of language that one would not expect in a book of this kind. Note, too, that it was written in 2000 so the mentions of technology in writing are inevitably out-dated.

Still in print on both sides of the Atlantic, and available in Kindle form as well as in paperback.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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