Monday, 7 December 2015

On Writing | Stephen King

“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Rating: 9/10
If I ever had to write a list of books that had an impact on my life, On Writing would definitely be featured on it. This book wasn’t what I expected; I thought it would be prescriptions on how to write. Rather, this is more an exploration of what it means to be a writer – what it involves and what it takes.

I enjoyed the brutal nature of King’s writing. He makes it clear that writing takes effort and practice. It isn't easy by any means. He doesn’t sugar coat it and it’s a very clear take it or leave it approach. For me, one of the most striking piece of advice was his recommendation to spend an equal amount of time writing and reading. Hand in hand with this, King also recommends dissecting those books you loved (and those you despised) to learn about crafting a story worth reading. I think this emphasis on continuing to read, especially outside of your writing genre, is overlooked. Exposing yourself to different writers and styles can only improve your writing.


If I am honest, without this book (and arguably my blog too) I would never have enrolled for my English MA. I’ve always wanted to be a writer ever since I was little and if I can’t break into academic writing then my MA will still help my creative writing.

I also appreciated King telling his experience of (literary) rejection. It is devastating to have your work rejected but King suggests two things.
         (1) Know your market
         (2) Keep writing
I would expand on these but I really think you should read it ‘from the horse’s mouth’ to get the full effect. I did enjoy the anecdote of a young Stephen King collecting all his rejection slips (a rarity these days unless you want the faff connected to printing rejection emails).

One warning for potential readers may be that they find it reductionist. King’s approach could arguably be denigrated as too mechanistic. He talks like an engineer or a carpenter with his discussion of having a toolbox of writing skills/tools and 'deconstructing' novels. Personally, I enjoy this because it isn’t vacuous and tepid but offers something tangible and concrete. For those who have read King, they should know not to expect anything overtly floral. King’s voice in On Writing doesn’t differ much from his fiction (including the swearing).

There was also interesting background information on King’s personal life and the inspiration for some of his stories like Carrie that provide a welcome break. It is an easy cover-to-cover read but probably not something you would go back to reference (for technical advice for instance).

On Writing is a great book for preparing you for what it takes to become a credible writer. Whilst it doesn’t give much practical advice, it provides great fodder for the mind. For those who have read On Writing, what did you think? Does anyone have any go to recommendations for creative writing or do you believe they should be avoided? Comment below! 

Pages: 238
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: 2000
Buy it here.

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2 comments:

  1. This was a great review. I compared the 'King insight' to the problems Tennessee Williams was experiencing (1953-1954). Williams felt he was living on 'borrowed creativity' after his success with A Streetcar Named Desire. I wonder if King touches on this 'writer's block' that only the artist himself can conquer. Any practical infor about confronting a 'dry patch'? I found that in contrast to King, Williams 'knew his market' but wanted to experiment. This resulted in a controversial 'flop' (Camino Real). Does King ever speak of ' thinking outside of the commercial success' box? Just a few thoughts I had... :)

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    1. Thanks! How strange I just reserved A Streetcar Named Desire :-) He doesn't mention writer's block per se, he just emphases having multiple projects. So when you are leaving time between edits or are looking to get published, in that 'gap time' you should work on other ideas.
      Yes, I think it's interesting though whether a 'flop' is in financial terms or critics in newspaper panning it, leading to everyone having to think it's no good. It's always hardest for the first person to step out of line too because there's so much pressure to conform. He doesn't talk that much about commercial success, just the basic and obvious advice of know your genre (so read what a magazine/pub house has won/published before and don't submit a horror for instance if it doesn't fit). Only passively/indirectly RE commercial success... I would say he doesn't place any limits on do or don't (apart from dialogue attribution, so you shouldn't say 'he said sarcastically' the sarcastic should be superfluous because it comes across anyway). He emphases reading widely too. (If I am being honest though, the cynic in me is tempted to say that these 'commercial successes' just have a bigger advertising/marketing budget and the contacts needed to get big name celebs and newspapers to talk about it). You made me think though :-) some much needed mental exercise for me haha ;-) x

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