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On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft

by Stephen King

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On Writing by Stephen King
© Scribner
Scribner, July 2010 (10th Anniversary Edition)

In On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, Stephen King more than once refers back to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, specifically to Rule number 17 in the Principles of Composition chapter, "Omit needless words." King does that. Clear, concise, and now in a brand-spanking-new 10th anniversary edition, On Writing is part memoir, part instruction, and no bullshit.

King begins with backstory. He recounts "an odd, herky-jerky childhood" in New England where he and his brother David were raised by their single parent mother. There are autobiographical details here but only insomuch as they show how Stephen King became the writer he is today.

Measles, strep throat, ear infections, and tonsillitis kept King in bed during the better part of a year when he was six, during which he read and read - "six tons of comic books, progressed to Tom Swift and Dave Dawson (a heroic World War II pilot whose various planes where always 'prop-clawing for altitude'), then moved on to Jack London's bloodcurdling animal tales."
King loved stories, and his mother encouraged him to write his own. She gave him a quarter each for his early tales about magic animals, and it wasn't long before a horror fanzine published one of his stories, "I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber." This taste of success provided further encouragement for the young King, who continued to write and submit his stories to publications like Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Some were published, many more were not. But despite the piles of rejection letters, King continued to write through high school and college, when magazines like Cavalier, Dude, and Swank began paying him regularly for his stories.

King was married, the father of two kids, and a high school English teacher when he began working on Carrie, his debut novel about a telekinetic teenager wreaking vengeance upon her cruel peers. The novel, which was published in 1974, taught him a great deal about writing, launched his career as a full time writer, and was the first of scores of novels that King has penned these past forty years.

King likens the craft of writing to a toolbox in which the most easily accessible tools - vocabulary, grammar, and elements of style - reside on the box's top shelf, and he has some very practical advice on these matters – use the first word that comes to mind, avoid the passive tense, avoid adverbs. Beneath this level, he says, are three elements of story – narration, description, and dialogue – all of which arise from placing characters in "what if" situations:
  • What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (Salem's Lot)

  • What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went beserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)

  • What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo)

King suggests a fine line between thin and overwrought description, giving examples of both; he quotes both good and bad dialogue from H.P. Lovecraft and Elmore Leonard respectively; and he unmuddies matters of theme and symbolism and even outlines where and when these should be addressed by the writer.

In fact, King is exceedingly practical in his instruction – first drafts should ideally take the length of a season (three months) to finish, and a manuscript should remain in the desk drawer for a minimum of six weeks before being unearthed for a second draft. He even prescribes a rewrite formula of 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10% to give the would-be novelist a quantitative goal for editorial cuts.
In On Writing's final chapter, King recounts having been hit by a van while walking the roadside near his summer home in Western Maine. The accident interrupted the creation of this book and almost killed Stephen King. It was only after a long rehabilitation and recovery that the author was able to walk and write again. He labeled his chapter "On Living," and it's here that he makes clear that writing, like life, doesn't have anything to do about getting rich and famous. In the end, King tells us, "it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well."

If you own On Writing and are wondering whether there are additions to this edition that make it worth upgrading, the answer is no. This is largely the same book that was published ten years ago. That said, King does update his list of recommended books to include those he's read between 2001 and 2009, and while it is an unsurprising list, it's interesting to see what King has on his bookshelf.

Written with love for the craft, with humor, and according to his own prescription for clarity and brevity, On Writing is for anyone who writes or who wants to. As King says, "Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up."
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