Thursday, 1 August 2019

Books on Writing Craft: On Writing

by Jeanette O'Hagan

On Writing 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft
by Stephen King (2010; first published 2000)

Stephen King's On Writing is a classic text that hasn't dated. It is part memoir, part writing manual. King writes with a lucid, entertaining and humerous style peppered with the occasional strong language.

Becoming a Writer

The first 1/3 of the books looks at King's childhood and the challenges of his writing career with the occasional application to writing craft. I was fascinated by King’s own writing journey and how his background (from a poor single parent family with strong work ethic and Methodist ties) has impacted on him as a man and a writer. I was particularly inspired by his discussions about how these principles worked in creating his own fiction.

Writing Journey

The middle is a clearly written, practical look at a writer's journey from starting out, craft issues, publishing and more. King’s explains his approach to writing – from the prime rule ‘write a lot and read a lot’, the basic tools in the writers toolbox – vocabulary, grammar, style, and voice. He speaks about the writing process, how to court the muse (work consistently and hard), right through to finding ideas, critique, editing, looking for agents and publishers. He has a lot of good stuff to say about adverbs, dialogue, description, characterisation, back story, research and theme. He is wary of writing groups (but not against them) and is even more sceptical of plotting – being the archetypical pantser. And in all this, for him the story is king.

Overcoming obstacles

The last 1/4 details the King's injuries as a result of a horrific accident and his struggles to get back to writing again.

My reaction

King's style is easy to read, almost mesmerizing and his examples from his own writing and experience or those of others are enlightening.

I enjoyed reading this book particularly because it was so much more than a 'how-to manual'. On the other hand, the structure was a tiny bit jarring and I think the last section could have been shorter (though I can understand with this being such a recent trauma for King at the time, why he might have felt the need for a blow by blow description). I think fans would love the first third, writers can benefit from the whole book, particularly the middle section.

Stephen King is a veteran author who has wooed millions of avid fans with his own special brand of suspense, horror, faith and the battle between good and evil. To date he has written over 65 books and sold over 330 million copies. To be honest, I’ve read only one of his novels – The Stand –  am three-quarters of the way through another  –  It –  and have watched the film adaptation of the emotional The Green Mile. I'm not a particular fan of horror (and have skimmed a few scenes in It), but his writing is clear, gripping, blunt, and gives a great sense of character and place.

As a writer, I found On Writing refreshing and encouraging. Even the middle section takes a much broader approach than the strictly how-to tomes that tend to focus on the mechanics. King’s book doesn't neglect the mechanics but I think he also addresses the heart. He is definitely in the ‘tell it how you hear it’ side of language debate – and is not averse to being blunt. On the other hand, themes of God, faith and redemption often recur in his fiction and he notes that these themes are important to him personally (see here also).

Whatever you may think about his preferred genre, his book on the writing craft On Writing is an influential classic often quoted and still relevant almost 20 years after it was first published.

“The rest of it - and perhaps the best of it - is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will.”
 Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Jeanette O'Hagan spun tales in the world of Nardva from the age of eight. She enjoys writing fantasy, sci-fi, poetry, and editing.

Her Nardvan stories span continents, millennia and cultures. Some involve shapeshifters and magic. Others include space stations, plasma rifles and cyborgs.

She has published over thirty stories and poems including the five books in her YA epic fanasty - Under the Mountain novella series -as well as Ruhanna's Flight and Other Stories, and her debut novel, Akrad's Children - a Young Adult secondary world fantasy fiction with adventure, courtly intrigue and romantic elements. Most recent publications are Caverns of the Deep & Tales of Magic and Destiny.

Jeanette has practised medicine, studied communication, history, theology and a Master of Arts (Writing). She loves reading, painting, travel, catching up for coffee with friends, pondering the meaning of life and communicating God’s great love. She lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

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  1. Terrific overview, Jenny. Like you, I've viewed 'The Green Mile'. I also read the book some years ago. King is masterful in drawing the reader in to the depths of his characters' psyche/s. It's interesting that his craft book, like his novels, has a longevity of style and relevance.

    1. 'King is masterful in drawing the reader in to the depths of his characters' psyche/s' he does. And he has some wise and valuable things to say about the process of writing too. His prose seems effortless that pulls the reader into his world.

  2. I've seen The Green Mile, but chickened out of Pet Semetary halfway though (Bette Midler's Beaches was playing downstairs, so I snuck in there with a friend).

    I've never read a "Stephen King" novel, but I did read The Running Man by Richard Bachman, before it was common knowledge that Bachman was a Stephen King pen name. It was excellent (my recollection is it was a lot less violent than the movie, which I haven't seen).

    I did read On Writing, and thought it was excellent. But that excellence convinced me I don't want to read his novels!

    1. Haha, Iola, yes, he draws you into his world, which is not always a good thing with horror. It's an interesting mix - the main character is almost the town, Derry, and we get brilliant exposes of it in the late 50s & late 80s.