Van has finished reading…On Writing by Stephen King

30 Apr

Many people have told me how good this book is, I suspect for differing reasons. At least one is an avid King reader, another a writer of horror fiction. Many are, I have to say, people like me – writers who are looking for ways to be better at it. Naturally, we are drawn towards these sorts of ‘insider’ guides. One of the interesting points Mr King raises is that people often turn up to writing events, or buy these kinds of books, hoping there will be some kind of magic bullet that makes it all work.

I confess, while I’m long enough in the tooth to know there isn’t one it doesn’t stop me hoping.

You’ll learn nothing you haven’t heard before about how writing works. Read a lot; write a lot. Kill your darlings, squash your adverbs. There’s comfort in that. You’ve heard it before and from other successful writers – that surely suggests there’s truth in it. What is strangely freeing about this book is Stephen King’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude. For the first time I had the sense that if I didn’t whole-heartedly agree with something I met on the page the world was not going to end. I could just move on with a shrug and pick up a different nugget instead. Neither of us would be worse off for the exchange.

There’s a very interesting section at the back of the book where Stephen presents the beginning of a story in rough draft, and then the same story with corrections. This is so often a missing piece from ‘writing manuals’. It gives you the chance to examine a piece yourself and think about what you’d do differently, then compare notes with what Mr King actually did. There’s also (horror of horrors) a retained adverb in there together with the reason why. A neat reminder that rules in writing should always be flexible so long as you know how to skirt the boundary.

This is a memoir as well and it’s interesting to see the trajectory he took to becoming the writer he is today. But the most interesting aspect of the memoir, for me at least, is that part which deals with the accident that almost killed him part-way through writing this book. How immediate it is and how emotional! The presentation is stark and factual and though we know this is the retelling of an actual occurrence as he remembers it, looking at it as though it were fiction reinforces all those lessons Mr King has presented in the earlier chapters. The main things it underlines for me is that a voice well-rendered will paint a vivid picture in a single line, that an emotional line is strengthened by the lack of adjectives or adverbs, that less is more.


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