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Book Review : On Writing by Stephen King

Sunday, 25 April 2010

There's a good chance you'll have read this book already. If you haven't, I'd strongly recommend giving it a try. If you've been put off by the fact that it's by Stephen King and you're not interested in Horror/Dark Fantasy fiction, then fear not. The advice within it works for all genres. I believe this is actually only the second King book I've ever read (is that a terrible admission?) but I certainly took a lot from it.

King's intention is to be brief because, as he puts it, "most books about writing are filled with bullshit". In fact the first half of the books doesn't really provide writing advice at all. Instead he gives us his "CV", his formative experiences as a writer. I didn't learn much from all this but I did enjoy reading it. I suspect King could make a set of furniture assembly instructions engrossing. It reminded me of all the Isaac Asimov short story collections I read as a boy, when Asimov would provide a biographical introduction to each : what was going on in his life, how much he got paid etc. To be fair, King's book is subtitled "A memoir of the craft" and not, say, "How to write".

The actual writing advice on offer is all excellent, although you're probably familiar with a great deal of it. Read and write a lot. Avoid adverbs and the passive voice. Second draft = first draft - 10% etc. I liked King's notion that the story is a fossil needing to be gently, painstakingly unearthed from its hiding place in the ground. That feels a lot like how it works for me. Although King seems to suggest this is literally true : that each story is already "there" and just needs to be uncovered. Surely this is just a useful metaphor. I think a lot of the process of story-creation takes place in the unearthing process.

Still, this is an inspiring read. I loved that he started with "a situation" and then characters and story evolved (or were unearthed) from that. This matches pretty well with how I write. It's always worried me that other writers say they start with a character, as if that's how it should be done. I guess there's no right or wrong way in these matters.

The book does tends to focus on American idiom so US readers will perhaps find it more useful than the rest of us. And he does seem to be completely out of touch when he talks about getting an agent, which he feels should be pretty easy. Hah!

But that all said, I really enjoyed this book - one of the best "writing advice" tomes I've read. I plan to re-read the "writing advice" section again every now and then.


  1. I loved that book to. It was my first King book I read, which then prompted me to read his Duma Key, which was ok and recently I read his Under the Dome, which I loved. Lots of people have disagreed with his ending of Under the Dome (I thought it ok) but what I found so good about it and so useful was because the book had such a huge cast of characters (I didn't count but I think I read somewhere it was something like 60+), reading Under the Dome felt like an expert lesson in how to do character point of view well, as each character felt like that character, even the corgi! It was also a useful lesson in keeping track of multiple characters in such a large book, if a character popped up after a long absence, King used various tricks to remind the reader who that character was, making it easy to follow. Feel like finding some more King books for some more lessons!

  2. Lacer,

    Interesting - I might just seek out a copy of Under the Dome and give it a go. Thanks.


I'd love to know what you think.