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Friday, April 13, 2012

Product Review: Stephen King's On Writing


It is worth mentioning to start that On Writing is a good, solid book about writing. It covers a wide variety of issues relevant to craft and art in general as well as framing writing within King’s own life as a positive, uplifting and inspirational force.  I really do think most serious writers should read this book at some point, even if they have to beat up a teenage wannabe-King-clone and steal their copy.  Not because it’s Stephen King writing it, or despite the fact that it's Stephen King writing it, but because it’s good.  It’s difficult to read a couple of chapters of On Writing and not want to race over to tear into one’s own half-finished stories with a renewed sense of purpose.   Part of me sort of wishes a book like this existed to be uploaded into my brain every couple of weeks when the internal critics start to get too loud.

I should also point out that this is a book about craft, process, and writing.  This is neither a book of suspense and horror, nor is it particularly a “How to” manual for writing suspense or horror.  King proceeds with his usual “irreverent” writing style that cares little for the niceties and conventions of polite society (and might even enjoy rattling them…just a little).  Vulgarities, obscenities, and “lowbrow” humor weave their way through his insights into how to write.  But this is a book of broad brush strokes and vast landscapes.  It would be as useful to someone who wanted to follow in King’s footsteps with tales of sentient piranha people as it would for someone intent on writing magical realism.  So if the best you can come up with is “Why would I want to write like him,” you might just want to get over yourself and see what he has to offer.

Unfortunately, a certain amount of discussion about On Writing simply must be focused upon its modern perception as the uberbook of craft.  I swear I can’t swing a rabid marsupial around by its tail without splattering mouth froth across someone who has cited this as the best craft book ever.  Go to any writing group, Youtubes about writing, talk to starting writers, and this book—this one book—comes up over and over again to the exclusion of any others.  In the decade since On Writing came out, it seems like an awareness of any other writing book has evaporated.  It’s as if in the year 2000, On Writing decapitated the last of the other writing books with a great cry of: “There can be only one!”

It’s not that On Writing isn’t a good book; it’s just that as dozens of testimonials turn into hundreds, I have to begin to wonder how many of these people spouting praise have read any OTHER books on writing.  Someone somewhere should be mentioning Bird by Bird, Zen in the Art of Writing, The War of Art, Becoming a Writer, Writing Fiction, Writing After Dark, not to mention the On Writing title of other authors like Carver, but the fact that it’s just King’s On Writing over and over again makes me suspicious that this is most peoples’ first book about writing, so they wouldn’t know a “great book about writing” from a self indulgent pile of navel-gazing crap.  So with apologies to a damned decent author who wrote a good book, part of the focus here must be upon separating the myth from the reality.  Popular artists will always face criticism disproportionate to the quality of their art (which is almost always a fair sight better than the deluge of criticism would have anyone believe), not because their art quality justifies such attacks or that they themselves need to be brought down a peg or two, but that the legions of readers who think such artists walk on water really need to be shown why that’s not entirely accurate.  And the fact that probably 75-80% of aspiring writers today do not seem to have read any other book on writing means that some reactionary swing perspective is in order.  Sorry Mr. King.  You know I’ve got nothing but love.  (Or at least you would if you took one look at my by-the-bed bookshelf.) This is more about your legions of fans than you.

At 300 pages, On Writing might at first seem like it suffers from King’s usual prolific style, and in places it surely does.  He goes off, for example, on long, languid tangents about what life is like in high school when his only real point is that when one is not stymied by social forces, learning grammar well enough to be able to write functional prose is pretty easy.  He also makes long involved metaphors about everything from his uncle’s toolbox (compared with writer’s tools) to the office door being open or closed (to illustrate whether or not you should share your work yet) to your story being a dinosaur fossil (that is carefully excavated).  He doesn’t even describe an encounter with the word “zestful” (in order to illustrate how reading bad fiction can help our writing even more than good fiction can) without first spending two pages setting the scene of why he was reading the story in which the overuse of “zestful” occurs.  In typical King style, these non sequiturs are like tar pits.  Before you realize you’re struggling against them, they’re sucking you down and deep into his story and ensuring you will never escape.

At other times, the writing seems clipped, almost as if some key extrapolation has been redacted in order for King to keep the promise he makes early on that On Writing will be simple and direct.  There are sections where he parses a paragraph of his own writing or describes the effect of various word choices that seem almost unnecessarily brief.  These dense moments require multiple reads to dig out the dozens of lessons that exist within just a half a dozen pages.  I have a degree in Creative Writing and I had to go back and read these sections a few times to catch all the lessons.  To all but the most trained writers, these parts could have benefitted from a few more examples, or a folksy metaphor to elaborate.  In fact, if there is a single criticism I could levy about the length, it would be that On Writing wasn’t long enough.  King seems to have forgotten his strength as a wordsmith, and that has never (ever) been brevity

The overall impression one comes away with is that this book is at times taking too long to get to the point and at other times a little too concentrated.  I wonder, personally, if it may have been victim to some of King’s classically stated anxieties as an artist and author, for it seems to have multiple personalities within it pulling at times towards the verbose prose King seems most comfortable writing and at other times towards the short but concentrated writing he seems to feel like he OUGHT to be doing.  If this is true, sort of wish he’d let go and been himself and gone ahead and written a five or six hundred page book that spent a little more time on some of the sections.  If On Writing had just stretched its legs a little I think it would have been better for it—if perhaps King had let himself do what he does best, which is let the whole damned jungle of words spring out of his fecund brain.

While there are some craft lessons in On Writing, mostly King leaves us with a handful of guidelines regarding how to set up dialogue, avoid adverbs, describe characters, but admits that knowing when to break a rule is almost as important as understanding it in the first place.  For example, King is clear early on that adverbs are not our friends, especially in dialogue attribution, and he scours his writing for every adverb he can bear to get rid of.  But he also admits that he always ends up with a few…even in dialogue attribution.  His constant reminders of these exceptions stop feeling like disclaimers after a while and start to feel like King is second guessing himself.

King is a little too vague on the specifics sometimes often returning to “read a lot” when guidelines are hard to articulate.  He gives us a sense of what we’re trying to achieve in sections about dialogue, but often when it comes to the brass tacks of HOW, he falls back on the idea that being in tune with what works and what doesn’t is something that is cultivated from reading.  (It’s true that prolific reading is nearly panacea when it comes to writing, but it can be little bit anticlimactic as the sum and substance of advice when you consider the word choices that have sold hundreds of millions of books.)  Of On Writing’s 300 pages, only about 20% if them are related directly to craft and the ways in which the choice of words or punctuation create effect.

What King mostly creates with On Writing is a process book.  Of the 300 pages the first third of the book is an autobiography that talks about his start with writing, his struggles with being a barely paid writer, and his eventual battle with alcoholism and drug addiction.  While King continuously weaves in a poignant thought here and there about how these things relate to writing, and the story of a struggling artist who can’t get a break getting a phone call about the numbers for Carrie is certainly uplifting, this part is mostly self-reflective.  I won’t say self-indulgent.  I won’t.  I think it's more fan-indulgent, honestly.  I’ve read it three times now and I always enjoy it.  It’s interesting, well-told, funny, and it reminds me of my own life of constantly returning to the river of writing for succor.  I’m sure that King’s fans, and certainly any aspiring writers enjoyed that glimpse into the life of someone who’s “made it.” In fact, some of the things I’ve been saying all along about the writing being the important part—not the fame or wealth or opportunities to have cocaine nosebleeds—were at the heart of this section, so I have to give King the props for saying them. Word up, my peep.

After this, King moves on to the writing itself, but even here he focuses on the process.  He talks about what time of day he writes, how long, his drafting process, his revision process, when he begins to work with certain elements of fiction, the people he writes for and how he goes about getting peer review. The problem is that process is sort of an individual affair.  King might write ten pages each morning sequestered away in an office, but writers just as good, and nearly as successful, have done their writing only a page or two at a time in the hour they spent each day on the subway, or as a tortured string of words  in the dead of night. (Personally I write with my heart at night--generating most of my new material after one or two AM.  In the morning, I revise.  That’s when I need my brain in the game.)  It isn’t that King has a bad process or that he is tying his advice to higher principles that are unsound.  Most of it is pretty damned good advice, actually.  (Write at the same time every day, for example, is one of the best bits of advice anyone can give a writer.)  It’s just that he focuses so heavily on how his own process works that sometimes it feels a little myopic towards the myriad of approaches to writing.  For example, he tells writers unable to give six hours a day to writing that they may want to question how serious they really are, but I can probably name twenty authors off the top of my head who created extraordinary works with much tighter scheduling, full time jobs, kids, and only a sliver of time each day to themselves--especially BEFORE they published something big.  Many working writers with no other job but their writing only put in a four hours.  Combining this with some of King’s prescriptive edicts about how the reader ought to proceed and it seems clear that he thought his audience would mostly be starting writers and that he sees himself a little bit like the track coach with the heart of gold.

I should stop here to make one thing clear.  King’s process isn’t bad.  It’s just HIS process.  And for a writer, finding THEIR process is really most of the early struggle of writing.  But for a starting writer, especially one who hasn’t ever read something like Becoming a Writer, King offers some great advice about resilience, perseverance, the artistic process, and shitty first drafts.  If you’re serious about writing, you could do worse than to follow King’s proposed regimens to the letter and see what happens.  It just seems that he’s a bit too into the role of treating his readers as padawans in need of another circuit around the swamp.

In the end the there is a sense of scattershot that pervades On Writing, as if it couldn’t quite decide what to be.  It couldn’t quite decide if it wanted to be a vociferous King-style book on the many varied aspects of writing as they have touched King's life or a hardboiled no-nonsense style guide.  It couldn’t quite decide if it wanted to be a process guide to beginners about how to get started or an incredibly detailed craft manual about how to break creative writing conventions, use word choice, and revise to artistic effect.  And while almost every page has a useful gem, it is this aim at a jack-of-all-trades book that makes it master of none.  Perhaps if King had let himself go to develop all the ideas it seemed like he wanted to, he could have done better.

However, I will end where I started, and that is to say that On Writing joins a mosaic of hundreds of other books on writing—many of which focus a little more clearly on one aspect or another, and most of which are not nearly as good.  It is perhaps only because of the ubiquity of On Writing being cited as “a really great book on writing” to the exclusion of ANY other book that I felt an honest look at its shortcomings was especially needed.   It would be very unfair to write a review of King’s work without pointing out that On Writing is a damned good book—and one that peeks more than a few times at greatness—and that it has an inspiring, motivational, or provocative thought on writing in every chapter.  And often more than one.   You don’t have to like King to appreciate that he knows what he’s doing, and he has done a good job of sharing what he knows with his readers.  I know critics love taking aim at the guys on top, but no one who sells a gagillion books doesn't know at least something about how to write.

My last point I should say is this…while King makes a number of references to other fiction (and I must say, it was a delight to reread On Writing after an English major and get about 90% of those references this time around) he also makes a LOT of references to his own material to explain why he made certain choices or help contextualize his process.  While it isn’t necessary to have read even one of his books, it can really deepen your appreciation of On Writing if you are familiar with some of his works—especially The Dead Zone, Misery, and The Stand.

I give On Writing 7 out of 10.  Well worth the money.

15 comments:

  1. "its modern perception as the uberbook of craft..."

    It's WHAT? Really? This is what I get for hanging around screenwriters - I miss out on this sort of thing. (For us, the rabid squeaking is usually reserved for Syd Field's "Screenplay" and I'd argue that the squeaking isn't really justified there, either...)

    I admit, it's been a LONG time since I read "On Writing", but I remember coming away from it thinking of it more like a rather exhausting memoir that happens to touch a fair bit on the craft of writing, rather than regarding it as a must-read how-to manual.

    I think you definitely nailed SK's strengths and weaknesses - in this book in particular and in his work in general, bless his cold black little heart.

    Good critique, Chris. I'll give it 8 out of 10. ;)

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    1. I should probably take a gander at that. I got a lot out of the cross genre studies, and most fiction could certainly do worse than to learn a thing or two about dialogue and conflict.

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  2. Nicely done, Chris. Having read it, and having had my own ups and downs with reading King's words, I appreciate the effort you put into this review. Very thoughtfully done.

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  3. Great review, bud!

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  4. Nice. I like that you disclaimed the fact that you were going harder on him because he was so popular because I might have thought this was harsh. But you're right that even if SK himself doesn't need to be taken down a peg or two, his zombie legions need to get their asses some perspective.

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    1. On a generous day, I might go as high as 8/10, but honestly, I think there are better books on both craft and process.

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  5. I would add that getting the audiobook experience is a must, especially on a first or second "reading." King reads the book himself and, for my own experience, added a lot of intimacy to it.

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  6. Deep, dramatic sigh. Fine. You have convinced me to read the book. I've been avoiding it because of slathering fans so I jumped to the conclusion that it's just a fan service book.

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    1. It's definitely got a fan service aspect--about the first third, really. But I think the rest is somewhat useful.

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  7. Great review. I've read any number of how-to books and process books, but I always enjoy this one the most.

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