Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Review: On Writing - Not Quite What I Expected

People have been telling me for years that I should read On Writing by Stephen King. I wish they hadn’t played it up so much.

I grew up a huge King fan. When I spent summers with my grandfather at his bed and breakfast, he introduced me to Stephen King. We would run into the small town of Brenham, from the even smaller town of Chappell Hill where the bed and breakfast was located, in order to buy books from the little paperback book resale shop. The shop had a fairly poor selection, but barring an hour-long ride into Houston, it was the best there was. It was from here that I bought my first King book.

Christine was the first book of King’s that I read, then Carrie and onward from there.I read The Stand and loved every page. I read Tommyknockers and thought it was great. I read Salem’s Lot in typing class at school and got so scared I jumped when someone interrupted me. I haven’t read anything since I gave up on Gerald’s Game until On Writing.

It’s a decent book on craft. I loved King’s description of writer’s needing a tool chest. He did a magnificent job of imparting that to the reader. I enjoyed reading about how he writes, and what was going on in his life through the writing of each book. I had no idea that Misery was such an impactful book in his life. Also, although I read about his being hit by a car while walking, this book details just how horrific the crash was and how much it affected him.

I noted a few passages that caught my eye.

On character, plot and setting, King says:
“The most important (thing I learned) is that the writer’s original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader’s. Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

And then this as well, on character:
“The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.”

I resisted the urge to let other people read my work much. Following this book, I am changing that decision, ergo I need to find some “trusted readers.”
“Subjective evaluations are, as I say, a little harder to deal with, but listen: if everyone who reads your book says you have a problem, you’ve got a problem and you better do something about it.”

Finally, on back story and how much background to provide the reader, King says:
“I like to start at square one, dead even with the writer. I’m an A-to-Z man; serve me the appetizer first and give me dessert if I eat my veggies.”

All in all, it was fun to read Stephen King’s book On Writing. He has a tremendous voice, and even though this was non-fiction, it was fun to relive some of the books I read in my youth. It was great to read about his connection with his wife and the methods he uses to write. As a book on craft though….I’ve read better. Still doesn’t beat Maass’ book on Writing the Breakout Novel.