Why Stephen King's "On Writing" is the best investment an author can make - period.
Recently, I've been rereading Stephen King’s “On Writing,” a part memoir, and I've been ruminating on what makes this such a force in the community and a favorite among just about every writer I know. I think it comes down to something simple: In "On Writing," King gives an aspiring author the tools they need to quit aspiring.
King offers concrete advice while dissecting memories from his childhood and his early career as a writer. He talks about his near-fatal accident, and how writing helped him heal–but more importantly, he does something a lot of professors of writing and even renowned craft books like The Elements of Style fail to do.
He gives specific instructions that have to do with how to write better. The instructions look like this:
Read a lot.
Write a lot.
Only King puts it a lot more eloquently. He is a writer, after all. He says, “You need a concrete goal. The longer you keep to these basics [of writing every day], the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up…”
Do you know any writing professors that introduce the class to writing as "just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks?" I don't, but damn, I wish I did.
I think of it like this. You’re trying to have a meeting with someone–a guy who knows some information that you don’t–but 90% of the time you try and meet him, he doesn’t show up. What do you do? Do you give up and quit trying to meet him? Do you wander around town aimlessly, hoping to miraculously and serendipitous run into him? Or do you keep showing up to the library, every Monday at 11, that way he knows where to find you when he’s ready?
That’s what King would encourage you to do. I want the muse to know where I’m going to be. Show up to the same place every day. Let that hardheaded jerk he’s talking about know where you’re gonna be. Maybe you two won’t become friends–maybe he won’t hang out with you every time you sit down to write. But in my limited experience (and King’s ample) he’ll start coming around a hell of a lot more often if he knows where you’re at.
Another thing I found incredibly useful–and again, missing from a lot of courses I’ve taken–was the specific talk about how he crafts a story. This is interesting, because it’s less about how do you get the words down on a page, and more about what are the words supposed to be doing. The analysis is one that should be useful for us, as we can cross check our own work and make sure it’s knocking on the right doors. He says:
“I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety–those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot–but to watch what happens and then write it down.
“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. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected.”
What I love about On Writing, is that by the end of the ‘course,’ you’re left with something like a formula on how to write. The beginning of that formula is the reading voraciously and writing regularly–but you can’t stop there. Add exponents and start solving for X: Discover an interesting conflict, introduce a set of characters to that conflict, watch as they try and solve the conundrum.
He doesn’t suggest you plot the story out, in fact he advises against it. This gets at the heart of King’s thesis. It cuts out a lot of the bullshit, in other words. Put down the character sheet, quit drawing your map, stop summarizing chapters before you’ve even written the opening page. Just write.
But that’s not actually how to write, is it? I find myself thinking that a lot while reading these kinds of books. I think a lot of us do. How do you actually string the words together? How do you know what order to put them in? How do you know that the person reading your story is seeing the same thing you’re seeing? Or at least seeing something close to what you’re seeing? What you want them to see.
That’s called description. If the situation and the character are the foundation–which I think King might be all right with me saying–then descriptions are the walls that make the house. I’ll make the distinction, relying on some of what I learned in this book, that narration and description (while intimate with one another) are different: narration is the and then, and then, that so many of us feel uncomfortable with–the description is… who am I kidding, you’ve come here for King, not me:
“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.”
“We’ve all heard someone say ‘Man, it was so great (or so horrible/strange/funny)… I just can’t describe it!’ If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition. If you can do this, you will be paid for your labors, and deservedly so. If you can’t, you’re going to collect a lot of rejection slips and perhaps explore a career in the fascinating world of telemarketing.
“Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over description buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story.”
As a reader of King, I love the advice, and I can also fill in the holes. I’m confident in saying he almost never describes characters much deeper than the color of their hair (he doesn’t tell you what they’re wearing or what color their eyes are)–instead, he characterizes them, like he does with Carrie, one of his earlier and most famous novels.
“If I tell you that Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you?” He adds that: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the readers.” He offers a warning: “Spare me, if you please, the hero’s sharply intelligent blue eyes and out-thrust determined chin; likewise the heroine’s arrogant cheekbones. This sort of thing is bad technique and lazy writing, the equivalent of all those tiresome adverbs.”
There’s a lot more to share about this book, but the goal here is to get you to go and read it, not to tell you so much you feel you don’t have to read it. What I’m leaving out–points about dialogue, of which I consider him a master, about building characters, about navigating and creating stories, about editing your work–are really the bulk of the book. He isn’t afraid to tell you how he does it, and I think that’s the power of this book, and why I learned so much from reading it.
I heard people joking about the book before I read it–why get a creative writing degree when you can just read Stephen King’s “On Writing?” As those of us who went through programs know, there’s a few dozen reasons why–and for the record, King encourages writers to enter programs–but the spirit of what they’re trying to say is true. This book is worth at least a semester in a fiction course, maybe two–and if you heed the advice, I think you’ll be surprised (like I was) to find it actually works.
If you write more, you will write better.
If you read more, you will write better.