On Writing

Stephen King
Scribner, 2000

Unknown“Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle!” Quisling is a word I learned from King’s book. For anyone who may not know, Vidkum Quisling helped the Nazis overthrow Norway in World War II and had himself installed as Minister-President. His name now has the meaning of traitor. Muggle came into existence through J.K. Rowling’s writing and means without magic. These two short, declarative sentences are the essence of King’s message.

Don’t be a traitor to the rules of excellent writing, and believe in the magic of imagination.

The book is nicely organized into three parts. There is his writing memoir, a section on basic writing methodology with the business of publishing, and a last section of returning to writing when life gets in the way with a traumatic event. Don’t expect a free pass for a sensitive spirit, but then you also won’t be bull-whipped by a self-satisfied overlord. The man just says what he means and means what he says–stay in his classroom and take notes to use for a career, or drop the illusion of being a good writer and go do something where you’re actually good.

Read. Write. Read. Write. He is baffled by the writer who claims not to have time to read widely, so he offers his help in identifying moments of off-time that can be used. There are the moments of waiting for others, during stalled traffic, while dining alone, and on it goes. At the back is his reading list of classic to new fiction.

What I would have liked a few pages on is how he reads critically or records the writing of others. What does he do? Memorize photographically, make notations in the book, keep a notebook, or periodically jot a line in an open computer file? What about the writing? How does he look at that as a reader? I’m believing the hints are in the how to write section of the book, but is there more?

King’s method of writing is covered. A situation will hook his imagination and he will dive into the scene with no particular place to go. He writes daily until he has a first draft, which seems to seldom be longer than two months. Only then does he seriously look for the metaphor and meaning. His treasured first reader, his wife Tabitha, adds to the impression and purpose. Through a time away period, revisions, careful thought, and a sure writing hand, he dresses up and refines the piece until he’s pleased.

Yes, there is much to be learned from this writing book about inspiration and what has been of practical use. Oh, and Mr. King, what about the language?

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11 Responses to On Writing

  1. You make good points. It’s been quite a while since I read, On Writing. Have you cast a look at Secret Window? I like the way King doesn’t preach. He’s so darn down to earth. He doesn’t act like he’s special at all. What he talks about is about basic WORK. Another book on writing I enjoyed is Elizabeth George, Write Away. She’s super at explaining so anyone will understand without sounding like she’s talking down to you.

  2. Yes, I was surprised how down to earth King was, which made it all the easier to understand and use what he had to say. I hadn’t heard of Secret Window, but I looked it up. Johnny Depp will always get me to a movie, so I’ll look for it. Thanks! And thanks about the Elizabeth George suggestion. I’ve read a pile of writing books, but not that one.

  3. I haven’t read King’s book on writing yet, but had been meaning to. Now you’ve inspired me to pick it up. I agree with him about the importance of reading, although it is hard to find the time. But I’ve noticed I’m most inspired to write after reading someone else’s work, either because I’m convinced I could do better, or because the beauty of the writing or the way it moves me inspires me to try to do the same.

  4. I find myself writing like a writer after reading them.

    The only thing anyone has given their name to more shameful than Vidkun Quisling is Mrs Clap, who had an 18th century London brothel.

  5. Though Cabal is quite good: Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley and Lauderdale, King Charles II’s ministers.

  6. I have this excellent book and you have stimulated me to reread it.

  7. Smaktakula says:

    I’ve been saving this one in my inbox. I’ve read On Writing twice now, and will probably read it a third time somewhere down the road. It’s an excellent and fairly simple book, but full of honest wisdom from someone who’s been there. It’s also an indication that, despite what his critics say, he gives a great deal of though to the words he puts to paper.

    • Yes, the book speaks directly to attitude, habits, and method in a very concise way. And it’s always easy to be a critic. I know, I’ve been one when I review a book. So is writing that gets a lot of thought always better? No.

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