Personally, courses and literature about the writing craft get my blood pumping. Other things that get my blood pumping include:
- A hot, fresh pizza
- Roller coasters
- Sci-Fi movies
- Giving class presentations (for slightly different reasons 😉 )
- And many other fun things
However, for the purpose of this book review, advice from the prolific Stephen King, in his book On Writing, will be the focus of excitement. Published in 2000, shortly after a dire personal injury, On Writing includes encouragement and advice both on the craft of creating and everyday life. Written in a casual, disarming tone—not condescending, but instead, relatable—the book is comprised of constant touches of honest humor and, at times, blunt instruction. King’s charming childhood anecdotes serve as illustrations and views into his unique history and writing rituals. The imagery herein is effective: there’s one day he recalls going to the doctor for an ear infection as a child; the description of the needles and pain involved are cringe-worthy. King shows honesty that sets an example for what writers reveal in their individual work, and also how they present themselves to the people in their lives.
King’s story as an author starts with humble first attempts, a stack of rejection papers nailed to his wall, and comforting, sympathetic persistence—he never gave up on submitting or crafting more stories. He and his wife had a period of time where they worked at a laundromat and a donut shop, respectively—King makes it clear that normal life, with all its minute details (even disappointing ones) is okay. One of his remarkable pieces of advice is that we shouldn’t give up on manuscripts (or other forms of art) because they are difficult: even though we may not believe in something or be making progress right now, we can come back to it later, and find the thing we love about it.
Practically, the writing advice section of the book includes concrete advice on vocabulary, grammar, theme, pacing, backstory, structure, and more. King advises writers to have a daily word goal, or a set time—a personal expectation for each session in terms of productivity. He shares his goal and the struggles in protecting that time. Additionally, On Writing contains many “next step” recommendations, whether books, other guides on the craft, agent and publishing resources, and more. The last part of the book includes advice on revision, presenting oneself professionally to people in the industry, and submission strategies.
Overall, the book doesn’t come across as a strict directive toward any set of nuts-and-bolts rules, but rather, an encouraging talk from a mentor to remember the magic in writing, to have fun, and to work dedicatedly and excellently while doing these.
As a Christian writer, I enjoyed the optimism and encouragement in King’s book. I found his honesty reassuring and uplifting. His frankness about glaring mistakes writers make also rang true to our current culture’s hunger for quality material; so many contemporary works of art are wholly pessimistic, or written in a slipshod fashion—perhaps even formula fiction designed only to be widely sold. On Writing is a refreshingly upbeat call to take the craft seriously and make sure one’s work conveys a sense of meaning, which is already inherent in the time and effort one has spent making it. In a postmodern world that scoffs at universal meaning, King infuses his book with assurance that art does matter: people need to hear our edifying messages, whether they’re wrapped in overt hope, creepiness, or anything else.
To close out, here are some of my favorite quotes (I like to do this segment for print books). What are some of the most poignant and helpful points of advice you’ve learned about writing, or art in general?
Pg. 28: “ I remember an immense feeling of possibility at the idea [of creating his own stories], as if I had been ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and had been given leave to open any I liked. There were more doors than one person could ever open in a lifetime, I thought (and still think).”
Pg. 29: “Four stories. A quarter apiece. That was the first buck I made in this business.”
Pg. 57: “‘When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,’ he [John Gould] said. ‘When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.’” [Later, King also relates the advice from this mentor that you should write the first draft with the door closed, and the second draft with the door open.]
Pg. 74: “And whenever I see a first novel dedicated to a wife (or husband), I smile and think, There’s someone who knows. Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
Pg. 98: “The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”
Pg. 101: “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Pg. 136: “You will build a paragraph at a time, constructing these of your vocabulary and your knowledge of grammar and basic style. As long as you stay level-on-the-level and shave even every door, you can build whatever you like—whole mansions, if you have the energy.”
Pg. 167: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
Pg. 208: “But once your basic story is on paper, you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions.”
Pg. 269: “In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”