Sunday, October 25, 2009

Book Review: On Writing

I'm not a big fan of Stephen King's, but some time ago I'd heard good things about his non-fiction work, On Writing. I recently got to it on my Amazon queue, and got through this week.


The book is half autobiography, half instruction manual. The first half of the book recounts tales of his childhood and school years, through to early adulthood and married life, touching on his life as a young writer and the experiences that formed that writer. The latter half is a collection of thoughts on being a professional writer; on the craft and the business.

The autobiographical part was entertaining, and at the same time interesting. In particular it was interesting to hear how some of his books that I'd read (or seen in movie form) were metaphors for parts of his life (e.g. Misery, in which a crazed fan holds an author hostage and forces him to write what she wants, was written while King was addicted to Cocaine. He was 'held hostage' by the addiction, and not in control of what he was writing).

I got much more out of the second part of the book. Even if, like me, you don't plan on writing any fiction, it has plenty to offer anyone who puts pen to paper to convey ideas. Some reminders on basic structure and grammar are there, as are some useful rules of thumb (e.g. "second draft = first draft - 10%").

I also thought it was interesting how he often doesn't know how the story is going to come together, but "puts characters in a predicament and then watch[es] them try to work themselves free". There's a similarity here to how, for me at least, sometimes writing is about getting complex ideas down to try and work them out.

The only downside is that while the book is ten years old (it was published in 2002, but the bulk of it was written before 1999, before an accident delayed it's publishing), but the mindset vis-a-vis publishing is ten or twenty years older than that, and definitely pre-Internet. For that part of it at least, I'd look to more timely authors and thinkers. Cory Doctorow has written numerous pieces on the subject, and Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics has a lot to offer as well.

Despite this shortcoming, I recommend the book for anyone that does any writing. For those that don't, well, what are you waiting for?

1 comment:

neonjade said...

I don’t think this book will ever go out of style. The personal stories were inspirational to me. Their lesson seems to be that if something is in your blood, and you have a talent for it, pursue it doggedly through all obstacles and your life will be better for it.

I also love his little rules in the second part. I’ve never known anyone to hate adverbs with such vehemence. :)