On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon the publication of Stephen King's On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer's craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King's advice is grounded in his vivid memories from chil...

Title:On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Author:
Rating:
ISBN:0743455967
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Mass Market Paperback
Number of Pages:320 pages

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Reviews

  • Jenny (Reading Envy)
    Dec 17, 2007

    I read this shortly after finishing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, actually it would be more accurate to say I devoured it. This is full of great writing advice, and I'll need to get a copy and read it 1-2 times a year. Most helpful? The section on grammar! Seriously, I never really learned grammar.

    "Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being jus

    I read this shortly after finishing NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year, actually it would be more accurate to say I devoured it. This is full of great writing advice, and I'll need to get a copy and read it 1-2 times a year. Most helpful? The section on grammar! Seriously, I never really learned grammar.

    "Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right - as right as you can, anyway - it belongs to anyone who wants to read it."

    "...The writer's original perception of a character or characters may be 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."

    "You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair - the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly."

    "The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.... Writing is seduction. Good talk is part of seduction."

    "Once I start work on a project, I don't stop and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don't write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind - they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale's narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story's plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to feel like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death."

    "If I have to tell you, I lose. If, on the other hand, I can show you a silent, dirty-haired woman who compulsively gobbles cake and candy, then have you draw the conclusion that Annie is in the depressive part of a manic-depressive cycle, I win. And if I am able, even briefly, to give you a Wilkes'-eye-view of the world - if I can make you understand her madness - then perhaps I can make her someone you sympathize with or even identify with. The result? She's more frightening than ever, because she's close to real."

    "What you should probably be doing is writing as fast as the Gingerbread Man runs, getting that first draft down on paper while the shape of the fossil is still bright and clear in your mind."

    "The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better."

    "Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up."

    "Reading is the creative center of a writer's life."

  • Dan Schwent
    Feb 07, 2008

    Stephen King shares some stories of his past and some writing tips.

    This was either my fourth or fifth time reading this. I got it for Christmas around the turn of the century and I've buzz-sawed through it a few times before. The first time, I was just cutting my writing teeth. Now, with seven or eight first drafts of novels writing around, I came to the book with a completely different perspective.

    Most books about writing, as I've said before, are by people I've never heard of, and are akin to

    Stephen King shares some stories of his past and some writing tips.

    This was either my fourth or fifth time reading this. I got it for Christmas around the turn of the century and I've buzz-sawed through it a few times before. The first time, I was just cutting my writing teeth. Now, with seven or eight first drafts of novels writing around, I came to the book with a completely different perspective.

    Most books about writing, as I've said before, are by people I've never heard of, and are akin to a psychic handing out lottery numbers. If he or she can predict that, why aren't they using the lottery numbers for themselves? Since Stephen King is the big kahuna, I figure he could teach me a few things.

    The biography chapters were my favorite the first time around and were still the most fun to read. I had vague recollections of these chapters, such as little Stevie needing fluid drained from his ears, and King's substance abuse. As a man who's skated close to the substance abuse abyss a couple times over the years, his cautionary tale seemed very familiar.

    The writing advice was helpful but this was in no way my favorite book on writing. It seems Old Stevie makes a lot more up on the fly than I'm comfortable doing. Still, his advice on omitting needless words and the second draft being the first draft less 10% seemed helpful. Sticking with your first word choice also seems like sound advice.

    I'd forgotten there was a section of 1408 included, in first and second draft forms. It was an interesting look behind the curtain and made a lot of sense.

    Anyway, if you're looking for writing advice, you could do a lot worse than sitting at the feet of the King for a few hours and absorbing what he has to say. I'll try to apply his lessons the next time I write something. Four out of five stars.

  • Madeline
    Nov 28, 2009

    Let's be honest: Stephen King is not one of the greatest writers of all time. He will never win a Pulitzer or a Nobel (he might win a Newberry though, if he ever decides to tap into the Kids/Young Adult market), and on the few times his books are featured in the

    , the reviewer will treat the book with a sort of haughty disdain, knowing their time could be better spent trashing Joyce Carol Oates.

    None of this should suggest, however, that King is not qualified to write a

    Let's be honest: Stephen King is not one of the greatest writers of all time. He will never win a Pulitzer or a Nobel (he might win a Newberry though, if he ever decides to tap into the Kids/Young Adult market), and on the few times his books are featured in the

    , the reviewer will treat the book with a sort of haughty disdain, knowing their time could be better spent trashing Joyce Carol Oates.

    None of this should suggest, however, that King is not qualified to write a book about how to write. Sure, he churns out pulpy horror stories that are proudly displayed in airport bookstores, but the man knows how to write a good story, and he's probably one of the most well-known, non-dead American authors in the world. So he must be doing something right.

    I'm not the biggest fan of King's books, but I really enjoyed

    . He talks about writing frankly and practically, mixing tried-and-true pieces of advice (fear the adverb, never write "replied/remarked/muttered/yelled etc" when you can write "said", and don't be afraid to kill off your favorite character) with anecdotes about how some of his books came about. I especially liked the story behind

    : King was working as a janitor at a high school, and one night he was cleaning the girls' locker room. He asked the other janitor what that little metal dispenser box on the wall was, and the other man replied that it was for "pussy pluggers." At the same time, King had been reading about how psychic abilities often manifest in girls just beginning to go through puberty. He combined the two ideas and wrote out a couple pages that would turn into the opening of

    . (if you haven't read it you should.) Many thanks to King's wife, who rescued the pages from the wastebasket after King first decided that the idea was stupid and threw them away.

    So, in conclusion: even if you aren't a fan of Stephen King's work, he has some very good advice about writing and storytelling, plus some good stories of his own. Sure, you can call him a sellout. But I like him.

    Also, he once said in an interview that Stephenie Meyer "can't write worth a darn." You stay classy, Mr. King.

  • Wil Wheaton
    Jan 02, 2010

    I know it's like saying "puppies are cute," but it bears repeating: everyone who wants to write, whether for a living or not, simply must read this book.

    did more for me as a writer than anything, and any success I've found as a storyteller can be traced to my reading it.

  • Riku Sayuj
    Aug 29, 2011

    The book is great and if you like writing, it is probably a must read.

    I could write a summary of the book, it is easy enough to summarize and there are only a few important points that King presents, but then I dont want you to get it for free. :) Go and read the book yourself, it is worth it.

    Rude? As King says, "...if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write

    The book is great and if you like writing, it is probably a must read.

    I could write a summary of the book, it is easy enough to summarize and there are only a few important points that King presents, but then I dont want you to get it for free. :) Go and read the book yourself, it is worth it.

    Rude? As King says, "...if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway."

    Here is are a few excerpts from the book that might inspire you to take my advice -

    The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.

    I love this book because it agrees with all my preconceptions. Feels nice to be on the right track. It is also quite inspiring when it comes to kicking you into putting on your writing cap.

    I couldn't resist putting in this anecdote about James Joyce as well:

    Of course, the book is not intended just as a writing manual. Even if you never intend to write, the memoir is a wonderful graphic tale on King's life and like all his stories, it does not lack in imagination or entertainment.

    Meanwhile, let me get down to some actual writing...

  • Fabian
    Jun 22, 2012

    So it's become very clear to me now that very few writers actually write about the craft. The only Latin American writer to do so? Mario V. Llosa (who took several years off of his busy novel-writing to write about his now-ex-pal Gabriel Garcia Marquez). But I suddenly forgot who the King was (no, I mean literally: I've not read him in years! High school being the prime time for Stephen King, and all): the guy has useful insight, no shit, because he is not only prolific & uber-successful (he

    So it's become very clear to me now that very few writers actually write about the craft. The only Latin American writer to do so? Mario V. Llosa (who took several years off of his busy novel-writing to write about his now-ex-pal Gabriel Garcia Marquez). But I suddenly forgot who the King was (no, I mean literally: I've not read him in years! High school being the prime time for Stephen King, and all): the guy has useful insight, no shit, because he is not only prolific & uber-successful (he got $400,000 for his first novel, “Carrie”!), but because, let’s all admit it, he’s pretty damn good. Maybe prose is not the forte per se, but story sure is (think of how many times he has tapped the vein of the zeitgeist to produce visceral, emblematic and modern monsters). It is interesting to compare this with the only other non-fiction I’ve read of late, “The Perpetual Orgy” & “Letters to a Young Novelist” by the already mentioned Peruvian auteur. They both (Vargas Llosa and King) tell us to seriously commit to writing, to write, write, write, WRITE, but, even more splendidly, they endorse heavy reading (duh!). I love Stephen King quotes, like this little morsel of truth: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” Take that, non-reading punks verging-perilously-close-to-ignoramuses! !

    Let me recall some of the stuff I’ve learned (the rest has been absorbed as if by osmosis): 1) rewrite at least two times once the novel has been completed, 2) write & read for at least 5 hours every single day, 3) IMPORTANT: look for an editor (they are eager for new talent, King says), 4) VERY IMPORTANT: begin a serious submitting process (L. Williford has always emphasized the importance of this!), 5) write solely to your IR (Ideal Reader)… it's all super helpful. Perhaps the “Toolbox” section is its weakest part (inversely, MVL’s bag of tricks is on glorious display in “Letters” [though he never mentions the publishing process like King does])… going over rudimentary English is, I am forced to admit, quite lame. But King does seem enthusiastic throughout as only the best teachers are in the classroom—his tone is one of (slight) optimism for the developing novelist. He cheers you on (THE Stephen King!) !!! Bottom line: INVALUABLE stuff, a few (awesome for the fans) confessional tidbits, & some golly-good pointers.

  • Cecily
    Nov 22, 2016

    Like the curate’s egg, this is good in parts. I can see why writers, and budding writers find this book inspirational, and fans of his oeuvre will enjoy learning how certain stories came to be. But it’s several very different books and booklets, within a single set of covers - curious that a book about writing doesn't seem to know what sort of a book it is.

    In one of the three forewords, King says “

    ”. I found a fair bit here, too. But I also found

    Like the curate’s egg, this is good in parts. I can see why writers, and budding writers find this book inspirational, and fans of his oeuvre will enjoy learning how certain stories came to be. But it’s several very different books and booklets, within a single set of covers - curious that a book about writing doesn't seem to know what sort of a book it is.

    In one of the three forewords, King says “

    ”. I found a fair bit here, too. But I also found good things, including a passionate passage about books being a sort of telepathy, culminating with the delicious: “

    This book isn’t about how to write

    , it’s about how to write like Stephen King, and for that, it may be excellent.

    This is a charming scattering of snapshots of King’s childhood, and snippets of adulthood and advice; the CV of how one writer was formed. I enjoyed a peek into ordinary 1950s small-town USA. He points out that he is one of "

    ". (He was 11 when the family got their first TV.)

    He missed most of first grade because of ear-related health problems, so retreated into comic books and writing stories in a similar vein. His mother always encouraged him, and the importance of encouragement is the strongest message of the book. Conversely, a teacher criticised him for wasting his talent writing junk, and King remained ashamed of what he wrote until his forties. (The “junk” was a novelisation of the film of The Pit and the Pendulum, which he’d been selling at school – unaware that it was originally a short story by Poe!)

    His wife, Tabitha, also gets much credit: her belief in his ability and her consequent encouragement, even when they could barely pay the bills. They have much in common, but “

    The other key message is that there is no repository of great story ideas. They come from nowhere. The writer has to spot, recognise, and polish them, and King gives examples of how he came upon the seeds of many of his stories.

    King points out that even the author’s perception of his characters may be wrong (I don’t disagree, and it may be related to his not realising that he was writing about himself when he penned Jack, in The Shining). But in a foreword, he makes a more extreme generalisation, “

    ”. An interesting case study is to compare Raymond Carver’s short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, in their originally published and heavily edited form with his originals, now published under the title Beginners. Sometimes I think the editor was right, but in several cases, I prefer Carver’s version. I’ve explored the differences a little in my reviews:

    and

    , respectively.

    ” Not necessarily. Reading this short section, the only thing that prevented me from throwing the book across the room was that it was borrowed from a friend. It does what most prescriptive guides do: conflates stylistic preference with grammatical rules, and makes sweeping generalisations (such as “

    ”), largely ignoring the paramount importance of context and audience. It’s easy to teach and test rules, but serious writers need to cultivate an

    for language in a variety of styles, rather than being bogged down analysing parts of speech.

    King taught grammar, but gives examples of

    that aren't, and keeps talking about the "passive

    ", though later correctly says "passive voice". He decries it, using ludicrous, unidiomatic examples (“My first kiss will always be recalled by me”). He decries adverbs by using a convoluted passive (they “seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind”)

    an adverb (saying writers use them when not expressing themselves “clear

    ”), and says both passives and adverbs are the resort of "timid writers". He claims, “

    ” One is OK, but they’re like dandelions: prone to multiply. In section 3, he berates pronouns too, using a pronoun “

    ”. Why?

    Strunk and White’s

    (in)famous rule 17, “Omit needless words”, is lauded. It’s hard to disagree with, but it’s no help with discerning

    words might be needless.

    King says this section is short because readers probably know enough grammar already, but he then agrees with Strunk and White, that if readers don’t, “It’s too late”. So much for encouraging timid writers. And yet many find this book helpful. I’m pleased for them, but a little surprised.

    There are some good points. He stresses the importance of an extensive vocabulary, and says it should be acquired through reading widely, rather than conscious effort. He describes paragraphs as “maps of intent” and “the basic unit of writing” (rather than sentences). And there is a nod to context, negating much of what precedes it, “

    ” Amen to that.

    And suddenly it’s back to memoir-ish, but with focus on the process of writing, and a smattering of prescriptive absolutes and empty homilies alongside fascinating insights and ideas. King promises “

    ”, along with encouragement, but with the caveat that you can’t make a bad writer a competent one, or a good writer great, but you

    make a competent writer good, as long as they master the basics in the previous section: vocabulary, grammar, and style.

    King stresses the importance and joy of reading, in all and any situations, developing “

    But for writing itself, he says you need good health (though poor health was what got him started, and he was successful when a heavy-drinking alcoholic), a stable relationship (don’t many great writers emerge from the opposite?), strict routine, and your own space (no distractions, and a door to close). “

    The ideas about story and plot were fascinating and liberating - in stark contrast with the straitjacket of the previous section. You need a concrete goal, but “

    ” and “

    ”.

    He lists only three components of a story: narrative, description, and dialogue. Don’t worry about plot because our lives are plotless. “

    ” and the writer has to give them somewhere to grow (fossils… growing?), thus “

    ”. Then there’s narration, and he lets the characters figure things out – not always as he expected.

    Ultimately, “

    ”. The story, not the plot. “

    ” And “

    ” Huh? Fortunately, Bryce came to the rescue in the second comment on her review

    :

    "Plot is a series of events. But story is about the motivations behind those events."

    Her example is that plot is "The king died and then the queen died."

    The story is "The king died and then the queen died of grief."

    When you’ve finished the first draft (which you should never show anyone else for comment), you have to step back, to see the wood for the trees, and figure out what the book is about. Work on a second draft, then take a break and let someone else review that.

    ”, but you must beware of over-describing: “

    ” That sounds wise and wonderful, but I’m unsure how to apply it. Still less, “

    ”, when you’re supposed to be hunting down adverbs, pronouns and other allegedly needless words.

    ” Absolutely always? I think not. So many of my favourite works of fiction are about the setting that I have shelves called

    and

    .

    ” Never? Again, it’s the absolutism I object to.

    And then… relax: “

    ” Hooray.

    This is a moving addition to recent editions (and briefer versions have been published separately). King writes of when he was out walking in 1999 and was hit by a driver who could have been from one of his books. It recounts his serious injuries, multiple operations, and slow recovery. “

    This has a very short story that King invites readers to edit. It is followed by an annotated version, with explanations of the suggestions. Most of them are cuts (back to “Omit needless words”). King reckons editing should trim at least 10%. The other key thing is follow-through, “

    ”, otherwise it will be either pointless or a deus ex machina. See

    .

    There are two fiction booklists, mostly novels, but a few short story collections. It’s a varied mix of classics and modern, highbrow and less so:

    I tried to read this with an open mind. I was bored by the only other King I've read (The Shining, my review

    ), and I generally abhor the narrow prescriptivism of "How to write" guides. Most of it defied my fears – except for the

    stylistic advice. But what do I know? I’m not a published author, let alone one as successful as Stephen King.

    For a strident critique of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (beloved of many US students and largely unknown in the UK), see

    .

    Image source for classic Punch cartoon, “The Curate’s egg”:

  • Jeffrey Keeten
    May 21, 2017

    I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to over my lifetime who wanted to write a book. Most didn’t know what they wanted to write about, but some of them wanted to write their autobiography

    I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to over my lifetime who wanted to write a book. Most didn’t know what they wanted to write about, but some of them wanted to write their autobiography because their life had been so thrilling. I think my life has been reasonably boring, and it usually turns out that my life has been ten times more exciting than theirs. When situations like this happen to me, it is usually mildly amusing, but it can quickly turn to sneering when the person reveals to me that they don’t have time to read or don’t really like to read.

    What does Stephen King have to say about this?

    Now, why would someone not want to read? Maybe it depends on when they were born.

    Now someone needs to wrap me in cellophane and stand me up in a museum because I’m probably one of the youngest members of that elite group. I grew up on a farm in the middle of bumfrilling Kansas, where a twenty foot antenna could only pull in three TV channels and one of those channels rolled most of the time. TV had no real impact on my life until I left home at the age of 18 and moved to Phoenix.

    Now I have young, wannabe writers writing me from all over the world, sending me links to “hilarious” YouTube videos, or they talk to me about binging all weekend on a Netflix show. They are completely enamored with spoon fed entertainment, and what they find funny is to me like paddling around in the kiddy pool of humor in the book world.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt that way. Whenever I read a wonderful book like

    or meet a character like Atticus Finch, I fall on my bed and stare at the ceiling and think why am I harboring any thoughts that I can write a novel? My problem, of course, is that I don’t want to just write a novel. I want to write a fantastic novel. I don’t want to just entertain people; I want them to feel the socks ripped off their feet and have them floating around in the air around their head when they read my novel.

    Stephen King will go into a time when he was struggling with alcohol and using drugs, or should I say abusing drugs. He will tell you all about the accident that nearly ended his life, which happened while he was writing this book. He will talk about trials and tribulations. He will recommend books. There is a whole list of modern books in the back of this book that impressed the hell out of him and impacted his writing. The point is, of course, that even though he is probably the most famous writer on the planet, he is still learning, still enjoying reading, and still writing every day.

    I take a book everywhere I go. I take a book with me to work every day and read a page or two while my computer is booting up. I have a book with me all the time because I never know when I will be sitting in road work or waiting on a doctor or gleefully reading, in the glow of my flashlight beam on the pages of my book, waiting for the power to come back on at work.

    This has been one of the most inspiring books about writing I’ve ever read. King talked about examples of the work ethics of writers, but the one that resonated with me the most was Anthony Trollope. He used to write,

    , for two and half hours every day before going to the post office. If his writing time was up, he would stop in the middle of a sentence and head to work. If he finished a novel fifteen minutes before his time was up, he wrote

    and started immediately into his next novel. It brought tears to my eyes because that is what it means to be a writer...dedication to the craft.

    If you want to get rich, go be a frilling stock broker. If you want to write, then turn the squawk box off and search for those buried fossils in the words swimming around in your head. King calls good ideas fossils. For me writing is more like when Michelangelo used to lay his head on a block of marble and listened to the voices in the stone that wanted to be freed. All you have to do is chisel those characters free, and give them life.

    If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit

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