On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is a classic book on the craft of writing. Stephen clearly mentions right at the start that this is a book about how a writer was “formed” and not “made”. And that comes as a relief to us lesser mortals who struggle to write well and are never happy with our output. This gives us hope that we can form ourselves into better writers too.
This isn’t a conventional style guide with chapters dedicated to every aspect of writing. The first and the longest section of the book comprises disjointed memories from the author’s childhood. This befuddled me the first time I began reading the book a while back. But once I finished reading all of it this time, I realised that that’s the way to tell us how this author was “formed”.
I look at this book as having two kinds of advice – writing advice for fiction writers and writing advice for anyone who wants to write anything good. Here are a few things you can take from the book:
1. KEEP WRITING DESPITE REJECTIONS
While the first section seems really long, I think we get to learn so much how the author started on writing. Having missed a whole year of school due to ill-health, he indulges in puerile attempts at writing. And gradually he begins submitting his work to publications and magazines. And gets tons of rejection letters. But that doesn’t deter him from writing.
2. READ A LOT. WRITE A LOT
I think this sums up the best advice that anyone can get about becoming a good writer. And King mentions this more than once in the book.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that”.
King himself is very well read an includes examples from various authors to illustrate good and bad writing. He spends a few pages on how writing can make a huge difference for writers and how to fill in reading at every available moment. It also helped that Stephen began his writing journey at a time when televisions hadn’t been invented!
3. BUILD YOUR WRITING TOOL BOX
To become a good writer, King suggests that one should have a sound toolbox. This will help grab the appropriate tool to deal with any writing situation. The first level of the box should be vocabulary; the next one should have grammar. And then he goes on to talk about how nouns and verbs are inherent parts of good writing but adverbs, not so much. Some of the advice in this section is subjective and also applies mainly to fiction writers. But if you blog on gardening, you may need to use adverbs to describe how to handle different kinds of soil. So I’d say go ahead and use adverbs.
4. WRITE EVERY SINGLE DAY
King suggests this as a part of your routine so that the characters remain fresh in your mind. Writing sporadically or too far apart disconnects you from the story and you lose the flow of what you wanted to write. You could take a day off in a week but, King says, you’ll only be indulging yourself.
5. WRITE WITH THE DOOR CLOSED
This makes sound advice for the first draft. The idea is to shut out any kind of judging voices the first time you try to tell a story. I think this applies to non-fiction too. Getting the words on a paper/screen is one of the most important steps to get anywhere with writing.
6. WRITE FOR YOUR IDEAL READER
King advices that you think of one ideal reader who you are going to write for. Be guided by whether your ideal reader would laugh or cry where you intend him/her to. The extent of your descriptions will depend on how much he/she can infer from the information you give.
7. SET A DAILY GOAL AND STICK TO IT
If you intend to knock off a novel in about 3 months, this should be your golden rule. King says that he sets a goal of 2000 words a day and leaves his work space only when that is done. Sometimes he is done by 11 am and at other times he’s not done even by tea time. It is also important to set aside a writing space for yourself, preferably with a door which you can close. Sitting in this place should only mean the business of writing.
8. NARRATION, DESCRIPTION, DIALOGUE
These are the only 3 aspects of fiction that King discusses in his book – which I think is far from complete. There are more tools that one uses to write good fiction and it would have done well for him to discuss more of those too. If you intend to be a serious fiction writer, it’ll help to pay attention to this section.
9. COOL OFF AFTER THE FIRST DRAFT
The author suggests that there should be at least 6 weeks between finishing the first draft and re-reading it. This may not be an ideal frame in today’s times when turn over times are expected to be faster. Once you pick up the draft again, read for not just coherence in the story but also watch out for the concepts from your tool box to be in place.
2nd draft= 1st draft minus 10% is a formula that King thinks one should work on. This will ensure that the fluff is eliminated from your writing.
The last part of the book seems like a drag to me. King goes into the details of a debilitating accident he met with and the lengthy recovery process he went through. And despite the pain there was a time when he felt ready to start writing and he did. This might fit into the “memoir” part of the book but doesn’t really add much to the “craft” of writing, if you ask me.
Through the book, King also gives generic advice like keep your paragraphs short, omit needless words and get a literary agent. One thing that I really love about the book is the wonderful writing which demonstrates that King has indeed earned to right to dispense advice on..well, writing!
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