Stephen King states early in On Writing that the book has “no throughlines, just snapshots, mostly out of focus”. This a strength of On Writing. He does not outline doctrines for readers to follow but writes about his own writing, influences from throughout his life on his fiction, and flexible suggestions for how readers could approach their own fiction writing, based on King’s own ideas about fiction and what tends to make it work well.
King’s preference is for a clear and concise style of writing, in which the story does not meander greatly from the main story and in which the reader knows what is happening.
He contrasts this with writing circles from his days as a univerisity student where he describes the general attitude as one of many people writing ambiguous but similarly themed fiction that the author cannot explain – “Would-be poets were living in a dewy Tolkien tinged world catching poems out of the ether. It was pretty much unanimous: serious art came from “out there”. Writers were blessed stenographers taking divine dictation”. He characterises this by an example in which the author tells the reader to “just dig the heaviness”. King writes: “I didn’t cop much to this attitude, although I didn’t dare say so out loud, at least not in so many words and was overjoyed to find that the pretty girl in the black dress and the silk stockings [his future wife, Tabitha] didn’t cop to much of it either. She didn’t come right out and say so, but she didn’t need to. Her work spoke for her.”
King weaves anecdotes throughout On Writing, so it reads as much like a conversation about his life as it does a book on the craft of writing. This helps to keep it very practical and in context rather than being a collection of abstractions as many books on writing can be. Much of the value of these anecodtes will not be evident here but they do provide a lot of value to the book.
Some of the quotes below from On Writing have been laid out a sentence to a line and had parts emphasised in bold to assist in visually grasping key points more easily.
THE CENTRAL THESES OF ON WRITING
Towards the end of On Writing, King states the dual theses of the book:
“I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple.
The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals.Vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style, and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments.
The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one it is possible with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
The bulk of the middle of the book is based on the first thesis and, while King may believe in the second thesis, the book does not really depend on it. It may be implied in his flexible approach in which the reader is encouraged to develop their own writing methods, rather than be given a strict series of steps to follow, but a reader won’t lose any value from the book by disagreeing with the second thesis.
I personally think that each person is not necessarily born with good or bad wriitng ability – as long as they have a basic capacity to read, write and think, each person has the capacity for a huge range of writing ability depending on what they learn and how they apply themself to writing fiction. Another aspect to consider regarding the second thesis is, while a person has the capacity to go from bad writing to great writing, a teacher cannot get them from bad to great by themselves – a lot of it is up to the student. A person can think much faster than they can read or hear something, process it, and think try to imagine how that relates to something else, what implications that might have, etc. Put another way, learning by doing is better than partially learning by rule or theory following, which brings me to the next point.
There is also a third important premise worth mentioning:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things more than all others: read a lot and a write a lot.”
King recommends reading what you like because you like it – not reading to impress someone else, or to sound smart, or to fit in, or because a book conveniently matches a literary theory. Learn how to write by writing and learn how readers might experience or respond to your writing by reading.
King discusses the idea of a conceptual toolbox for use in working on stories: “I want to suggest that, to write to your best ability, it behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle that you can carry it with you. Then, instead of looking at a hard job and getting discouraged, you will perhaps seize the correct tool and get immediately to work.” He suggests a four level toolbox comprising 1) vocabulary, 2) grammar, 3) elements of style and 4) tools of your own design.
1 – Vocabulary
King emphasises he prefers vocabulary, or what words you use, to be used for effectively telling a story; not for showing what a big vocabulary you have. He suggests the old saying, ‘It aint how much you’ve got, it’s how you use it’ is a good guiding principle for vocabulary.
King recommends using what vocabulary you have to tell your story using whatever words come to mind first. He also recommends learning vocabulary by your everyday interactions with people and by reading – not by studying dictionaries and thesauruses.
2 – Grammar
In King’s words: “Relax. Chill. We won’t spend much time here because we don’t need to. One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not. What sophomore English does, or tries to do, is little more than the naming of parts. And this isn’t high school.”
Put very simply, according to King, most important in grammar are nouns and verbs, he prefers active verbs to passive verbs, thinks the less adverbs used the better, and prefers simple dialogue attribution.
Nouns (aka subjects – words for names – often summed as words for people, places and things) and verbs (aka predicates – words for actions)
Active verbs (words for something, inicated by a preceeding noun, doing something) and passive verbs (words for something, indicated by a preceeding noun, having something done to it)
For example: Active – She pulled the curtains.
Passive – The curtains were pulled by her.
Adverbs (words which modify verbs, adjectives or other adverbs – usually end in “ly”)
“Consider the sentence, “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence. At least it’s got an active verb going for it. But ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between “He closed the door” and “He slammed the door” and you’ll get no argument from me but what about context? What about all the enlightening, not to say emotionally moving, prose which came before “He closed the door firmly”? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?”
This is basically whether a characters said, growled, murmured, chirped, grunted, drawled, whispered, menaced, forced out, mumbled, hissed, purred, barked, yelled, cried, etc.
King prefers said or simple words to attribute dialogue to a character, with the primary function just being to indicate to the reader which character said what was in the quotation marks.
3 – Elements of style
While people’s stylistic preferences are up to them, King prefers a style closely aligned with that described in The Elements of Style by William Strunk and EB White.
Although, it is worth noting that King does not recommend just following a rule book, but reading books like The Elements of Style and comparing their suggestions to your own reading and writing experiences to determine what you prefer.
4 – Tools of Your Own Design
These conceptual tools will be different from one person to the next, depending on a limitless range of factors from what they have experienced and learned throughout their life, what they are trying to write about, what writing style(s) or techniques they prefer, etc.
This is where the anecdotes from throughout King’s life can come back to mind, providing examples ranging from childhood experiences to good and not-so-good decisions and lessons learned in the lead up to his writing career, as well as a number of anecdotes from during his career after taking off as a novelist, relating both directly to his fiction and to his home life. Particularly, if you have read some of King’s books, you can conceive of how experiences throughout his life may have contributed in various ways to his writing preferences and habits.
King describes a flexible overview of how he thinks about story parts which is easy to follow and refreshingly practical rather than simply restating what is commonly written on the topic.
“In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts:
Narration – which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z
Description – which creates a sensory reality for the reader ; and
Dialogue– which brings characters to life through their speech.”
King prefers to imagine one or more characters in a situation which they want to get out of and then writes down what he imagines the character(s) doing as they try to get out of that situation. He writes: “You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer- my answer anyway – is nowhere. […] our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning, and second because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”
There is a lot more in Stephen King’s On Writing which has not been covered or has only been hinted at here – such as his love of audiobooks, creating the best writing space for you, and practical examples of the finer points of writing craft. This is not a subtitute for reading the book – it is just a taste of what is in the book and I highly recommend reading it, especially when you have read some of his fiction to be able to compare what King writes about fiction writing to the fiction he has written.
More on Stephen King and his writing can be found at www.stephenking.com. More on grammar can be found in The Categories by Aristotle, available for free online in text version (http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/categories.html) or audio version (http://librivox.org/categories-by-aristotle). More on writing style can be found in The Elements of Style available (in a wiki version) free at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Elements_of_Style.
The Australian Literature Review