Sunday, January 16, 2011

Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

A friend of mine gave me this book for Christmas.  I had made a mental note to get it for myself after the holidays and was very ecstatic to have gotten it as a gift.  So of course, I began to read it immediately. 
The book is part memoir and part writing book.  In the first part of the book, the memoir, Stephen King talks about his childhood, his relationship with his brother and his hardworking single mom. He describes his very first attempts at writing when he was very young and how supportive his mother had been. 
When he received his first rejection letter he pounded a nail on his bedroom wall and impaled the letter there.  He continued writing and submitting his stories and by the time he was fourteen the nail would no longer support the weight of the rejection letters impaled on it.
He continues to tell his story in that conversational manner of his - like when he was six; he suffered from excruciatingly painful ear infections which caused him to miss a lot of school.  And how during his school years he continued to write as well as loyally follow in his brother’s exploits.  Followed by his college years; how he met his wife Tabitha, the struggles they endured during their first years of marriage and raising kids while he worked on his writing.  And before I knew it, I had finished reading the memoir part of the book.
I eagerly moved on the next section – writing.
When it comes to writing sometimes ideas don’t flow as easily as I would like.  Instead of stressing over finding my next idea, I will follow the advice on page 25 where he wrote: “There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.  Your job isn’t to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up.
I deduced that he also frowns on passivity - on page 99 he wrote:  “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.  Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”
He also suggested the creation of a writer’s toolbox and the importance of keeping it well stocked.  Just like a carpenter’s toolbox with many drawers, he said a writer’s toolbox should have at least four drawers but warns against making the toolbox too large or it will lose some of its effect.  For example, common tools go on the top drawer, and for writers the most common tool is vocabulary “and it’s not how much you’ve got but how you use it.”
He stressed that grammar should also go on the top drawer and spoke about active and passive verbs.  With an active verb the subject of the sentence is doing something.  Remember, verbs are about action!
“He picked up the gun, pressed it against her head and pulled the trigger”
With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence. 
“He began to pick up the gun so he could shoot her.”
The subject is just letting it happen. Passive verbs are to be avoided.  He referred to The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. as useful guide to follow.
At one point, and with a huge grin on my face, I realized he was a Harry Potter fan when he commanded: “Don’t be a muggle!”  Being a Harry Potter fan myself, I will make sure that I’m not a muggle.  Thanks Stephen!
I’ve begun highlighting and marking the book with post-its.  I don’t own many writing books.  At best, I’ll go to Barnes and Nobles and peruse them trying to glean as much as possible but never quite sold enough on the book to make the purchase.  However, Stephen King – On Writing has now become a reference book for me.  And I recommend it for you. :)


  1. Thanks Carmen, you have made this interesting enough that I may go and get a copy of the book myself. I read Strunk and White's book about writing MANY years ago and would probably benefit more from it now than I did then, so maybe I'll read both theirs and Mr. Kings together. Thanks for your inspiration.


  2. Hello Anonymous,

    My copy of The Elements of Style is also quite old and like you I can now appreciate the book more than I ever did!

  3. I don't understand how a lengthy book review like this has such a drawing power that makes me want to go out and buy the book.

    You did it!!!

  4. Thank you Anonymous. I found it a pleasure to read and I hope you do as well.