Guestpost: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

Today we have regular guestblogger Dave Baldwin to talk about Stephen King’s On Writing with us!
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After countless urgings from numerous friends (some writers, some not), I finally broke down and read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I’m glad I did, and I expect to give the book a second reading. As any King reader might expect, this book has great entertainment value in addition to the helpful tips that the seasoned author offers to aspiring writers.

I read a handful of Stephen King’s novels as a teenager and throughout my twenties, including The Dark Half, Needful Things, The Dead Zone, The Dark Tower I, The Talisman, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Stand, and The Green Mile. I also read some of his novellas: The Sun Dog, The Library Policeman, The Langoliers, The Running Man, Rage, and The Long Walk. I always admired King’s unparalleled ability to foreshadow dreadful events, leaving enough uncertainty to keep me turning the page to find out what would happen next. King also did a masterful job creating raw, authentic characters: good, evil, and all shades in between. Naturally, I was eager to hear what King had to say on the subject of writing.

King shares slices of his personal story dating back to his early childhood, and King’s prowess as a master storyteller shines through once again. He holds nothing back as he recalls the rough beginnings of his own writing career in a string of colorful and amusing vignettes. For one example, he recalls having accumulated a stack of rejection slips from magazine publishers that he collected on the end of a nail. He eventually had to get a bigger nail because the stack was so thick. King also recounts an incident where his school principal harshly rebukes him after catching him selling plagiarized manuscripts in the schoolhouse, suggesting that he needn’t be wasting his time writing.

King covers all of the basics in this book, including character development, plotting, grammar, style, publication, and a handful of other essentials. He intermingles his personal story with these elements using real-life examples of the challenges he encountered while writing specific books. He also illustrates how real people and events in his life inspired characters in his books (such as Annie Wilkes, the deranged nurse who holds author Paul Sheldon captive in the silver-screen novel Misery).

King makes it clear that while learning to write isn’t easy, it is accessible to anyone with a real desire to do it. I’ve always believed that writing is the sort of thing that most people either love or hate to do, and that an idle romantic fancy is not sufficient to motivate true success. King seems to agree with me on this score. In fact, his story seems to suggest that rising to greatness as a writer requires obsession with the craft. I’ve always supposed that this is probably true when it comes to being great at anything. Conclusion: while anyone can theoretically be a great writer, most people lack a sufficient yearning to do so.

I consider myself primarily a business writer and aspiring novelist. I say “aspiring” because I have yet to complete my first novel. As such, I found On Writing a source of encouragement on several fronts. I made the commitment to write full-time in 2007, and I’ve experienced a roller-coaster of emotions as well as a temperamental muse that seems to come and go in fits and starts. By the time I was done reading On Writing, I found myself nodding my head in slow acceptance. The road ahead of me will continue to be long and bumpy – and I can honestly say “that’s just fine.”

King helped me to realize that while some aspects of writing never get any easier, they do become more rewarding over time. That alone was enough to reinforce what I already knew: my passion for writing is worth as many decades of setbacks as it’s going to take. He successfully motivated me to dust myself off and keep at it. His story will motivate me to do so again.

Caveat: Stephen King’s advice pertains mostly to novel writing. While I wouldn’t dare argue with a highly-successful author whose track record leaves mine in the dust, I might suggest that the ideas presented in this book might not bear the same relevance to other areas of writing. Also, the world of self-publishing has changed considerably since 2001 when On Writing went to press. Print-on-demand was non-existent back then. Therefore, you won’t find anything on that subject.

Anyone with any serious interest in developing a writing career should read this book, regardless of field or chosen specialty. It has something for everyone. While techniques and strategies vary, the basics never change. If you’re sitting on the fence as to whether a career in writing is for you, On Writing will help you make up your mind.

Pick up a copy and get started; it’s a quick read.

Dave Baldwin is a writer who has lived and worked in Raleigh, NC since 2007. He has self-published two books: Pied Piper Entrepreneurship (2009) and Get That Book Out of Your Head! (2009).

Your Turn:
Have you read On Writing and if so, what was your experience with it? How did it help you get started? What do you remember best from this book?

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  1. Cris Cohen April 21, 2011

    I loved “On Writing”. Read it a few times and gave it as a gift to a few people. I liked that it is a mish-mash of writing tips and autobiography, skillfully intertwined by Mr. King. I also liked how he set out the basic rules of good form and function and then showed how other writers broke those rules, but did so in really interesting effective ways.

    I agree with your summary that this book has a little something for everyone. In fact, I don’t think you even need to be a writer to appreciate it. His recounting of the time that truck ran him over is quite a thrilling read.

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