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Book: On Writing

May 14, 2011

True confessions: I’ve loved Stephen King books since I read Carrie in high school. Actually, it may have been middle school. Around the same time, I started reading the Flowers In The Attic garbage. So yeah, must have been middle school. At any rate, I know plenty of people find him too scary, and some people find his writing too simple, but I’ve always liked it for the simple reason that he’s a really good storyteller. Carrie, Christine, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, and The Shining are all excellent stories, albeit the kind that keep you up at night.

He may not be a genius writer but he’s a genius storyteller, and he’s got enough writing skills to tell that story effectively. He can be funny, and is a keen observer of the sort of small-town meanness which unfortunately I saw plenty of growing up in a very small logging community. I love my town, but small-minded small-town jerks are their own kind of horrible. Anyway, the people in his stories remind me of the sort of people I grew up with: some good ones, who maybe don’t know how good they really are; some bad ones, who revel in their bigoted, close-minded badness; and plenty of working-class folks just trying to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Oh yeah, and he’s got a talent for making the bogeyman come alive in your mind.

This book is NOT scary (except for the part where he describes the horrible accident which almost killed him) and I enjoyed it. I’m not sure why, but I decided on a whim to check it out last time I was at the library. I’d heard good things about it, and when Stephen King is doing good writing, it’s worth reading.

It’s a two-parter. Three, really. The first is an extended bio of his writing life. From his first attempts at sci-fi to when Carrie was accepted by a publisher, he chats about his mistakes, his successes, his wife and kids, and how he went about learning to write the good stuff.

The second part is Stephen King Talks Grammar. Being a little bit of a grammar nerd, I enjoyed this. He also talks about how to get started writing; what to do and not do, how to think about your project, where to start. He is very clear that this is how he works; try it and see if you like it! He’s very encouraging but also realistic. He says, “Nothing will change a bad writer. Sorry, you’re out of luck. Nor can you do anything to take a good writer to a great writer. However, you can take a competent writer and turn them into a good writer.” I read a lot, but have never written much (except this blog, and some journalling attempts over the years). He makes it sound fun. Hard work, but fun. I might give it a go sometime.

The third part is about his accident, and how writing brought him out of the terrifying pain he was in. It’s a short chapter or two, but was worth getting through the entire book to read his account. It’s a miracle he’s alive.

I am of the camp that he’s lost a little bit of his edge over the years. His first books are so raw and hard and scary; as time went on, he got softer and the books not as scary, not as sharply written. Perhaps this coincided with his years of drug and alcohol abuse. I really liked Bag of Bones, written in 1998 some time after he got clean, and I liked two of the stories from Full Dark, No Stars, one of his most recent, so maybe he’s coming around again. I still have a few King novels that I’m saving for a really bad head cold (the kind that keeps you home in bed for a week) or perhaps Business Trip Gone Bad (when you need something — anything — to get you out of your current situation).

On Writing was fun to read and downright inspiring. Mr. King, may you go on scaring the bejeezes out of folks for many years to come.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2011 5:33 am

    I loved On Writing! The only other SK book I had ever read was Carrie. I have since gone on to read Lisey’s Story which I very much enjoyed. I sometimes wonder if people (and I am guilty of this) just think King is a horrible writer because he is popular.

    • May 15, 2011 11:37 am

      I wonder. He’s actually not a horrible writer — some of his books are not great, but some are *really* good. I forgot to mention The Stand — epic, wonderful.

  2. May 15, 2011 2:36 pm

    I totally agree – some of his books are not great, but when he hits it, he really gets it right. I think there’s unfortunately a lot of people out there who confuse his popularity with banality (to which I’d point them to Dean Koontz instead – and caveat, I’ve read and enjoyed a few Dean Koontzes, but they simply do not have the high concept and execution that most Kings at least attempt.) I too have been out of the habit of King in recent years, but both Bag of Bones and The Dome are making me think I need to return to reading his works.

    I’ve always heard really good things about On Writing, by the way, but I’ve never read it. I heard something recently discussing how his non-horror writing is more successful, like Shawshank, Green Mile, Stand By Me, etc…don’t remember the justification but I remember nodding and thinking, “Yes, yes!” I’ll have to try to find that article.

    • May 15, 2011 5:20 pm

      I’m with you. I actually have not read any Koontz yet that I like. I am putting The Dome on my list — I’ve heard good things about it.

      Do send the article! I have not read The Green Mile, and am looking forward to reading The Dark Tower series… this was a good book. You’d like it. I’m also a big fan of Through The Eyes of the Dragon, a little-known fantasy that i used to ADORE. I should read that again.

      • May 16, 2011 1:59 pm

        LOVE Eyes of the Dragon. It was my first King-love. Love love love.

        I think it might have been from an episode of the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast from NPR…you give me a good excuse to go back and listen to the last couple of weeks’ episodes 🙂

  3. May 16, 2011 11:04 am

    I am one of those people who don’t read much King because she finds him too scary. I did read this one though and liked it very much.

    • May 16, 2011 11:36 am

      You might like some of his other books (good for a day home sick in bed) — I did enjoy Through The Eyes of the Dragon, but then again, I was 12.

      • May 17, 2011 7:28 am

        Oh yes, I’ve read that one. And The Stand. And Men in Yellow Coats. And the first Dark Tower book. But his scary ones like The shining, and IT, no thanks!

      • May 17, 2011 8:16 am

        I need to read those Dark Tower books!

  4. May 16, 2011 9:11 pm

    although ive never read anything by SK, i have nothing against him as a writer and i do want to read this. it sounds sort of like a memoir, but not? something more maybe….

    • May 17, 2011 8:18 am

      It’s a memoir/writing guide. It was enjoyable; you’d like it.

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