Book Reviews · Writing

Book Review: On Writing

on writingJuly is here and for writers around the globe that means it is time to stock up on provisions, find a comfy corner and get a spare external hard drive or three, because the second Camp NaNoWriMo event of the year started on the first of July. NaNoWriMo (or ‘National Novel Writing Month’) is an annual event that occurs in November, encouraging writers all over the world (it’s not really ‘national’ any more) to try and write 50,000 words in one month. For the last few years, there have also been events in April and July called ‘Camp NaNoWriMo’ designed to give people a writing holiday from their everyday lives. For anyone who’s gearing up for ’30 days of literary abandon’, as the NaNoWriMo website calls it, or anyone who’s thinking of giving it a go, we are featuring a great book about the process of writing by one of the world’s most popular living authors: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (BOOK ZONE 808.042).

Stephen King’s career has spanned 40 years and he has written over fifty books as well as nearly two hundred short stories. He is most famous for his horror novels (and for the film and television adaptations, such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and multiple adaptations of Carrie) but he has actually written in lots of genres, including fantasy with his Dark Tower series and thrillers under the pen-name of Richard Bachman.

On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft is a combination, as the title suggests, of a memoir and a guide to writing fiction. The reason King structures his only book about the craft of writing in this way is because his personal history and his writing are strongly linked. King’s early works like Carrie showed a lot of promise, but his intense writing anxiety led to a heavy dependency on alcohol and drugs and it wasn’t until his family staged an intervention that he began to write without that reliance.

A manuscript page from ‘Bag of Bones’ by Stephen King

In the first third of the book, King recounts how he got into writing and the influences that shaped how he writes. He then moves on to what he calls the ‘toolkit’, advice for writers. The main thing that comes across in his writing advice is that he is uncompromising. He doesn’t pretend that writing is a magical experience filled with easy inspiration, and he gives an honest dose of reality with his advice – he makes it clear that it takes a massive amount of work to become a good writer. He also gives plenty of tips and rules of thumb that he has gone by for years.

It is heartening for unpublished writers to read about King’s pitfalls on the way to publication and the uncertainties that plagued him for years, even after he had become one of the most famous authors in the world. At one point in his life, he used a pen name out of anxiety that his fans were buying his book because it was written by the famous Stephen King rather than because it was good. His advice is practical and he includes examples of his first drafts with annotations to show how much he changed them for the final book.

The most important thing On Writing shows is that becoming a writer is not like being blessed by a fairy godmother: it is something that anyone can do, with enough hard work and practice. King never pretends that it is easy, but he also gives practical and realistic advice to guide aspiring writers through the journey.

If you want to learn more about creative writing…

Consider trying out Camp NaNoWriMo in April or July or NaNoWriMo in November. If you’ve always wanted to try writing or haven’t been able to find the confidence to get past the first chapter, give it a go.

Try Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg for some more philosophical writing advice, about writing as a meditative practice. See our review here:

Read some of King’s work to see his methods put into practice: we can highly recommend It, Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary (all in the BOOK ZONE at 823.91). Prepare to be spooked!


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