One of the best books I’ve read about writing and being a writer is Stephen King’s On Writing. Written whilst he was recovering from a horrific accident (a van driver hit him while he was out for a walk), it’s a fascinating book combining autobiography and advice. If you’ve not heard of Stephen King, he’s a very well-known American horror writer – you may have seen films such as Carrie and The Dead Zone based on his books.
The first part of On Writing is headed “CV”, and is an autobiographical account of King’s childhood and development as a writer. Loosely chronological, it’s structured in a series of short chapters or segments, each headed with a number and each dealing with a single point or topic in King’s life.
It’s a fascinating insight into the makings of a famous author – not only an entertaining read but one with a lot to teach writers about persistence and working towards your dreams. King started sending out short stories to magazines and publications when he was very young:
By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.
King writes about his early attempts at self-publication (helping his elder brother Dave write and print a newspaper, Dave’s Rag, then writing a novelisation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum and selling it to school friends.)
After “CV” there is a short section entitled “Toolbox” where King segues from a story about his Uncle Oren’s toolbox into a discussion of what the writer needs in his/her own “toolbox” of writing. This includes vocabulary and grammar as the basics on the top layer (hang around at Daily Writing Tips a while and you’ll pick up plenty of help with these!) with style coming on the second layer.
The third section of the book, “On Writing”, deals with what King calls the third layer of the toolbox – everything that goes into writing good fiction. He tells us:
What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it. I’ll be as encouraging as possible, because it’s my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.
This part of the book is hugely entertaining (King is very easy to read, and writes like a friendly mentor chatting to you over a beer), and absolutely packed with invaluable advice. Two of the key points King makes are:
If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.
King strongly believes in setting writing goals, and recommends a minimum of a thousand words a day, six days a week. I tried following his advice (whilst working a full-time office job) and didn’t last long – you might prefer to set your own goal at five hundred words a day or even two hundred. Since King himself says he writes 2,000 words a day whilst working on a book, I suspect his advice is aimed at those aiming to make fiction writing their career (especially given his advice to read for four-six hours a day as well!)
King gives great advice on how to choose what genre to write in (one you read, and love), and how to create a “situation” for your story and write good description and dialogue. He goes into useful detail about what to look for when revising your work – does the story hang together, are the scenes paced well, are there factual errors? He includes an example of his own draft work and explains the edits he made to it.
As King says:
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.
On Writing is an encouraging but very honest look at what it means to be a fiction writer, and if you’re an aspiring author – especially if you secretly worry about not being “clever” enough or educated enough to write fiction – then I highly recommend it.