On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

96.9 percent loved this. I may even knock it up to “It was amazing” as its treasure trove of advice sinks in.

Here’s the thing: Stephen King knows how to tell a story. From the early to late 80s- junior high through mid-university- I read nearly everything he’d written. His novels are the only of the horror-genre that I’ve read; it’s never been my cup of tea, either in print or film, but King’s writing is a cut above. He is the literary equivalent of Bruce Springsteen. I don’t own a Springsteen album, but when I hear one of his songs, from any era, I know I am hearing pure genius. Story-telling genius.

I believe King’s mainstream success has little to do with his ability to scare the bejesus out of his readers and everything to do with the emotional chords he twangs with his characters, his dialogue, his everyman dilemmas that arise from the most bizarre circumstances. As he counsels in On Writing, don’t worry about writing what you know, write what you love to read. So, King loves sci-fi and scary stuff. And he is able to write about with such astonishing skill that even the most avowed detractor of popular fiction is held captive by his pen.

This writing guide is divided in two parts. In the first, King takes you through his hard-scrabble childhood, focusing on the events that shaped him as a writer. I enjoyed the heck out of this. He recounts his past in a sweet, sad, funny, and completely natural voice. I didn’t know anything about his personal life, which included years as an alcoholic and coke addict.

Then he turns to offer practical writing advice, which can be summed up as: Read A LOT; Write A LOT; Create a space of your own; Blow up your television; Use the active voice; Limit adverbs; Watch out for dialogue attribution; and, above all, Write stories. Not plots. Not themes. Just Stories. King believes that if you have a good story, the rest – character development, plot, theme- will take care of itself. King presents his advice with such clarity and conviction that you believe it’s all possible.

I have to contrast this concise set of advice with another masterful work on the art of storytelling: Robert McKee’s Story. McKee’s guide is 466 pages. I took a couple of months to read Story and used a ream of post-its to mark the meaningful passages. McKee’s approach is the antithesis of King’s. He advocates careful plotting and sub-plotting, character studies, outlines, and a tried-and-true structure that respects the desires of the audience. True, McKee writes about the craft of scriptwriting, but his directives are relevant to literary stories, as well.

As different as these two approaches are- King’s organic, McKee’s structured- their bottom line is identical: Write stories that people want to read.

King loathes adverbs. This hits home because I am decidedly guilty (see!) of using adverbs copiously (see!!). I’ve just finished reading James Joyce’s The Dead, which is often cited as the best short story ever written (and lauded by King). Here is its last sentence:

“His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Delicious irony. Well, to adverb or not to adverb? Only one way to find out…

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