April 6, 2012

Stephen King's On Writing Discussion

On Writing was kicking around on my bookshelf, begging to be read, but just collecting dust instead. Then Sara over at Crow River Writer proposed a Blog-O-Rama Book Club discussion of the book. This was exactly the incentive I needed to just read that thing already. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. There's a reason so many writers have been raving about this little book. If I were to sum up in a word the overwhelming feeling of this book, it would have to be CONVERSATIONAL. There's just something about the way King writes this book that makes me feel like we're sitting down having coffee and a chat. Brace yourself for this post, folks, it's gonna be a long one (worse than usual).

If you've read the book and would like to join in on the discussion, you can find the questions HERE.

Do you agree with Stephen King that the desire to write always starts with a love of reading?
I've heard of writers who don't love reading, but I can't for the life of me understand this. I think in order to be a good writer you should definitely be a reader. Reading is not just for entertainment, it's also an important for learning when you're a writer. I learn from the crummy books, the 'meh', and the really good books alike. The way I see it, reading is truly invaluable when you're a writer.

King's wife Tabitha is his "Ideal Reader", the one-person audience he has in mind when writing a first draft. When you write, do you envision a particular Ideal Reader? Who is that person and why?
I don't know that I have an Ideal Reader in mind exactly. I know that much of the humour in what I write is geared toward my sister, who above everyone gets my bizarro sense of humour (and vice versa). Any intertextual references to sci fi favourites, for example, are in there for those geeky few who will catch them. Exhibit A: The number 42 dropped into the story intentionally. If you get this reference, good for you. You're just as geeky as I am. Mostly I just hope my story is relatable to a wide range of people. If it is, then I'll feel as though I've done something right.

Discuss King's "toolbox" analogy. What "tools" do you find most indispensable when you write? Are there any you would add to King's toolbox?
King suggests that our writing toolbox should include the commonest of tools on top (vocabulary & grammar), and just underneath these the elements of style. I completely agree with the tools King mentions and would rank them in the same order that he does. I was particularly interested in his discussion of vocabulary and the temptation to needlessly dress it up out of embarrassment or the need to impress. When this happens we often end up sounding too try-hard or just plain silly. I don't think this negates the use of a thesaurus, but it does caution us against overuse of this tool (think Joey aka 'Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani' in this episode of Friends). I think I'd add a good 'sounding board' to the toolbox, because I feel that we can't overestimate its value in the writing process.

According to King, good story ideas "seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky," and often don't ignite until they collide with another idea that also comes unbidden. Do you find that ideas for stories or writing projects come to you out of the blue, or do you have to search for them? King recalls a dream that led him to the writing of his book Misery. Have you ever gotten a story idea from a dream? 
The ideas that I come up with for stories fly at me from out of the blue like King suggests. I've never gone looking for story ideas. My current WiP, for instance, was inspired by a newspaper headline I saw while killing time in an airport waiting for my flight. All of a sudden, the idea for a story started taking shape, and not long after, I started to write it. As for stories that come from dreams--I've never had this happen to me. Another story that I've worked on is a retelling of a Jane Austen romance. This has been done many times before, but I feel as though the story I chose (my favourite Austen) has been mostly passed over. This fact + my love for the story = Opportunity!

King describes the dangers of seeking reader response -- or "opening the door" -- too early or too frequently. At what stage in a writing project do you solicit critical feedback from others? 
I have to agree with King on this. I know I have little to no experience with all of this, but I think there's a danger in not getting it all out on the page before sharing it. If you share too soon, how will you ever know if what you've written is entirely your story, you know? How much of it has been influenced by early reader suggestions? I think the skeleton of your WiP needs some padding on it before it's exposed to anyone, but that's just my opinion. Feedback is crucial, but it can wait.

In the first foreword to On Writing, King talks about the fact that no one ever asks popular writers about the language. Yet he cares passionately about language and about the art and craft of telling stories on paper. Do you think there is a false distinction between writers who write extraordinary sentences and writers who tell stories?
I'm not really sure if I completely understand the question, but I'll take a stab at it anyway. I don't think there should be a distinction between good writers and good storytellers. I think that every writer should aim to be both. A certain female author with sparkly characters frequently states that she is first and foremost a storyteller. This sentiment always rubbed me the wrong way. It feels like a crutch for bad writing to me. I'm not saying that Sparkly Writer is a bad writer, I'm saying that storytelling and good writing need to go hand in hand, and the one shouldn't outrank the other.*

Often, King says, "bad books have more to teach than the good ones." He believes that most writers remember the first book they put down thinking "I can do better than this." Can you remember a book that gave you that feeling? Why?
In my own experience (little as it is), I have found that I learn far more from the poorly written books. What eventually prompted me to try my hand at writing was a string of disappointing reading experiences (to be fair, these all followed Divergent, which was excellent). As arrogant as it sounds, I've said a few times that I can recall, "I can do better than this." Incredulity that "This thing got published?" was what ultimately pushed me to try and prove that I could do it too.

King's self-imposed "production schedule" is 2,000 words a day and he suggests that all writers set a daily writing goal. What kind of discipline do you impose upon your own writing efforts? Do you always write at the same time of day? Does adherence to a strict routine help your writing efforts? 
When I first started writing, I set a daily word goal of 1000 words, and for the most part I stuck to it. I started my WiP during the summer when the sun was up early and so was I. I'd plant my butt in the chair as early as 6am and stay there until almost supper time (with breaks and internet distractions in between). I was (am) unemployed, so I was actually able to do this, but I know this isn't the case with most people. For me, sticking to this schedule from Monday to Friday, treating it like a job, was the thing that kept me going. I've fallen away from it lately, but I know it works.

King tells a story about getting his fantasy desk, a massive oak slab that he placed in the middle of his spacious study. For six years, he sat "behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of [his] mind." After sobering up, he replaced the desk with a smaller one that he put in a corner. "Life isn't a support system for art," he figured out. "It's the other way around." Discuss King's "revelation" and the symbolism of the placement of the desk.
I'm not sure if I fully comprehend his meaning here, but I'm going to go with a quote we all know:
"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that."**
If I understand this correctly, King was allowing his art to become the focal point of his entire life, allowing it to take over and consume him. While our 'art' is important to us as writers, our actual lives are of greater importance, and we would do well to remember that. Writing, while a prominent part of our lives, does not and should not take centre stage to the detriment of everything else.
 *     *     *
I can't express how much I enjoyed and learned from this book without rambling for another several lines, which I promise I won't do. All of the grammar and show vs. tell examples he gives are very informative, as is the time he dedicates to slamming on the adverb (I totally see his point). Perhaps the most useful part of this book for me was his discussion of narration, description, and dialogue (Parts 5-7 in the section 'On Writing'). This was exactly what I needed to hear where I'm currently at in my WiP. My copy of the book is a starred, underlined, flagged, highlighted, marked up mess:

The entire book looks like this. You can't tell just how many flags there are.

I imagine that this is a book that I'll be returning to from time to time just to revisit its goodness. Have you read On Writing? If yes, what aspect would you say was the most useful/informative?

*I'm speaking of fiction here.
**Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone re: the Mirror of Erised.


  1. As you know, Jaime, I have a very high opinion of this book. So much so that for the past few years I have re-read it, and have established a tradition of making it the first book I read every year.

    I found his story of how he got started in writing entertaining and encouraging. But the most useful/informative was the "nuts-and-bolts" stuff in the "On Writing" section. I like that he didn't get bogged down in grammar and punctuation rules. Obviously he thinks these are essentials to the toolbox, but he kept to the purpose of the book: to discuss the craft of story-telling.

    On that point, I totally agree with you. If you are, as King says, telling stories on paper, you are both a storyteller and a writer. I don't think I'm as good a storyteller apart from the written word. In fact, while my spoken communication skills are not bad, I'm much more articulate on paper. So I think the distinction is not between storyteller/writer, but between the different kinds of storyteller. Some storytellers are great orators, but need a ghostwriter to help put those stories on paper. But if you're a storyteller, and your medium is the written word, you HAVE to be good at writing, otherwise your story suffers. That's my take, anyway.

    Oh, I could ramble about this book for hours. Good answers to the questions, Jaime! :)

    PS: Guess how old I turned this year. Yeah, life, the universe, and everything. :)

    1. I'll definitely be rereading this one! I agree with you about the On Writing section. I enjoyed everything that came before because it felt so much like chatting with Stephen King, but I found the latter section more useful, especially where I'm at in my writing.

      You raise some good points in the storytelling and/or writer debate. I find myself in total agreement with what you've written. I think suggesting that the story is more important than the writing is a poor excuse for not doing the work to make your writing better. Obviously, it will never be perfect, but we should at least strive for as close to perfect as is possible. But then that's just my opinion :)

      P.S. Yay! Another Hitchhiker nerd! :D I may or may not be thinking of carrying around a towel for Towel Day on May 25th...

  2. Thanks for sharing this! I have this book on my shelf; I really need to pick it up.

    1. It's actually a pretty quick read once you get going. Unless, of course, you're like me and feel the need to get all underline-y and highlight-y with the book :) Then it takes a little longer. I'm going to making a concerted effort to work in craft books to my reading time every so often.

      P.S. I found a copy of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED (like you recommended) on bookcloseouts.ca for an excellent price. Is it weird that I'm super excited about that? :)

  3. I only recently read On Writing by Stephen King (about 6 months ago). I now credit it for my decision to take my writing seriously, by bringing it to the forefront of my daily routine, rather than relegating it to something I did whenever I had an idle week or two.

    What I enjoyed the most about the book are the sections dedicated to setting up an ideal environment and schedule. Also his statement that reading is an integral part of the creative process is something that has influenced me a lot. I now read way more books than I previously did.

    1. It really does have excellent advice and coming from someone whose word you can take on the issues he raises. I agree with you that the parts on ideal environment and schedule were valuable. I found myself nodding so much at these and other parts of the book that I'm surprised my head didn't roll off :D I get far more accomplished when I stick to some kind of writing routine and make daily writing goals for myself. Glad you found the book so enjoyable and helpful :)

  4. I love, love, love that book. It's seriously fantastic and a MUST for anyone who wants to write.

    I think the part that made the biggest impression on me was when he talked about adverb (specifically dialogue tags), saying that if the writer is doing his or her job, the reader should know how a line is said so we don't need to include "he said angrily" or what have you. It just made so much sense to me.

    And the section where he shows his own editing process is quite good too.

    1. I found the adverb section really helpful. I already knew before cracking this book that King thinks adverbs tend to be evil, but after reading his take on the matter, I couldn't agree more. I use adverbs (obviously), but I'll be paying a lot closer attention to where, when, and how often from here on in. Placement in dialogue tags is often a sure sign that you're a rookie and haven't done your job in everything that came before the tag. Heck, we should be working to remove as many dialogue tags as possible without confusing the reader. Very interesting and useful stuff. :D

  5. I have it on hold at the library and I can't wait to read it!!

    1. You won't regret it! He explains things so well and the overall feeling of the book is one of encouragement, like he's spurring you on to do your best work. Great resource and an overall great read :)

  6. I also enjoyed this book, and was surprised when I realized half of it is technically a memoir. Still, to hear about his journey, specifically on writing Carrie and that inspiration - fascinating! I loved that his wife was so influential.

    I like that he gives permission to ignore coworkers and friends for the sake of reading. I frequently remind myself of this and take time at lunch during work to read.

    1. I also didn't realize that the first half was memoir, but it ended up being very entertaining and interesting, so I didn't mind. I also had no idea just how influential his wife was, like you mentioned.

      The advice all around was just so helpful, it's hard to just come away with one thing that jumped out and spoke to me. So many useful tidbits :)

  7. This is one of the first books about writing that I read, and it remains one of my favorites. There's an honest, no-nonsense tone to his writing advice. Even if you're not a King fan, I'd say this book is a must-read for any writer/writer wanna-be.

    1. I agree that you don't have to be a King fan to really enjoy and get a lot out of this book. So useful in so many different areas, and always entertaining :)

  8. I love that book, I love that his voice really speaks to me as I read the words :D
    Great answers, Jaime!

    When you mention: "I've heard of writers who don't love reading, but I can't for the life of me understand this.", I could not help but nodding and saying "I really don´t get it either". (I hope it´s ok that nobody was in the room with me and thus, I was really talking to the computer :D). Like you and like King, I think reading is important to become a good writer. Both the reading that leaves in awe of the story and the way the writer told it but also the reading that leaves me "huh?" :D

    Actually, I started writing this particular WiP after I´ve read the books of a certain sparkly writer...I did enjoy the story (yes I did :D) but when I read how she went about it, I thought, wait a second I have so many so many stories to tell and ok it will take me longer than she to do it but if she can, then I definitely can (hope I don´t sound too cocky...).

    Anyways, a few years later I am still working on that one story but for the past 8 months, I am doing it seriously and I am in a happy writing place :D

  9. I love ON WRITING so much. The advice from it that I always use is to write the first draft with the door closed. I love getting feedback, but I need to see the story through by myself beforehand. ON WRITING gave me permission to do that.


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