- Cover of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Continuing with many writers on one theme we’re each going to talk about a book that has influenced our writing. Influence is fortunately a broad category. It could be true inspiration such as wanting to capture the vivid savagery of R. E. Howard‘s ancient world tales or even ‘reverse’ inspiration. Many writers can tell you the exact book that they put down and said ‘I can do better.’ It could be that how-to book that finally made sense or had the exercises you finally stuck with.
I’m gonna split the difference with Stephen King‘s On Writing. It’s subtitled ‘A Memoir of the Craft’ and it is that but it’s also a concise how-to. I believe I’ve mentioned before how I had two distinct experiences reading this book. The first time was before I started writing and it was the first half of the book (the memoir) that I focused on. An interesting glimpse at the life of a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time. The second half (the how-to) was quickly skimmed over. After I had been writing for a while I picked it up again and it was exactly reversed. I grew impatient with the anecdotes of college life and skipped to the meat of the matter–the craft of writing. The book has three things going for it that you need in a ho- to book. Honesty, applicability, and permission.
Permission is what a lot of writers (especially just starting out) are looking for. Of course you really need it from yourself but if hearing it from a successful writer helps, what’s the harm? On Writing gives that permission to write literally and once given, treats you like a writer. I don’t think I needed or got permission to write from the book but that tone of writer-to-writer conversation let me think of myself as a writer. That’s not a small step and I believe it let me open up and improve.
The importance of honesty in a writer should be self evident and King doesn’t pull any punches here. He’s a working writer and let’s you know what that really entails and if it doesn’t sound like your bag well, now you know.
Applicability is probably the most important or at least the most gratifying. Here’s stuff you can actually use. This book doesn’t come off as theoretical or philosophical (even though there’s plenty of that there). The tone is more conversational, the master craftsman expounding to the apprentice over a couple of beers say.
He doesn’t just say ‘avoid the passive voice’, he tells you what it is. Gives plenty of examples, actual writing examples. Tells you in colorful language why it’s so dreadful . Tells you why a writer might fall into the trap and how to avoid it. And that’s how it goes really.
King uses the analogy of a tool-box and I love it. It shows that this is a craft but also a job and it’s the tools you gather and learn to use that influence your style. If you have more hammers than precision screwdrivers you’re limited in what you can do. I’ve tried hard to increase my mastery of the tools I have and increase the range of tools available. Of course he also talks about developing the craftsman’s skill of choosing the right tool for the job. After all sometimes what you need is in fact a hammer.
Working environment, idea generation, editing and revision, submission and dealing with the spouse…it’s pretty much all covered in detail. Quite a bit of the examples are writing King did for the book and so are in King’s style but it’s not about hisstyle. He also uses authors as diverse as Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy for instruction. In other words it’s about learning the craft of writing to find your own style. At least that’s what I got out of it. It’s a slim volume and a quick read and yet packed with information. For me not just a must read but a must own.