Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

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The thing about Stephen King is that, like a younger brother (which he is), he can irritate the hell out of you, but he also manages to be endearing. His propensity for wise-assisms and obscenities can drive you crazy. His novels have gotten longer without getting better. His baby boomer characters keep calling each other "kemo sabe." Worst of all, he is so prolific as to make more constipated authors really resentful.

But there are, in his best works, characters who really live on the page (and really die). There are phrases that flirt with poetry. There's no question that King is a graceful and intuitive writer, and there's a lot to be learned from him.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King makes a sincere?and successful?effort to pass on the wisdom gained over a lifetime of occasionally wonderful, always profitable writing. For King's fans, the book?part memoir, part do-it-yourself writer's guide?will also solve some mysteries about his life and work, chief among them being: Where on Earth did he get that weird sensibility?

The answer is: his mom. At about age 5 or 6, little Stevie asked his mother if she'd ever seen anybody die, and she told him about the sailor who jumped off the roof of a Portland, ME, hotel. "'He splattered,' my mother said in her most matter-of-fact tone. She paused, then added, 'The stuff that came out of him was green. I have never forgotten it.'

"That makes two of us, Mom," King notes.

A couple of years later, Mom remarked about Stevie's second-grade teacher?"a kind lady with grey Elsa Lanchester-'Bride of Frankenstein' hair and protruding eyes"?that "When we're talking I always want to cup my hands under Mrs. Taylor's peepers in case they fall out." That would do it, I think.

Other questions answered: King writes on a Mac PowerBook; he quits writing after about 2000 words a day, whether it's 11:30 a.m. or 6 p.m. (usually it's about 1:30); he listens to hard rock while working: AC/DC, Guns N' Roses, Metallica. Yes, he's suffered writer's block?but only for a couple of weeks in the middle of writing The Stand, and again after he was hit by the van and severely injured last year.

But the answer to the question King hears most often?"Where on earth do you get your stories?"?may disappoint you. "Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up."

Okay, no secret formulas. So what, exactly, can a book like this offer? A lot, actually. In that breezy, hard-to-believe-he-isn't-just-talking-into-a-dictaphone style that either drives you nuts or makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, King breaks the process down into parts and demystifies each, rendering the process as unintimidating as possible.

The book itself is broken down into parts. The first and last parts, called "C.V." and "On Living," comprise the memoir, in which King talks about his distant and recent pasts, respectively. Although these aren't long sections, they're packed with personal information: King's early start making up science-fiction stories for his mother, who paid him a quarter each; his education, first job, marriage to Tabitha, kids, poverty, his struggle to write while earning a (terrible) living teaching. Then the writing of Carrie, its sale to Doubleday and its paperback sale, which made the Kings instantly rich?a story that can't fail to warm any budding writer's heart.

Then the bad stuff: an alcohol and drug addiction so severe that King literally does not remember writing Cujo (though he guesses it was a lot of fun and he's sorry he missed it). An intervention by his wife and family saved his life.

It's entertaining and frequently hilarious: King has often been this crude but rarely this funny. Recalling one of his numerous babysitters, for example, he writes: "Eula-Beulah was prone to farts?the kind that are both loud and smelly. Sometimes when she was so afflicted, she would throw me on the couch, drop her wool-skirted butt on my face, and let loose. 'Pow!' she'd cry in high glee. It was like being buried in marshgas fireworks... In many ways, Eula-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism."

Having laid out one writer's formation with brutal honesty, King proceeds to the pragmatic stuff. First is what he calls the writer's Toolbox. This is in fact a style guide, replete with Do's and Don'ts: use an active, not a passive, voice ("The writer threw the rope, not The rope was thrown by the writer"); eliminate adverbs ("The adverb is not your friend"); what a sentence does; what a paragraph does. It all sounds simple?so simple that you may wonder why you're bothering to read it. Then you remember that before you picked up this book and started to read, the process seemed complicated and overwhelming. King's gift is to simplify while exciting the imagination, as in this characteristically creepy but resonant paragraph:

"Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Imagine, if you like, Frankenstein's monster on its slab. Here comes lightning, not from the sky but from a humble paragraph of English words. Maybe it's the first really good paragraph you ever wrote, something so fragile and yet full of possibility that you are frightened. You feel as Victor Frankenstein must have when the dead conglomeration of sewn-together spare parts suddenly opened its watery yellow eyes. Oh my god, it's breathing, you realize. Maybe it's even thinking. What in hell's name do I do next?"

The heart of the book is the section called "On Writing," and here is where the professional wisdom is doled out in generous handfuls, usually accompanied by a memorable anecdote. Some of it sounds obvious, and probably is. Do we really need King to provide us yet again with such basic suggestions as: "You must read and write every day... Before you start, you should settle on a daily writing goal..." Write about "anything you damn well long as you tell the truth." But there are also some startling departures from the usual advice. About story structure, for instance: "In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

"You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer?my answer, anyway?is nowhere. I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible."

About endings, he simply suggests: "Why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere." On second drafts: a magazine's rejection letter once contained a scribbled comment that King says "changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: 'Not bad, but puffy. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10%. Good luck.'" King swears he observes this rule strictly. Still, it's hard not to regret the many minutes his readers would have saved for other occupations if that editor had only said 20 percent instead of 10.

In the last section, "On Living," King returns to his memoir, with an account of the accident that nearly killed him in 1999. This book was about half-written when a van driven by Bryan Smith plowed into King as he was walking down a two-lane highway. The impact broke King's right leg in numerous places; split one knee down the middle; fractured a hip; chipped his spine; and broke four ribs, among other injuries. (Smith, in a Stephen Kinglike twist of fate, died in his trailer of unknown causes recently.) It was four months before he could write again. It was months before he could sit again. And when he went back to writing, "it was as if I'd never written anything before... I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones."

At the end of that awful session, "There was no sense of exhilaration, no buzz?not that day?but there was a sense of accomplishment that was almost as good. I'd gotten going, there was that much. The scariest moment is always just before you start."

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