Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On Writing

For those who enjoy writing fiction, I recommend Stephen King’s book, On Writing. It is rare for a best selling author to share his secrets, but Mr. King does that in this very personal and insightful hardback. As he puts it (referring to his childhood and near-fatal accident), “I came through all the stuff I told you about . . . and now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job . . . It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” If that doesn’t convince you that Mr. King is a guy who loves writing, nothing will. He couldn’t stop if he wanted to.

I don’t know of any other author who offers you free feedback on your writing. If you follow the writing assignment in On Writing, Mr. King, or one of his staff, will give you their impressions, no holds bared. His book is truly a bargain, and no, he knows nothing of my promoting it.

Mr. King encourages us to bang out our manuscripts and then hide them for months. Only after they’ve had time to ferment can you can view them objectively and determine whether its content is what you really intended. I’ve found this advice useful in all of my writing, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or business related. Repeatedly reading over the same document can give a myopic view.

The one thing Mr. King doesn’t emphasize in his book is reading your work aloud. Call it the acid test, but reading aloud reveals errors you may not otherwise find. It also confirms whether your dialogue is realistic. Be aware that even this may not reveal inaccuracies that will instantly destroy an author’s credibility. For example, one of Tom Wolfe’s books described El Cerrito, California, as a “warm and sunny” place. Clearly, Mr. Wolfe never spent any time there, for the fifteen years I spent growing up there, the fog headed straight for our house, spread, and then retreated in the reverse order. It’s been years since I read Mr. Wolfe’s story, but that inaccuracy is all I remember of the book. So, whatever you write, make sure it’s accurate and plausible. You only get one shot with your reader.

But writing novels is the easy part of the business. Becoming a household name is the result of dedication and a series of fortunate events. I accept that, and offer this final thought by comparing writing to ice skating. Ice skaters spend years perfecting their sport to make it look graceful. A well-written story flows effortlessly, like the ice skater. And while every author strives for Olympic Gold, only a few will place. But like the athletes, we must analyze any set backs and keep going. I’m sure Mr. King would agree.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Good article, Mark. I agree that even the smallest mistakes can prompt a reader to close your book and never pick it up again. And putting your finished manuscript aside for weeks and then reading it as though it were someone else's work makes the final edit much easier.

Jaden Terrell said...

Mark, Stephen King's ON WRITING is one of my favorites. It's brimming with plain, down-to-earth talk about writing from someone who knows what he's talking about. Every writer should read this book. Even those who don't care for King's writing would find it hard to deny that he knows how to strike a chord in the hearts of his readers.

Chester Campbell said...

I listened to King's book on CD while traveling to and from a conference a couple of years ago. My recollection of things listened to is not as good as with things read, but he had a lot of good advice. I think it boils down to only those with some innate talent will be recognized as great writers, but with study and experience and persistence we can all become credible and entertaining writers.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I'm following Mr. King's advice by lounging in Kauai, helping my folks celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. By the time we return, I should be fully inspired, ready to resume my writing. Kauai is as close to paradise as it gets:)

Unknown said...


That's the best "How To" book I've read. His advice is so practical and common sense. A friend gave me both the oral and printed versions several years ago, and I've used them both repeatedly. Great stuff!

Unknown said...


That's the best "How To" book I've read. His advice is so practical and common sense. A friend gave me both the oral and printed versions several years ago, and I've used them both repeatedly. Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

Strange: I never read any of Stephen King's novels until I stumbled upon On Writing, and became an instant (yet another) fan. This is probably my favourite writing book - not just for his advice on the craft but also for his insight into what it really takes. It should be required reading for all writers.