The Week in Books 2009, No. 12

I love to read writers writing about writing, especially when you get the impression that they don’t entirely know how they do it. You can get a lot of books about the mechanics of writing, and I’m sure they will be very helpful references or as primers if you somehow skipped high school English, but I think it’s far more instructive to read an actual writer discussing how he or she writes, as Stephen King does in his book “On Writing.”

I have to admit that I have never read one of Stephen King’s novels, and frankly I’m not likely to because I don’t really care for his genre. Even so, I enjoyed his thoughts on how he constructs stories (he starts with situations rather than plot and character studies, for example). Some of the tips and ideas he brings up are similar to what you’ll find in other similar books on writing, but they offer insight into King’s view of the process and what he thinks should be prioritized in the craft of writing (given that you know about the mechanics already).

I will tell you that the first part of On Writing is an autobiography of sorts, establishing how King grew up as a writer, and the last section is an account of the terrible accident he got into later in life and how writing helped him get through it. I think people are fairly interesting, and I like to find out how people become who they are, so I enjoyed the autobiography section. If you don’t care, you could skip that part.

I will further tell you that the book has a lot of casual profanity in it, which didn’t bother me too much because I can tune stuff like that out if it’s just used in passing, and because it matches with his background and conveys what he was trying to say. I don’t care for books that use profanity because the writer seems not to have a very good vocabulary, or where profanity is used just to shock the reader (that is really tiresome and annoying), or where the writer seems to think that using profanity means people will take him more seriously as an author. I didn’t feel like King did any of those in this book, but you may disagree. If I were his editor (ha) I would have advised against most of it, but I still enjoyed the book.

On Writing” is not a manual with 12 steps to becoming a published author, it’s a memoir of sorts covering how one particular writer does his work. If you like that sort of thing, and can take interesting perspectives and ideas out of a book without feeling like you have to love every suggestion and emulate every example, you would probably enjoy this book.

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