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It’s Good to be…Oh, You Know!

Book #9 (February 14, 2010): On Writing by Stephen King

There seem to be two fairly extreme views on the writing of Stephen King. Either people see him as a hack who writes sensational but worthless prose (a view that I suspect is based more on all those Stephen King movies churned out in the 80s than on the novels themselves) or they see him as a god. Neither view makes sense to me, though I probably lean more toward the latter view than the former. I think a good argument could be made that King is the greatest popular writer of his generation and perhaps of my lifetime, in the sense that he writes fiction that engages readers on a deep and intuitive level, fiction that makes no pretense at being literature but that often manages to be literature anyway. In that sense — and I’m hardly the first to say this — the “literary” writer he most resembles is Charles Dickens, in that the two writers have both popular and enduring appeal. When I read Dan Simmons’ novel Drood, about Wilkie Collins and his gradual realization that he could never be more than a fraction of the writer Charles Dickens was, I couldn’t help but wonder if Simmons wasn’t describing his own feelings about King.

On Writing is about half memoir and half avuncular advice (inasmuch as King often refers to himself in his Entertainment Weekly columns as “Uncle Stevie”) to aspiring writers. The memoir half (and it’s almost exactly half of the book) is about King’s gradual discovery of his writing talents and the experiences that shaped his writerly perceptions. The advice half — and in terms of my own interests it’s the better half of the book, though I enjoyed King’s description in the first half of his days as an out-of-control alcoholic — relates King’s philosophy of writing and warns against misconceptions that potential writers may have about how writing is actually done. The best part, I thought, was his description of the difference between situation and plot, which is something he’s thought out more clearly than I ever have. (When I was writing Hardy Boys novels, the distinction between the two was that you pitched your book on the basis of a situation but you didn’t get a contract until you’d plotted the book within an inch of its life, something that King advises strongly against.) There’s a nice emphasis on the importance of grammar — King was an English teacher before he became a bestselling author — and some interesting thoughts on organizing your writing space. (Close your door, shut your window and maybe listen to music, but don’t let the desk dominate the room.) I don’t know if any of this will be meaningful if you have no interests in writing fiction (there’s relatively little here about other forms of writing), but the first half should certainly be of interest to anybody who’s a King fan.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

3 responses »

  1. thousandmonkeys

    I would say King fans would enjoy the whole book; even if the writing advice is no practical use to them it gives them an insight into his approach. Writers of fiction who aren’t fans but aren’t averse to his style would do well to take notice of the whole book, too – that light touch and knowing just what to put in or leave out, it’s educational all the way through.

  2. I once sat beside a Yale professor of English on a cross-country plane ride. I asked him what living writer would be studied in college English courses in 100 years. He said “Stephen King.”

  3. Christopher Lampton

    Margaret? God, I’d forgotten that was your first name! (But I saw your email address first.)

    Did the English professor append a muttered “Damn it!” to that statement? Some French writer once said, “Victor Hugo is the greatest writer in the French language. Alas.” But I think the professor is right that out of all writers in the English language today, King is the most likely to endure (though it’s okay with me if they leave “The Langoliers” out of future English courses).


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