The ramblings and musings of author and musician Geoffrey Young Haney.
Much more coherent and loveable fare from his wife, Michelle.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review: On Writing, by Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's no surprise - and probably no accident - that King's book on writing is as easy to digest as his prose. This doesn't make it any less important, no matter what critics of King's work may try to tell you. King is a phenomenal writer and has a great understanding of story. Nothing of this work is particularly groundbreaking, but the nuggets of wisdom here are presented in such a straightforward and concise manner that I believe it'd be hard for any writer of any literary genre or style not to find something golden within these pages.

I found King's talk on his drafting process - the open and closed door - particularly interesting. I also enjoyed every bit of the "memoir" part of this work. King has an easy voice and an inviting earnestness, even while talking about such heavy subjects as drug addiction, the passing of his mother, and his own brush with death. Having listened to the audio version of this book, I found it even more like a conversation between two friends than a textbook on writing. I was learning things, but it never felt like learning. I'd like to believe this is what King was aiming for.

As a writer myself, I did find the whole section on finding an agent and getting published laughable. This book isn't that old, but it certainly seems old when it speaks on this. King tells the story of a younger colleague (or colleagues, as it were, whose experiences here are mashed together under one pseudonym) who sells around 6 short stories to various rags that publish short stories. (Even this seems like the stuff of historical fiction.) Said writer then starts work on a novel. Seeking representation to help in the eventual sale of that novel, the writer sits down and crafts a polite and interesting letter to an agent before having even finished the book. Then, shockingly, said colleague actually receives numerous cordial responses from actual agent interested in their work. Some ask to see his short stories, some ask to see the 80 pages of his unfinished novel. The idea that any agent in this day and age would ask to see a) stories that have already sold and b) 80 pages of anything based simply off a letter that barely describes a work that isn't finished means either this author is fantastic or that this was what publishing might have looked like before the creation of the slush-pile. My guess is its a bit of both. It sounds like a great time to be a writer, a time where you could create some publishing credentials for yourself and then speak with an agent who is looking for AUTHORS to WORK with (not NOVELS to SELL - and I seriously believe those are two very distinct things.) I don't believe King even once used that dreaded word "query" while talking about finding an agent. Ah, the simplicity of years gone by...

And maybe that is what's best about this book, this air of hopeful ease; the feeling that for a writer, crafting a story should like breathing. No bullshit, no politics, no hoops to jump through. Just practice, passion, and the dedication to write every day. There's no magic bullet, no secret lesson to be learned. Write, and keep writing until you're good enough that someone wants to read what you've written. And when that's done, write again. Sometimes in pop culture, what floats to the top is often the worst of what our "arts" and culture has to offer, dumbed-down works of insipid simplicity, ready-made for a lazy public. This is what "serious" critics have come to learn, and what continues to shape their world-view. Who can blame them, though? There's so much evidence to the rule.

Then again, as is the case with The Beatles, sometimes what's popular is what's best. King is a popular writer, but don't hold that against him. The Beatles wrote the book on writing a pop song. With On Writing, King has written a love song to the pop book. And the world is better for it.

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