On Writing by Stephen King

I haven’t posted in a really long time so I’m just going to bring up a book that I’ve been meaning to review forever. So one of my many plans for the future is to write a novel. Or many novels if I can get published in the first place. And while I have some ideas spinning around in my head that might not ever hit the page, I wanted to read something that will help me when I eventually get there. I attended the Denver Publishing Institute back in 2005(?) and learned a lot, but not everything. While “On Writing” isn’t a manual, I appreciate that it’s an honest look into the process and journey of a great author. To be completely honest, I think I’ve only ever ready “Misery,” and that was because my cousin had a dusty, creased paperback on the shelf and I was curious. I think that I was pretty traumatized (from that one book and a few Mary Higgins Clark novels) to the point that I never read those kinds of books again. Sad, I know. But I enjoyed several of the movies, so I think it’s safe to assume the books are even better since they usually are.

The man has a great sense of humor and an even greater wife for being supportive of his endeavors. He goes by the ol’ “write at a set time each day and don’t stop until you hit x amount of pages/words.” Even a horrific accident can’t stop him from finishing something, although he wanted to many times. If you want to write something, pick this up (and Strunk and White, as King is eager to point out several times). If you are curious at all about the struggles that a writer goes through, read this. Or if you are just a Stephen King fan, this is a good one too. Just be warned, this isn’t a quick how-to of any kind. King just gives you a peek into the random string of thoughts that often gave birth to a bestselling novel and movie.

As soon as I have a few days to concentrate, I plan to complete the assignment below from the author. If you do it, tell him I sent you. It’s the least you can do since I typed the whole damn thing up.

Your job is to write five or six pages of unplotted narration concerning this fossil. Put another way, I want you to dig for the bones and see what they look like. I think you may be quite surprised and delighted with the results. Ready? Here we go.

Everyone is familiar with the basic details of the following story; with small variations, it seems to pop up in the Police Beat section of metropolitan daily papers every other week or so. A woman – call her Jane – marries a man who is bright, witty, and pulsing with sexual magnetism. We’ll call the guy Dick; it’s the world’s most Freudian name. Unfortunately, Dick has a dark side. He’s short-tempered, a control freak, perhaps even (you’ll find this out as he speaks and acts) a paranoid. Jane tries mightily to overlook Dick’s faults and make the marriage work (why she tries so hard is something you will also find out; she will come onstage and tell you). They have a child, and for awhile things seem better. Then, when the little girl is three or so, the abuse and the jealous tirades begin again. The abuse is verbal at first, then physical. Dick is convinced that Jane is sleeping with someone, perhaps someone from her job. Is it someone specific? I don’t know and don’t care. Eventually Dick may tell you who he suspects. If he does, we’ll both know, won’t we?

At last poor Jane can’t take it anymore. She divorces the schmuck and gets custody of their daughter, Little Nell. Dick begins to stalk her. Jane responds by getting a restraining order, a document about as useful as a parasol in a hurricane, as many abused women will tell you. Finally, after an incident which you will write in vivid and scary detail – a public beating, perhaps – Richard the Schmuck is arrested and jailed. All of this is back story. How you work it in – and how much of it you work in – is up to you. In any case, it’s not the situation. What follows is the situation.

One day shortly after Dick’s incarceration in the city jail, Jane picks up Little Nell at the daycare center and ferries her to a friend’s house for a birthday part. Jane then takes herself home, looking forward to two or three hours’ unaccustomed peace and quiet. Perhaps, she thinks, I’ll taka a nap. It’s a house she’s going to, even though she’s a young working woman – the situation sort of demands it. How she came by this house and why she has the afternoon off are things the story will tell you and which will look neatly plotted if you come up with good reasons (perhaps the house belongs to her parents; perhaps she’s house-sitting; perhaps another thing entirely).

Something pings at her, just below the level of consciousness, as she lets herself in, something that makes her uneasy. She can’t isolate it and tells herself it’s just nerves, a little fallout from her five years of hell with Mr. Congeniality. What else could it be? Dick is under lock and key, after all.

Before taking her nap, Jane decides to have a cup of herbal tea and watch the news. (Can you use that pot of boiling water on the stove later on? Perhaps, perhaps.) The lead item on Action News at Three is a shocker: that morning, three men escaped from the city jail, killing a guard in the process. Two of the three bad guys were recaptured almost at once, but the third is still at large. None of the prisoners are identified by name (not in this newscast, at least), but Jane, sitting in her empty house (which you will now have plausibly explained), knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that one of them was Dick. She knows because she has finally identified that ping of unease she felt in the foyer. It was the smell, faint and fading, of Vitalis hair-tonic. Dick’s hair-tonic. Jane sits in her chair, her muscles lax with fright, unable to get up. And as she hears Dick’s footfalls begin to descend the stairs, she thinks: Only Dick would make sure he had hair-tonic, even in jail. She must get up, must run, but she can’t move…

It’s a pretty good story, yes? I think so, but not exactly unique. As I’ve already pointed out, ESTRANGED HUBBY BEATS UP (OR MURDERS) EX WIFE makes the paper every other week, sad but true. What I want you to do in this exercise is change the sexes of the antagonist and protagonist before beginning to work out the situation in your narrative – make the ex-wife the stalker, in other words (perhaps it’s a mental institution she’s escaped instead of the city jail), the husband the victim. Narrate this without plotting – let the situation and that one unexpected inversion carry you along. I predict you will succeed swimmingly… if, that is, you are honest about how your characters speak and behave. Honesty in storytelling makes up for a great many stylistic faults, as the work of wooden-prose writers like Theodore Dreiser and Ayn Rand shows, but lying is the great unrepairable fault. Liars prosper, no question about it, but only in the grand sweep of things, never down in the jungles of actual composition, where you must take your objective one bloody word at a time. If you begin to lie about what you know and feel while you’re down there, everything falls down.

When you finish your exercise, drop me a line at www.stephenking.com and tell me how it worked for you. I can’t promise to vet every reply, but I can promise to read at least some of your adventures with great interest. I’m curious to know what kind of fossil you dig up, and how much of it you are able to retrieve from the ground intact.

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6 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Me, Movies, Publishing

6 responses to “On Writing by Stephen King

  1. This and Bird by Bird are the two best books on the craft, easily.

  2. “Story” by McKee is great. Though it is about screenplay writing, pretty much everything applies to any kind of fiction writing. Highly recommended.

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/48654.Story

  3. This book keeps popping up as highly recommended. I must get a copy.

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