Monday, June 20, 2005


10 pages in book review: On Writing

This review is a bit of a cheat on the 10-pages-in formula I set up for myself. I started reading Stephen King's On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft on the bus on the way home on Friday, and I simply couldn't stop reading. By the time I went to bed Friday night I was more than 50 pages in. It's that good. I'm now 174 pages into it, much more than half way, and it was a struggle to decide whether to write about it or just curl up and enjoy it. Something that rivals blog for my attention must be good.

It's quite strange, in fact, that I haven't read this book before now. I've consumed voraciously almost everything else Stephen King has written. I clearly remember reading Firestarter when I was about ten years old, and I've been working my way through his oeuvre ever since. I don't understand why people denigrate his work as populist, and I don't understand why fiction has to be onerous to be well-written. I think he drifted away from his muse back in the 1980s and into the 1990s, but after reading Hearts in Atlantis and From a Buick 8, I can clearly see he's back in form and scaring the hell out of me.

So even though I would easily list him in my top five favourite authors, and even though I am always hungry for advice on how to improve my writing, somehow I never connected these dots before. My loss, at least in time. I should have read this years ago!

But it's not just a collection of writer's tips, which is what I was more or less expecting. There are some side-splittingly funny anecdotes from his childhood, a few of which I tried to read out loud to Beloved on Friday night. I couldn't get through them without gasping through my laughter, and we laughed so hard we even brought a previously bedded Tristan to the top of the stairs to see what his parents were going on about.

Aside from the memoirs, it's got some great writing tips. He covers everything from knowing your tools (grammar, vocabulary, etc.), to using active voice, to avoiding adverbs in dialogue attribution. (He argues that adverbs in dialogue attribution are superfluous, and the reader should be able to tell from your context whether she shouted menacingly when you write 'she shouted'.)

The section I'm reading right now covers my big questions: what to write about and how to find your muse. It's heady stuff, and he presents it in a way that has you convinced all you need to do is set yourself up with a keyboard, a couple of hours a day and a half-baked idea with potential, and you're on your way to your first best-seller.

So since I'm more than half way through, I'll go out on a limb and assume this one is going to be golden all the way through. If I change my mind in the last 20 pages, I'll be sure to drop back in and let you know.

(On that note, I've taken Troy's excellent suggestion to heart, and after I finish the books I've talked about in my 10-pages-in reviews, I'll go back and edit in a follow-up to see whether my final impressions matched my first ones. I've edited the review of Case Histories just now to add my final thoughts.)

Have you read On Writing? What did you think? Have you read any other 'writers on writing' books and would you recommend them?