On ‘On Writing’

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I’ve just read Stephen King’s on writing. It’s one of the books that I’ve heard cited most often by other authors, so I went into it with a mixture of curiosity and high expectations. I really  enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what I expected.

Most of the books I’ve read on writing are straight up ‘how to’ guides. On Writing is a little different. The majority of it is dedicated to writing as a craft, how to go about it, how to live the writer’s life. But it isn’t presented like those other books, broken down into bullet points and exercises. Instead, it’s a narrative whole. There are useful things to learn, but you can’t easily flip through to a tool for characterisation when that’s what you need.

It’s also presented in a more personal manner. King’s authorial voice  is strong, his life and opinions presented for what they are, not as the objective certainties of most ‘how to’ books. This subjective approach to writing had the ironic effect of undermining the apparent objectivity of other books on writing, reminding me that these are just what works for that writer. No matter how good a guide is, you’re unlikely to ever find one where every word of advice works perfectly for you.

This point was hammered home for me by an interview I listened to with Luke Burrage of the science fiction book review podcast. He wisely pointed out that advice on writing from any given author is advice on how to write like that author. This leads to the conclusion that if you don’t like an author’s writing then you probably shouldn’t follow their advice.

It seems appropriate that I’m not accepting Burrage’s advice whole either. Just because an author doesn’t write my sort of fiction doesn’t mean I might not learn something from her methods. But it’s making me think harder about what advice to follow, when, and why.

Which brings me full circle. Some of the advice in On Writing is useful for me. But what really moved me, what I thought made his book so worth reading, was the other part of it. And I’ll come to that next time.