Thursday, March 11, 2010

He Opens His Mouth, But the Words Wont Come Out

Book20: "On Writing" by Stephen King

It seems like the number one question fans and the aspiring always ask writers (novelists, lyricists, etc.) is how they achieved their success. Not their success as in their fame and/or fortune, but their creative success; the work that brought them that fame and fortune. It's a fair question. I think lots of people are looking for that million dollar idea that will give them this gift, but as I read more responses from the writers, it doesn't seem like there is any one answer.

I've never attended a writing workshop, but I imagine "On Writing" by Stephen King is what one might be like if the author wasn't limited by time constraints and got to say everything he/she wanted to say to the participants. "On Writing" is essentially two things: King's semi-autobiography, and the tips and tricks King suggests for writing.

In the first half of the book, King recounts memories he had growing up: how his mother raised him and his brother after their dad skipped out when he was a toddler; how he first fell in love with reading and writing by discovering "trashy" horror and sci-fi magazines; how he would constantly get in trouble in grade school for things he wrote while developing his talent; how he met his wife and how they started a family; and how he got his first break in the publishing business. It's a great way for him to start off the book. King feeds you the origin story of how he became the successful writer he is now, and introduces you to the people and the experiences that served as inspiration for his books (i.e. cleaning a girl's locker room as a janitor led to "Carrie"; working in an old mill led to "The Graveyard Shift"). While it doesn't point you to the one defining moment where King "made it", it does offer a view of the road he took to get there.

The second half is King's tips and tricks and habits for successful writing (READING AND WRITING...A LOT). He goes over what he thinks every aspiring writer needs to consider when they approach their craft (READING AND WRITING...A LOT). He offers suggestions like removing yourself from distractions when you write, setting a goal for writing (i.e. 1000 words every day) and having the discipline to achieve that goal no matter the writer's block you face, what to consider when editing and revising drafts, and READING AND WRITING...A LOT. King offers a lot more tips and examples, but that's more detail than necessary for this review. One thing that definitely caught my attention is King's suggestion of using Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" as a foundation for good writing habits. I cant argue with that. It's been a while since I peeked into my copy of Strunk & White, but it wouldn't hurt to take a second, post-grad look at it once I return from deployment...just for curiosity's sake.

I remember reading an interview or article about Rivers Cuomo and his infamous notebook of songs. Cuomo was asked how he wrote his catchy, hit songs, and answered with something along the lines of he studied a bunch of popular songs (I think Nirvana was one of the artists he studied), found similarities in their song structure, and with that discovery/analysis, crafted a sort of "formula" (not sure if that's the actual word he used) that he followed to write well over eight hundred songs. This probably spurred a lot of aspiring musicians to try to discover this formula themselves so that they could get a record deal and what not, but that's not how it works. All these successful writers didn't follow the same formula or read the same "How-To" book. They each followed their own path to their success, and no two paths are the same.

I don't think King tried to answer the question of how to achieve success with "On Writing". It's not intended to be a manual on how YOU can achieve literary success. It's just the story of how Stephen King achieved HIS literary success.

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