I often get asked the question ‘how do I become a great writer?’. Hell, if I knew the answer to that I’d already be snoozing on a deckchair in my jocks, waiting for the mailman to rock up with my giant bundle of royalty cheques from the dozen-or-so best sellers I knocked out over the Christmas holidays. I know it sounds trite and cliched, but writing is a muscle – the more you flex it, the better you get at it. At least that’s the theory. I’m not entirely convinced a person can learn to be an amazing writer by reading a book or taking a course at their local university. You can either write or you can’t – it’s just the process of trying to elevate your writing from average to, well, above average.
As I hinted at above, I’m generally hesitant to recommend any of the innumerable how-to books on the subject of creative writing, although I will make one exception: Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.
I own both the paperback and audio book versions of ‘On Writing’ and I can’t recommend them highly enough – especially the audio book. I know listening to a perfectly good book is often considered lazy but listening to King tell his story, in his own words, is definitely worth the purchase price and then some.
Essentially the book is half autobiographical, half instructional guide on how to improve your creative writing. The autobiographical chapters, while heavy-going at times, serve to provide the reader with a better understanding of where King has come from as an individual and as a writer, and provides us with an insight into the life experiences that have inspired his stories. Avid fans will take a lot of delight in making the connections between the fact and the resulting fiction. The second half of the book, King’s insights ‘on writing’ are equally as fascinating. This is the reason you are likely to be reading the book in the first place. I wouldn’t say there was a great deal of information in those chapters that you could call ‘revolutionary’, a fact that King himself frequently admits. What you get are chapters chock-full of bullshit-free, commonsense, instinctual tips and observations from a guy who has spent the last forty years as a writer. He must be doing something right, surely?
One of the most interesting ideas presented by King is the concept that you shouldn’t have to plot out the story – simply put the characters in a situation or environment and allow their own instincts/characteristics to guide the story. Simple but thought-provoking. Personally it’s not a writing style that suits me, it takes a lot of skill to do it right, but if you have the skill to pull it off then more power to you.
Every writer should put this book on his or her ‘Must Read’ list – even if you learn nothing at all, at least you should come away absolutely inspired. Isn’t inspiration half the battle? I’ve read/listened to ‘On Writing’ three times now, and each and every time it not only renews my enthusiasm for the craft but also gives me a deeper appreciation of the journey. Stephen King has given us a lot of memorable fiction over the years but ‘On Writing’ may be the most important work of his career.
Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is available at Amazon and all good bookstores (assuming they haven’t shutdown).