Friday, June 6, 2014

Completed: On Writing

[Edited to add: I actually finished this post yesterday, but I knew you'd be wrapping things up at work today, so I waited to publish because... it is very long (Sorry!) so I hope you will have some time this weekend to sit down, grab a cup of coffee and read the world's longest book review...]

Dear Jenny,

I burned through this book in January, told you all about it on the phone and then promptly failed to write about it here. Whee. In my defense, the ToB took up a lot of book-ish thinking in Feb and Mar. What? We're halfway through April already in JUNE?! Yeah. I got no excuses.

This book is part memoir, part writing instruction, part publishing advice. The memoir and writing instruction were great.

I am normally loathe to recommend a book when I have not finished it because then I feel guilty if it finishes badly, but when I was halfway through this, I was loving it sooo much that I started gushing about it.

King begins the book reminiscing about his childhood, then focusing on his early writing career and there is some absolutely hilarious content in here.

After that, he moves on to some great advice about writing -- easily digestible stuff that almost anyone could apply immediately to their own writing for improvement.

At this point, this is where I was really shooting my mouth off to everyone who would listen how great this book is! And then... it fell apart.

Things suddenly take a very boring turn. From great advice about writing (useful for everyone), King turns to very specific advice for fiction writers trying to get published. This topic might be interesting (an inside look into the world of publishing? Sure!) but not the way King writes it here. Ugh -- totally yawn worthy.

He then returns to his memoir and offers details about his accident, which is interesting, to some extent (I mean, I'd heard the news -- getting his first-hand account was a unique opportunity) and then he explains that the accident happened as he was writing this book... basically at the very point when the interesting dried up. What a huge bummer.

I'm not quite sure how else he could have handled that -- the accident really took its toll on him, which is completely understandable. So what to do? Just have someone else wrap it up while it was still good? Wait until he had recovered more to continue? (I read Doctor Sleep last year -- his writing chops are definitely back!) Again, I don't know.

Having said all of that, I think the book is totally worth reading, but I also think having this caveat is useful. Be prepared for it to not be so engaging/amusing/charming about 2/3 of the way in. Going in prepared always helps, right?

Ok! The reason it has taken me so long to write this is that I wanted to include a crapload of quotes that either cracked me up or just spoke to me and I've been lazy about getting them down. Ideally, they'd be artfully woven into the review above, but sometime perfectionism is the enemy of done, so I'm just jamming them in down here so I can hit Publish on this sucker.

Generally Hilarious Lines

Here are a collection of lines that just made me laugh out loud...

From the First Foreword, questioning whether or not anyone would want to read a book that he would write on writing:
Colonel Sanders sold a hell of a lot of fried chicken, but I'm not sure anyone wants to know how he made it. [8]
From the Second Foreword:
This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. [...] I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit. [12]
Reminiscing about a babysitter he had as a kid and how she prepared him for life... in a rather... er... unconventional fashion:
Eula-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism. After having a two-hundred-pound babysitter fart on your face and yell Pow!, The Village Voice holds few terrors. [20]
Love this observation:
I don't want to speak too disparagingly about my generation (actually I do, we had a chance to change the world and opted for the Home Shopping Network instead)... [62]
Recalling the first time he was drunk (on $1.95 whiskey -- blech):
The room is a turntable, I am the spindle, and pretty soon the spindle is going to start tossing its platters. [89]
(Seriously... I spent a lot of time laughing *out loud* while reading this book!)

On Writing

Since the book is called "On Writing," it should be no surprise that he has some great observations on that very topic. This first one is pretty funny:
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed. [117]
One to embrace and remember:
Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is to use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word -- of course you will, there's always another word -- but it probably won't be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean. [118]
And this just made me laugh:
Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it's the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking. Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn't they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius. [121]
Regarding the Evils of Passive Voice:
It's weak, it's circuitous, and it's frequently torturous, as well. How about this: "My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun." Oh, man -- who farted, right? [123]
He hates adverbs and goes a long way towards backing that opinion. But here's a great soundbite:
Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops. [125]
(That quote and the surrounding text have made me very sensitive about adverb usage since reading this book, I gotta tell you!)

On Editing

He also has a lot to say about editing -- both self-editing (which is my biggest writing downfall -- look at this epic damned post!) and being edited.

He included a reproduction of the first editorial review he had at his first writing job (he laments that he does not have the original, but says it looked something like this):

He goes on to say he learned more in 10 minutes from that editor's markup than in his two years of English Lit in college:
When he finished marking my copy in the manner indicated above, he looked up and saw something on my face. I think he must have mistaken it for horror. It wasn't; it was pure revelation. Why, I wondered, didn't English teachers ever do this? [57]
The editor then says he "only took out the bad parts [...] most of it is pretty good" and goes on to say:
When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story [...] When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. [57] 
Such a great piece of editing advice! And I need to write this next one on a Post-it note:
Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft - 10% [222]
(Believe it or not, I have actually removed 10% of this very post in the past 24 hours!)

On Reading 

He talks a lot about how writers must also be readers. The following quotes made me think, "Stephen King and I are twins!" (Well, except that he's a phenomenally successful bestselling writer and I'm... struggling to get posts up on this reading blog I keep with my best friend... but whatevs.)
I'm a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. [145]
Me, too! High five, Stephen King! He also talks about finding time to read...
There's always the treadmill, or whatever you use down at the local health club to get aerobic. I try to spend an hour doing that every day, and I think I'd go mad without a good novel to keep me company. [148]
Me, too! Gosh, Jenny, if you and I weren't already besties, I might have to go over to Stephen's house. HA.

Comedic Observations on Alcoholism

Never thought I'd type that sentence in my life, but there it was. A lot of the book deals with his battle with alcoholism and substance abuse (in fact, he claims that he doesn't remember writing Cujo at all, because he was so wasted). Here's a truth, told in a funny way:
Telling an alcoholic to control his drinking is like telling a guy suffering the world's most cataclysmic case of diarrhea to control his shitting [95]
This one also made me laugh (and cringe):
A year or so before, observing the rapidity with which huge bottles of Listerine were disappearing from the bathroom, Tabby asked me if I drank the stuff. I responded with self-righteous hauteur that I most certainly did not. Nor did I. I drank the Scope instead. It was tastier, had that hint of mint. [97]

In Conclusion...

This isn't really a conclusion, but I'm concluding this post with this final quote, so I'm calling in the Conclusion!

It's bagging on writers' workshops (not all of them, but certain ones...) Forgive me -- this is a long passage. But take a moment and read through it, because 1. As both a teacher and a student, I think you'll be able to appreciate some of this and 2. Reading it all makes his final angry line all the more epic (I laughed right out loud. On a plane.)
And what about these critiques, by the way? How valuable are they? Not very, in my experience, sorry. A lot of them are maddeningly vague. I love the feeling of Peter's story,  someone may say.  It had something... a sense of I don't know.... there's a loving kind of you know... I can't exactly describe it...
Other writing-seminar gemmies include I felt like the tone thing was kind of you know; The character of Polly seemed pretty much stereotypical; I loved the imagery because I could see what he was talking about more or less perfectly.
And instead of pelting these babbling idiots with their own freshly toasted marshmallows, everyone else sitting around the fire is often nodding and smiling and looking solemnly thoughtful.  In too many cases the teachers and writers in residence are nodding, smiling, and looking solemnly thoughtful right along with them.
It seems to occur to few of the attendees that if you have a feeling you just can't describe, you might just be, I don't know, kind of like, my sense of it is, maybe in the wrong fucking class. [233]

Whew! Believe it or not, I deleted 10 other quotes from this post that I had also bookmarked! So even with my whole, "Only 2/3 of this book was good" disclaimer at the top... that 2/3 was really damned good.

And I am... DONE.



  1. Hell yeah, Summer! Coffee: check. Couch:check. Sitting down to read this now. (And thanks for waiting to post. Definitely wouldn't have been here before now!)

  2. I am *dying*: Eula-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism. After having a two-hundred-pound babysitter fart on your face and yell Pow!, The Village Voice holds few terrors. [20]

    Was pretty glad I wasn't actually drinking coffee while I read that, because I laughed out loud.

    That writing advice is excellent, and I might have to post some of that in my classroom next year. I think of myself mostly as a reading teacher, but I do a lot with expository writing. It's funny, because I do think of my editing style as very similar to that described above. I do a lot of crossing out, because kids are FULL of extra words. You don't even want to know how many times I've struck (strike-throughed?) things like "This quote proves my point because", or "As you can see from the quote." Or just in general using too many words: She had a feeling she knew it because---she had a feeling! That's enough! I have a whole thing I do where I will could up words and say, "You used 6 words here when what you meant was 'removed.' " It's crazy.

    But the draft -10% thing is *awesome* and kids could benefit from that rule.

    I have never been a fan of the writing workshop model, and I'm pretty sure the MFA thing would KILL me if I had to do it. I was fascinated at my end of the year English department by how many of my colleagues said they were going to spend the summer *writing*, because of course, it's the *reading* that I look forward to! This sounds like a pretty good book, though, maybe I can borrow it next time I see you?

    I'm hoping to finish Bring Up the Bodies this weekend, so yahoo! Onward and upward.


  3. If you loved the Eula-Beulah comment, you have GOT to read this book -- I had to take out SO many hilarious quotes just to wheedle thing thing down (no, really!) There are some total gems in there. Stephen King is hilarious.

    And now you're armed with the knowledge of when to skim! :) I'll bring it w/ me when I come to see you next month.

  4. Check this out---On Writing is still being used by teachers.