On Writing

I finished Stephen King’s excellent writing memoir On Writing recently. Like the subtitle says, it’s a “Memoir on the Craft.” This is not a writing primer; it’s a great, short book on how King works. I’m always interested in how other writers work. And King works. Constantly. As dozens of bestsellers attest.

And though King lays out how he works, he doesn’t get as far into his process as I’d like to see. For example, he drops a couple of bits of information that really sparked my curiosity but he doesn’t develop them. He seems to reveal that he doesn’t carry a notepad around with him. (He doesn’t outright state that but he tells two stories that indicate he didn’t have a pen and pad with him.) This seems completely odd to me that a guy who writes as much as he does isn’t jotting down ideas.

King also repeatedly underscores his dislike of plot: “Plot is the dullard’s first choice.” What interests me about King’s disfavor is how resolute he is in it. It is not his suggestion that plotting is rubbish; it is fact. I’d take issue with this. While I’d agree that creating a plot and simply plugging characters into it is likely to result in a very two-dimensional story, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with working out a plot for a story before writing it. In fact, that works better for me. I’ve tried to begin writing with only character and situation and all that I get is a great first chapter with nowhere to go.

I’d argue that developing characters and plotting in notes before writing a book gives a writer a different vantage point for the story. With that information in mind, a writer chooses how to tell a story. King’s method seems to allow a writer only to choose what story to tell.

Like with the hints that he doesn’t make notes, I wish he’d elaborate on his bias against plot. It’s an odd perspective from a man who in everything else emphasizes the nuts and bolts of writing — literally using a toolbox metaphor. It’s only when King sits down to write that he gets mysterious. I mean, I get it. At least I think I know what he’s doing. But it doesn’t work for me. And I’d venture that it doesn’t work for many other writers. King is oddly strict about his ideas for a man in a creative medium. Usually “whatever works for you” is the rule. King’s book really just tells what works for him.

Nonetheless, On Writing offers a great view inside the process of a writer who has never stopped writing and I love that kind of insight. Accordingly, I intend to read Ayn Rand’s The Art of Fiction soon — another book on writing by a writer who probably doesn’t subscribe to the tenet that “whatever works for you” is how you should work.