I used to read a lot of Stephen King in high school, because his books appealed to the strange and unusual sort of person I was and because they were conveniently grouped next to the nicest chair in the school library. I thought I’d learned all I could from reading Stephen King a few pages into that one novel he wrote where cell phones turn everyone into evil mindless zombie killing machines (subtle), put it down, and found some Isak Dinesen instead. Turns out I was wrong. Under the cut are the top ten things I learned from reading Stephen King’s On Writing, organized in the style of a Cracked.com article because he’d hate that.1. Stephen King is one of those people.
As if the first chapter of Cell wasn’t enough, here we have King on page 22 of On Writing boasting that he’s one of “the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit.” This after he’s spent the last few paragraphs waxing nostalgic about how much he used to love sci-fi B-movies when he was a kid.
I have seen so many cartoons about how You Should Get Off Your Phone And Talk To Each Other!!! that I’m dulled to the message and only moderately amused by the irony of such cartoons being disseminated through Facebook shares.
2. …But you get beyond that and he’s okay.
Stephen King’s technophobia kind of makes me wonder why he’s assigned reading in a class that focuses on blog posts and digital media. I follow Neil Gaiman on Tumblr, and I like his writing advice much more than King’s; even when they’re saying the same things, like “read a lot and write a lot,” Gaiman’s friendly, mild yet unsettling tone is more helpful to me than King’s crotchety-old-man-yelling. Still, though, when King is offering advice on novels instead of whining about television, he has good things to say and I can ignore my annoyance.
3. King didn’t like Carrie.
Neither did I, not as a person. I was surprised by this, though, since it would be very hard for me to write about a character if I didn’t like them. To me, not liking a character means not liking the way they were written- I would dislike Draco Malfoy if I ever met him, but I think he’s a well-written and well-rounded character, so I like him as a character. And if you don’t like the way a character you wrote was written, why not write them differently? It seems a strange way to talk about your own writing.
4. He’s not very good at women, is he?
Leave Steven Moffat alone and go bother Stephen King. Dredging up the memories of a semester spent reading King’s novels- and enjoying them, most of them, Desperation was good squicky horror and we can forgive him for Eyes of the Dragon– I recall that all of his women were symbols, not characters. Annie Wilkes is addiction. Okay. Now, in On Writing, he sneers at Danielle Steel’s novels (which have a largely female fanbase) and says “it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner.” Maybe the man’s washed a car, but I’ll bet he’s never worn eyeliner.
5. Same old, same old.
Adverbs are totally bad. Passive tense and cliches must be avoided like the plague. Read lots of books and you’ll become a better writer. So saith literally everyone else.
6. But while he says stuff I’ve heard a million times before, it’s not universal.
My fiction-writer friends don’t write like Stephen King. He says story is more important than backstory- I have a friend who has folders and folders full of fleshed-out characters and worlds, only a few of which they’ve ever written up as stories. This is How Stephen King Does Writing, not How To Write. And frankly, my friend’s characters are more interesting than King’s.
King knows better than to diss Harry Potter, though. He knows his place.
7. Stephen King wants me to write him a story!
Well, more accurately, he’s written a few paragraphs about an abusive husband who gets out of jail and comes back to stalk his wife, and he wants me to finish the story but switch their genders! Ooh, so revolutionary. Look, those skiffy mags you submitted your first stories to when you were a kid have seen hundreds of stories where The Women Rule The Men, or The Black People Enslave The White People. Inversion of an existing binary is not true subversion and does not contribute anything meaningful to discourse.
8. Here’s something for you to learn: I actually learned something.
Since King is giving advice primarily on writing novels, it’s difficult for a journalist to glean anything useful from him.
Professor Thomas Bass almost always wears shirts with breast pockets; when he doesn’t he takes off his glasses and tries to put them in the pocket anyway, gets confused and puts them back on. Several times during a class. Journalists are supposed to observe everything, right? Not according to King, and that’s useful. “Noting it does you no good as a writer unless you’re willing to dump it into a story at some point,” he says, and that’s good journalistic advice.
9. Writers’ workshops are bull.
I was expecting this from King, after 300 pages of old man ranting, but he says going to some retreat to write is useless. Which, frankly, I’d felt the same way about too. That’s why I’m not in a Living-Learning Community with the other Japanese minors. I have no interest in constant desu. It’s nice to be around one’s own kind, but for getting shit done solitude is better than fellowship.
10. I don’t have to write like Stephen King.
There are myriad reasons for me to not write like Stephen King. I read a lot of them in high school, and I listed a bunch of them in this post. I don’t think videos make you stupid, and I’m not scornful of eyeliner. Also, I’m a 21-year-old woman from the suburbs who’s never been addicted to cocaine and wishes she didn’t have to read about blood-and-mucus-encrusted spoons.
I’m not using this book as a How Not To Do It (although I’ll avoid coke), but it’s good advice whether I’m taking it or not.