04 December 2005

Stephen King: The HorrorMaster Tells Almost All

As usual I'm way behind in my reading. I just finished reading Stephen King's memoir "On Writing" (Hi Steve!), which was published in 2000, and read it in 5 days. I usually get about 15 minutes a day to read so to finish a book in that amount of time is, I think, quite an accomplishment. I can't take all the credit, however.

It is a fascinating piece on the mechanics that he puts into his work. You are also privvy to the background of many of his most famous novels. You're allowed a backstage pass to see where many of his characters came from.

My first exposure to Stephen King's work was back in 1988. I read "Skeleton Crew" and couldn't put it down. The fastpaced storylines, the intrigue and the plot twists and character depth was a tour-de-force in short story writing. I still remember The Jaunt as a nerve wracking suspenseful story about a little boy who goes "jaunting" - which is traveling through interstellar space. I still get the creeps just thinking about it. With that, I was hooked.

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The book's over-arching theme is that to be successful in writing, you can take cues from your own life and turn them into fiction. In Stephen King's world, Life definitely imitates Art. The Shining explores what happens to an alcoholic teacher and aspiring writer while he winters in a desolate hotel with his family. It turns out that Stephen was struggling with his own drug and alcohol demons while he was writing. Carrie is based upon a character who Stephen knew in high school. He visited the girl's house, which was a trailer, and saw a huge, imposing, crucified Jesus hanging in the family room. Stephen relates that it had glowing eyes. The girl's mother was a born-again Christian who dominated the girl's life and made it impossible for her to have any normal relationships in school. To add insult to injury, the girl in Stephen's recollection was continually picked on in school; sometimes brutally. Thus Carrie was born.

Stephen owes his own writing finesse to two things: Reading voraciously and writing in great amounts. The two go hand-in-hand. Referring to Strunk & White's Elements of Style, he says that rule 17 is the most important writing rule - omit needless words. You should delete 10% off your first draft. Stephen carries a particularly vitriol for adverbs. Anything ending in "-ly" is lasered off the page.

The ending chapters deal with the car accident which almost took his life in June of 1999. Everything happens for a reason and usually something good comes of it. The good thing about his near-death experience was On Writing.

You can go here to see how a group of professional writers react to some of Stephen's commentary.

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