The middle weekend of August, I attended the Stockholm Writers’ Festival (SWF) for 2023. As luck would have it, I was at the same time reading my very first Stephen King book. This post comes out of the meeting of these two things. (Note: links to all the websites mentioned in the text are at the end. Click here to go there directly!)
The SWF has been taking place every year since 2018. It went online during Covid, but came back to a physical meeting last year. I’ve attended all the festivals except for 2019’s and – for me – this latest was the most successful yet.
Part of the success is down to the happy chemistry of the participants and the guests (the Faculty). Part was down to me. After all these years, I feel I know enough people there, and I’m comfortable enough participating, to overcome my introversion and join in conversations. And part was due to the subject matter of the plenary sessions and some of the smaller seminars I attended.
Thanks to Johnny Shaw, I feel better equipped to complete my novel’s first draft and tackle the second draft. Thanks especially to April Eberhardt, I feel I know more about the changing publishing scene of today. And thanks to Lisa Ferland, I feel more confident to revisit crowdfunding as a financial source for self-publishing.
On the train journey up to Stockholm, and on the return, I had time to read most of Stephen King’s On Writing. This is the first of Stephen King’s books I’ve consciously read. The man is astoundingly prolific. We were reminded at the Festival that he has published 88 titles now, since Carrie in 1973. An average of one and three-quarters each year.
Many of his books and stories have been turned into films and TV series, so it’s almost impossible not to have met him in one form or another. (I’ve certainly seen The Shining, Stand By Me, Dolores Claiborne and The Shawshank Redemption.) But I’ve never before deliberately picked up a Stephen King book to read. I think it’s because I associate him with horror, which isn’t a genre I have much patience with.
The reason for choosing On Writing? Mostly because Debbie Hubbard recommended it. Also, I knew that Hans Lilja, the author and curator of the pre-eminent Stephen King fan website, would be on the SWF23 Faculty.
I started reading on 17th August, the day I set out for Stockholm, and I finished it soon after coming home.
The book has four sections: CV, Toolbox, On Writing, and On Living: A Postscript. There are also several appendices. CV and On Living together make for a gripping, fast-paced autobiography that’s worth reading in itself. The Toolbox was worthy, but didn’t hold a lot for me. It seems written primarily for people with a fractured educational background to encourage them to develop their vocabulary, explore the use of grammar and read more. I can get behind all those points but don’t feel particularly targeted. (Except, perhaps, a little by the grammar section.)
Adverbs and the road to hell
Mind you, King’s statement that he reads 70 to 80 books annually was a challenge. I can, with a bit of effort, manage 50 titles a year.
The Toolbox section is where King’s dislike of adverbs (and adverbial phrases) is famously expressed. (I mean that I knew the following quote before I read this book.)
The adverb is not your friend … the road to hell is paved with adverbs.pp 138-139
But King admits to over-using adverbs himself in his first drafts, and then it becomes a running joke through the rest of the book to identify the adverbs he has not struck out in his second draft.
The meat of King’s book for developing writers comes in the third section, On Writing. He tries not to cast every writer in his own mould, but I think he falls short. Because King discovered his trade through hard work and inspiration, he tends to think of this as the correct way to becoming a writer, and to mistrust other routes.
He believes he is being egalitarian when he writes:
… while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.p. 160
It’s a criticism of those people who think “competent” and “good” writers are closed and separate categories. And yet he himself closes categories at either end of the spectrum.
I can’t agree with this. I believe it’s always possible to improve from every stage. All that’s necessary is that you recognise that you are not as good as you might be, and that you are prepared to put in the work in order to get better.
Children and younger people are certainly more flexible in this respect, which gives them an advantage. But I don’t want to believe that adults (and especially older adults like me) can’t get better. Can’t aspire to becoming “great” from being “bad”.
I see that King wants to be egalitarian, to give encouragement to the aspiring writer. At the same time, he is a victim of the idea of innate ability. That to be a writer you must be born with talent. In King’s world, if you have it, you can improve it – as long as you are competent – up to a point. But if you don’t have it, there’s nothing you can do.
King must be one of the last generation of writers to enter the profession without formal training, by way of submitting to the pulp magazine market. He learned his trade (and he vividly describes doing so) by writing stories, submitting them and hoping for constructive comments and encouragement in among the pro-forma rejections. He polished his stories when they came back and submitted them again elsewhere.
I’m not sure whether this route remains open for many writers today. I am sure it isn’t as wide open as it may once have been. However, because it’s the way King used to learned his trade, I think he has some difficulty in seeing how people might become successful writers by going in other directions.
The first edition of On Writing was published in 2000. Now here we are, 22+ years later. I think the path to being published he advocates is even more overgrown now than it was then.
Blinkered by experience?
As I was attending SWF23, and getting a lot out of it, what King has to say about writing courses and retreats (and festivals by implication) felt wrong. Prejudiced even. He admits this. Apparently one of his few periods of writer’s block was caused by a writing course he took at the University of Maine.
He isn’t against writing courses or retreats. He bends over backwards to find positives things to say about them. (For example, they can be useful sources of income for writers with a family to support.) But to me it reads sometimes like damning with faint praise.
I’m doubtful about writing classes, but not entirely against them.
Writing courses and seminars do offer at least one undeniable benefit: in them the desire to write fiction or poetry is taken seriously.
I got my first agent courtesy of my sophomore comp[osition] teacher … but we never had much of an association … [he] died shortly after our first correspondence.
You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing.pp. 278-286
Stephen King is an immensely successful writer and it would be ridiculous of me to say he doesn’t know what he is writing about here. Of course he does, and he makes a lot of sense. A lot of what he has to say in On Writing draws on hard-won personal experience. But I think that he is to some extent blinkered by that same experience.
One of the early pieces of advice King says he received was the formula:
2nd draft = 1st draft -10%p. 266
The first draft of this post came in at 1700 words. We’re at 1350 now, so I think I’d better draw a line under it.
I’ll close by sharing this. King is writing about a utopian sylvan writers’ colony, but he might be talking about a Writers’ Festival.
If you got a chance to participate … I’d say go right ahead. You might not learn The Magic Secrets of Writing (there aren’t any – bummer, huh?), but it would certainly be a grand time, and grand times are something I’m always in favor of.p. 286
- Do I need to say that I am writing in British English but quoting Stephen King writing in American English?
- Page references are to my Hodder paperback 20th anniversary edition of On Writing.
- Here is the Stockholm Writers’ Festival website.
- Here is the link to April Eberhardt’s Literary Agency.
- Here’s the link to Johnny Shaw’s website.
- Here’s the link to Lisa Ferland’s website – Crowdfunding Consultant for Authors.
- Here is Lilja’s Library: The World of Stephen King.
- I interviewed Catherine Pettersson, dynamic powerhouse behind the SWF, in this article published earlier on the Pens Around The World website.