Stephen King “On Writing”

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s “On Writing,” which he labels “a memoir of the craft.” I’d never read anything by him before (should I admit this?), but bought the book because I’m always open to new tips about writing.

To those who ask my opinion of “On Writing,” I will say the style is breezy, frank (especially about his addictions) and easy to read. There are suggestions about theme, characters. plot, pace, etc, based on his own very successful experience. But I think their value is mainly for beginning writers, such as his reminder of the basic “show, don’t tell” adage. For professional writers, I would hope the various tips are – should be! – second nature.

Although I agree with most of what King says, I take issue with his admitted irritation about detailed descriptions of what characters are wearing. (“If I want to read a description of clothes, I can always get a J. Crew catalogue.”). A few years ago I reread “Madame Bovary” because of the new translation by Lydia Davis. Flaubert obviously never read King’s advice, for he goes into countless lengthy descriptions of his characters’ attire. Instead of merely stating how Emma loved fashions, he shows us the sumptuous clothes she lusts for. But being Flaubert, his detailed descriptions of the very materials – the lavish velvets and brocades, the gleaming jewels  – create the characters as much as the dialogue does. How well we understand Emma – and her husband and lovers – – from what they’re wearing. (It’s interesting that Flaubert’s father was a tailor!)

The point is that any ådvice about how to write well should be carefully sifted by the reader, for what works well for one may not for another. “Know thyself” is a useful motto for authors.

I also believe that Flaubert should be required reading for anyone who wants to write. His photographic portrayals of not just attire, but rooms, furniture, countryside, etc., create undeniable reality. This, plus his empathic ability to take you inside each character,  are more instructive than any “how to” tome.

Having disagreed with King, I should in fairness admit there are many tips in his book that I underlined. After all, he isn’t the “king” of best-sellers for nothing. My own authorial fault is that I become too attached to some of my over-written phrases and am reluctant to surrender them. So I appreciate King’s introducing me to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (the eminent British critic) and his famous dictum, “Murder your darlings.” As King then points out, ”The delete key is there for a reason.”


Books: “Widow’s Walk” – available through; “Turning Toward Tomorrow” –; “Ten Women of Valor” –  and Create (also Amazon Kindle)