A Reading Group Guide for On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Points of Discussion
Do you agree with Stephen King that the desire to write always starts with a love of reading?
What role did Stephen King's childhood play in his evolution as a writer? Did your childhood experiences influence your desire to write?
King was encouraged from a young age by his mother, who told him one of his boyhood stories was "good enough to be in a book." Was there someone in your life who encouraged your earliest efforts?
At what age do you remember thinking you wanted to write? What do you remember writing when you were young?
King's wife Tabitha is his "Ideal Reader," the one-person audience he has in mind when writing a first draft. When you write, do you envision a particular Ideal Reader? Who is that person and why?
While King delights in the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the writing process, he concedes that good writing involves magic as well. Do you agree with King's assertion that "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, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one?" To what degree can a writer be made? To what extent can writing be taught? What writerly skills do you come by naturally, and which have you had to work to acquire or improve?
Discuss King's "toolbox" analogy. What "tools" do you find most indispensable when you write? Are there any you would add to King's toolbox?
King believes that stories are "found things, like fossils in the ground." Discuss King's extended metaphor of "writing as excavation." Do you agree with this theory?
According to King, good story ideas "seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky," and often don't ignite until they collide with another idea that also comes unbidden. Do you find that ideas for stories or writing projects come to you out of the blue, or do you have to search for them? What serves as the basis for most of your stories? A situation? A character? A moral dilemma? King recalls a dream that led him to the writing of his book Misery. Have you ever gotten a story idea from a dream? Discuss how you discovered your best ideas and how they evolved into finished stories.
King describes the dangers of seeking reader response — or "opening the door" — too early or too frequently. At what stage in a writing project do you solicit critical feedback from others? When you do "open the door," who are the first readers you ask for advice? Why do you trust those readers and what are you looking to hear from them?
King doesn't read in order to "study the craft" but believes that there is "a learning process going on" when he reads. Do you read books differently as a writer? Are you conscious of "the craft" as you read?
In the first foreword to On Writing, King talks about the fact that no one ever asks popular writers about the language. Yet he cares passionately about language and about the art and craft of telling stories on paper. Do you think there is a false distinction between writers who write extraordinary sentences and writers who tell stories?
Often, King says, "bad books have more to teach than the good ones." He believes that most writers remember the first book they put down thinking "I can do better than this." Can you remember a book that gave you that feeling? Why?
King's self-imposed "production schedule" is 2,000 words a day and he suggests that all writers set a daily writing goal. What kind of discipline, if any, do you impose upon your own writing efforts? Do you always write at the same time of day? If so, when and why? Do you try to maintain a steady pace? Does adherence to a strict routine help your writing efforts?
King tells a story about getting his fantasy desk, a massive oak slab that he placed in the middle of his spacious study. For six years, he sat "behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of [his] mind." After sobering up, he replaced the desk with a smaller one that he put in a corner. "Life isn't a support system for art," he figured out. "It's the other way around." Discuss King's "revelation" and the symbolism of the placement of the desk.
alexgrantham, October 22, 2014 (view all comments by alexgrantham)
I think what's most shocking about On Writing is its brevity. For a man renowned for a writing style many would say courts logorrhea, King has summed up his advice here in a brisk 200-some-odd pages (compared to books he's published that push well past the 1000 page mark). I appreciated that King seemed hyper-aware to police himself away from long tangents, rather sticking to the topics he's found most helpful and true in discussing the writing process. With a brief but candid autobiography thrown in, I think this is surprisingly one of King's best works.
JMK311, March 2, 2012 (view all comments by JMK311)
Diamonds come in small packages, and this book isn't very big but is packed with writing jewels. SK as crammed a four year writing program into a easy to read and understand book that should be the bench mark for every writer.
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wojoko, February 9, 2012 (view all comments by wojoko)
Whether or not you are an aspiring writer, and whether or not you enjoy Stephen King's other books, you will very likely enjoy this book. The book contains a lot of autobiographical information from King's early life when he started writing stories and during his struggles with addiction. He also provides a lot of useful information about his own writing process and tips for aspiring writers. And if you are a fan of the television show Lost you will recognize how this book influenced the creators of Lost.
by USA Today,
"A fascinating look at the evolution and redemption of one of the hardest-working storytellers writing today."
by The Washington Post Book World,
"Combines autobiography and admonition, inspiration and instruction. It's an enjoyable mix."
by Simon and Schuster,
"Long live the King," hailed Entertainment Weekly upon the publication of Stephen King's On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer's craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King's advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999 — and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it — fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.
by Simon and Schuster,
"Long live the King" hailed Entertainment Weekly upon the publication of Stephen King's On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer's craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King's advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported near-fatal accident in 1999 — and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it — fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.
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