On “On Writing” by Stephen King

I wish I had read Stephen King’s “On Writing” before now.

I made the mistake of believing that I understood his principles because he has been quoted so many times. “Kill adjectives! Kill adverbs! Kill your darlings!” He said. It made sense to me. Quoting E.B. White he said “Eliminate unnecessary words.” And so on. I thought I understood.

I bought “On Writing” expecting to find lists of dos and don’ts. I felt I had purchased a text book and my mindset was academic when I broke the spine. What happened next transformed my view of Mr. King. Over the first hundred or so pages, I got to know the man behind the legend. There is no talk of dangling participles or reflexive verbs, just King’s resume, written with great clarity and honesty. I didn’t know the extent of his drinking problem. I didn’t realize that he may have been operating outside of his faculties at the time when the world first embraced him as a favourite son. I didn’t know how hard he worked.

In the second half of “On Writing” King delivers on his promise to provide some guidance to would-be authors but there are no lists and no short cuts. The only formula that works for King is hard work and he’s very clear in his belief that there are no substitutes for talent and effort. Unlike lists, this full-length discussion of style gives him time to explain why and how his approach to writing produces superior work. It doesn’t feel like a lecture. It feels like the kind of conversation you might have with a successful but modest Uncle over lunch or a round of golf. But this Uncle is very clear about one thing: If you aren’t prepared to read and write a lot, you can probably find better things to do than writing novels or trying to become a professional content writer.

Should you read “On Writing”?

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, yes, of course. This is a humble and honest biography. You’re likely to put it down and be a bigger fan than you were. If you’re a reader, “On Writing” will help you become a more discerning one. If your job requires you to communicate with people in writing (most of us), it’s almost guaranteed that your style could be improved and your effectiveness quadrupled as a result. If your job is to create content in any form (video, web copy, editorial, social media, print) than you absolutely need to read it. If none of these apply to you, take a pass and rent the movies. You don’t have to read “On Writing” to love the work of Stephen King. But if you do, you’ll probably love him a little more.

If you can’t afford Stephen King, or he isn’t interested in the kind of content you need, you can always hire John the Writer.


Born Weird – not a confession

If you have siblings, this won’t seem so Weird

Andrew Kaufman’s novel “Born Weird” was nominated for the Steven Leacock Award in 2013. It’s the most recent book selection at the Wheatsheaf Literary Society – the oldest, established, permanently floating, men’s book club in Toronto. I’m one of 7 children and I found the sibling relationships well developed, pretty indicative of life in a large family and a little familiar in places.

I recommend this novel as a highly entertaining work of fiction with a happy ending although it has been dogged by a few lukewarm reviews. The Quill & Quire offers a nicely balanced review that shouldn’t prevent you from supporting Mr. Kaufman and his weirdness. He seems like a funny and talented guy. You can read the Quill & Quire review or just buy the book. The Wheatsheaf Literary Society will be interrogating this work on humour in mid-March. I may revisit this post with an update.

The meaning of happiness – for busy people

Too busy to read? Flickr to the rescue.

You could read all of ‘The Cossacks‘ by Leo Tolstoy or you could  just search the Web for the book’s real meaning. If you opt for the second, easier, lazier alternative, you could end up on this dude’s Flickr page. He’s scanned the one page that sums up the nature of happiness for Olenin, the “wealthy, disaffected Muscovite who joins the Russian army and travels to the untamed frontier of the Caucasus in search of a more authentic life.” Let’s hear it for the Internet!

What’s really funny is that this dude (in a rush to wisdom) was in too big of a hurry to generate a decent scan.

Now – what to do with all the time you’ll save by not reading all those old Russian novels?

BTW – Anna throws herself in front of a train. You can skip that one too.

Pretend you read it.

Great read. All Quiet on the Western Front

100 years later and little has changed

This month the Wheatsheaf Literary Society is tackling the war classic “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. Advertised as The Greatest War Novel of All Time, this is an account of a young soldier’s struggle to understand why he should be killing other young men who are just like himself at the request of an administration. These ideas are as poignant today as they were  in 1933, when it was published and during WW1, in which it is set.

With so many wars being fought on the ground today, I have to imagine that many young soldiers struggle with the same issues. Remarque’s young character Paul Baumer could be a combatant in any army, anywhere on earth, right now.

This is a powerful, well written account of humanity. Certainly worth the read.


For lighter fare, check my portfolio of not so heartbreaking material at Hire John the Writer.

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Interesting rituals of highly creative people

Daily Rituals is being published in the U.S. and Canada by Alfred A. Knopf, in the U.K. by Picador, and in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey by fine publishers in those countries.

Notice that blogging and surfing the web never show up.

I’m glad to see that so many writers stick to routines. I always found that my most productive days happen when I hit the keyboard at 8am and avoid opening email until 9:30. This hour and a half is quiet and productive. My actual output is closer to what I might achieve in 4 hours during the busier times of day.

Here’s a good review of “Daily Rituals” on Good Reads.

Kafka is one of 161 inspired—and inspiring—minds, among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians, who describe how they subtly maneuver the many (self-inflicted) obstacles and (self-imposed) daily rituals to get done the work they love to do, whether by waking early or staying up late; whether by self-medicating with doughnuts or bathing, drinking vast quantities of coffee, or taking long daily walks. Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up in the kitchen, the top of the refrigerator as his desk, dreamily fondling his “male configurations”. . . Jean-Paul Sartre chewed on Corydrane tablets (a mix of amphetamine and aspirin), ingesting ten times the recommended dose each day . . . Descartes liked to linger in bed, his mind wandering in sleep through woods, gardens, and enchanted palaces where he experienced “every pleasure imaginable.”

Read more…


Should you bother reading Camus?

Albert Camus on Ellisism, posted by John EllisCamus himself may say, “Why bother reading Camus?” 

The Wheatsheaf Literary Society is currently exploring the work of Albert Camus, a self-described anti-nihilist writer who denied any involvement in the french existentialist movement. He knew Jean Paul Sartre, the great existentialist, and the two men agreed that Camus was not an existentialist. But does it matter? Should you get past the intellectual bullshit and read Camus? Yes. Once you start, you’ll find yourself in used book stores buying up all of his short, remarkable clear, memorable works. ‘The Stranger’ is as good a place as any to start. You’ll find an excellent review in the New York Times.





Last-minute books for real men.

If you still need to buy gifts for the real men on your Christmas list, buy scotch.

If you don’t buy scotch, consider one of these manly choices, courtesy of the Wheatsheaf Literary Society. My favourites are highlighted in holiday red.

A Fan’s Notes Frederick Exley

A Fraction of the Whole Steve Toltz

A Man in Full Tom Wolfe

Barney’s Version Mordecai Richler

Beside Still Waters Barry Callaghan

Billy Bathgate E.L. Doctorow

Black Bird Michel Basilères

Blood Meridien Cormack McCarthy

Chump Change David Eddie

Dirty Sweet John McFetridge

Disgrace J.M. Coetzee

East of Eden John Steinbeck

Faceless Killers Henning Menkell

Factotum Charles Bukowski

Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk

Flaubert’s Parrot Julian Barnes

For Whom The Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway

Getting Away With Murder Howard Engel

Gould’s Book of Fish Richard Flanagan

High Fidelity Nicolas Hornby

Legends of the Fall Jim Harrison

Master and Commander Patrick O’Brian

Ninety-two in the Shade Thomas McGuane

Skinny Dip Carl Hiaasen

The Bishop’s Man Linden MacIntyre

The Englishman’s Boy Guy Vanderhaeghe

The Great Santini Patrick Conroy

The Long Goodbye Raymond Chandler

The Mambo Kings Sings Songs of Love Oscar Hijuelos

The Man Who Was Late Louis Begley

The Night Manager John le Carré

The Road Cormack McCarthy

The Rotters Club Jonathan Coe

The Sirens of Baghdad Yasmina Khadra

The Sportswriter Richard Ford

The Stowaway Robert Hough

The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien

The Van Roddy Doyle

Tropic of Cancer Henry Miller

Trout Fishing in America Richard Brautigan

Listen to a great description of ‘Trout Fishing in America’ here on npr.

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He houghs and puffs and he gets short-listed

I’ve known Robert Hough for many years now and I have read all of his books. I have no interest in providing a biased review of his Giller-nominated novel, “Dr. Brinkley’s Tower” because he made me pay for my copy at a swanky, Mexican-themed book launch with a cash bar.

Fortunately, I feel I could add little to the wave of positive reviews crashing over this stellar work. The previous three novels, which you will find on Hough’s site, were all good. But there’s a layer of polish and wit on Brinkley that broadcasts an author evolving into a higher state of clarity, place and emotion. Here’s how his esteemed publisher, House of Anansi, describes the work.

Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize

Equal parts Mark Twain and Gabriel García Márquez, Robert Hough’s wildly imaginative new novel takes us to 1931 and Corazón de la Fuente, a tiny Mexican border town where the only industry is a run-down brothel. Enter Dr. Romulus Brinkley and his gargantuan radio tower, built to broadcast his revolutionary goat-gland fertility operation. Fortunes in Corazón change overnight, but not all for the good. Word of the new prosperity spreads, and the town is overrun by the impoverished, the desperate, and the flat-out criminal. The tower’s frequencies are so powerful the whole area glows green, and the signal is soon broadcasting through every bit of metal it can find: fencing wire, toasters, even a young woman’s new braces. Meanwhile, Dr. Brinkley has attracted the affections of Violeta Cruz, Corazón’s most beautiful resident. But is he really all that he seems?

Peopled with unforgettable characters and capturing a young Mexico caught between its own ambitions and the imperialist designs of its neighbour to the north, Dr. Brinkley’s Tower is a stunning achievement in storytelling.


Great read. City of Thieves.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

The Wheatsheaf Literary Society is currently reading “City of Thieves” by David Benioff. This book has received a lot of great reviews, for a variety of reasons. As a war-time novel, it provides great detail about the daily lives of civilians caught in political, and actual, cross-fire. As a coming of age story, it resonates. As a sometimes-comedy, it’s funny and painfully accurate. An a novel, its based on a wonderful premise and full of anticipation. Some of the details and images are brutal but the book wouldn’t work without them. This is not as horrific as “A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali” but equally disturbing in parts.

You can read the New York Times review here. If you decide to read the book, please consider buying an original copy and supporting the artist.



There a lot of good copywriting schools in and around Toronto, producing a crop of talented young writers. But a 2-year program, regardless of its quality cannot prepare an up-and-comer for all the demands of an agency writing position. There’s simply not enough time to learn the basics in all media. Agency staffers are expected to move freely between short and long copy, mass media and print as well as social and traditional direct marketing.

Program directors have a tough time creating a curriculum that will provide this breadth of knowledge in such a short time. So, the graduates arrive as interns, armed with whatever knowledge they gleaned in a few semesters, and start their careers somewhat, but not completely, ready for the task. They enter a hectic environment that often provides limited mentorship. This is unfortunate but those with determination will ask questions, self-educate and rise quickly.

If I had to choose three or four books for mandatory reading, here’s what I would recommend and why.

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, by Ben Yagoda.

Why? Because all writing assignments require careful assembly of words. Learning to write with clarity and accuracy is important these days because we often need to write for tiny spaces and places, such as online advertising, tweets and company posts. We’re also asked to write long copy for newsletters and brochures that will become PDFs to be downloaded from blogs and sites. Yagoda’s book demonstrates simple ways to make content more effective and efficient by eliminating the unnecessary parts of speech. It will quickly improve the quality of work.

One Great Insight Is Worth a Thousand Good Ideas, by Phil Dusenberry.

Why? This is an old book, written by one of the old masters in the ad game, but it remains relevant. Interns are exposed to the word “insight” almost immediately. The first briefs they read will contain a sub-head asking for the most illusive of all marketing thoughts: “The Creative Insight”. They might mistakenly believe they are reading a genuine insight if they don’t have an informed opinion on the difference between an insight, an idea. a wild guess and something written to simply to gain approval. Until I read this book I was unable to articulate the difference between an insight and an idea in just a sentence or two. Now I use a version of Dusenberry’s answer.

Trout on Strategy, by Jack Trout.

Why? A good friend and creative director that I respect once made the comment, “The farther you are from strategy, the closer your job is to India.” He’s right. It’s getting easier to outsource a lot of functions but there is no substitute for local strategy. Writers must understand business strategy in order to come up with successful tactics. Furthermore, clients want writers who understand their language and can contribute to business discussions. I chose this book for three reasons. First, Trout explains the thinking behind his first, and influential book “Positioning, the battle for your mind“. It’s because of Trout that we see this word in every creative brief, used with various degrees of accuracy and understanding. Second, it’s one his most succinct summaries of the strategic thought process. Third, it’s always a good idea to read the books that clients read. They long for creative-types who want to understand their business. Learning to speak their language goes a long way to building rapport, confidence and respect.

Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.

Why? This a broader look at the writing craft than Yagoda’s book. Both are excellent but they are different and equally instructive. This is a humorous look at classic mistakes in grammar and writing and contains the most in-depth, easy-to-understand instructions on commas and apostrophes. If this sounds boring, look for a job in account management. You won’t enjoying the writing life if you don’t enjoy this book.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Should I post more books?

Let me know by making a comment or send an email to john@ellisism.com. 


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