I’m not the biggest Stephen King fan in the world, and I don’t write novel-length horror, so I wasn’t sure how useful I would find the much-lauded On Writing. But it had been recommended to me countless times so I figured I’d get around to it some day. Then the inestimable M Elizabeth Tait got me a copy for my birthday and I was plumb out of excuses.
This book was not what I was expecting. Part memoir, part craft treatise, On Writing really hit that sweet spot for me between narrative and technical. It skirted right between being a grammar book- which I love and own zillions of- and being a biography- which I love and own zillions of. Both engaging and informative, heaven help me, I was hooked. *melts*
The book is split into three sections, but the first and last are both pretty autobiographical, so I’ll lump those together.
Not sure how I missed the whopping huge hint in the subtitle, but I was not expecting a memoir! Go figure! This part was wonderful, particularly his childhood. A little sad, a little funny, I found a lot to relate to. There were struggles I’d never had, and other struggles lacking that I’d known, but it felt wonderfully real and sincere: the same sort of quirky, bizarre, magical childhood I’d had, stuffed with childlike ambitions and adult problems only half understood.
And then adolescence and adulthood. Again, I felt I could relate- at least right up until the checks started pouring in, haha. But still, it gave me hope. Like maybe I just had to keep hustling and I too would eventually get my break.
Ahh, the meat and potatoes. This is what I had come for, and On Writing didn’t disappoint.
Framed within the analogy of a toolbox, which I loved, Mr. King sets out the skills and rules that a writer will need to write a good story. Personality and a sense of humor enliven this how-to section in a way that my other grammar books always seem to lack. (Possible exceptions: The Pen Commandments by Steven Frank, which has a refreshingly light tone, and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, which is just too absurd to be taken seriously.)
What are the tools Mr. King recommends? Frankly, the same stuff we always hear recommended. I don’t think there was any advice here that I didn’t already know or hadn’t already heard elsewhere. Simple things- like reading other books, respecting grammar conventions, and writing what you love- that we all know already. But as King himself points out, this isn’t an advanced course in creative writing. This is the baseline stuff. This is crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s so that some time after you’ve put years of your life into this, you have the foundation necessary to write amazing stories that grab your readers and never let go.
The craft section did not change my style or my process. It didn’t give me some magic potion to make me sell books, or teach me the secret code for making publishing houses fling money at me. Quite the opposite. This book, if nothing else, set my expectations straight. And we all need that sometimes, that slap in the face to get us thinking right when it feels like the plane’s crashing down around us.
It will be hard. Most of us will never make it to King’s level of success. But the journey is worth the effort. Love of writing is reason enough.
The thing that makes this book so unique on the craft shelf of my bookcase is the ‘memoir’ bit. This isn’t just about how to write. It’s about being a writer. It’s about what it feels like to have stories bubbling out your fingertips, what it feels like to ask the bizarre questions, the creepy questions, the inappropriate questions. What it feels like to get shot down over and over again, what it feels like to have that first tiny success. It’s more than about the writing craft. It’s about the writing life.
So my whole-hearted recommendation: Read this book! Even if you don’t write horror and even if you don’t read his other books. Read this one.
Free bonus? Mr. Stephen King himself gave me full permission to read and write for 4-6 hours a day, every day. I can get behind that.
Unrelated, but I’ll close this week on an ominous warning. Tomorrow, I and my beloved family will fly out for the start of our entire-summer-long road trip. I’ll try my very bestest to keep up with the Monday posts, but I cannot guarantee reliable internet access all over the country. (Heck, I can’t even guarantee reliable internet access all over my house.) So be ye warned! There will still be twelve posts in the next twelve weeks. Just… maybe at weird times. Your safest bet is probably to subscribe (there’s a button over on the sidebar and I promise, promise, promise not to spam you), or just check back every now and then and scroll through the archives.
Wish me luck! *clutches dramamine*