Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
I have three Stephen King books as far I can remember. Many years ago I was gifted IT, which at the time looked and felt like a mammoth of a novel I’d struggle to get through. I’m sad to say I still haven’t read it and it will be some time before I get round to reading that one; it is currently stored away in an old cabinet back at home which, as long as it hasn’t moved, remains in the hallway just before the bathroom. I’ll have to ask my mum to verify that one.
The second is The Green Mile that I picked up in my local second-hand shop, which is coincidentally the only adaptation of his novels that I have seen in full and one that I also have not read. The most famous adaptation is likely The Shining, which I am ashamed to say I still haven’t seen from beginning to end and I don’t think I even knew it was a Stephen King novel until a few years ago. It sounds like a crime for someone who supposedly enjoys reading. I’ll rectify that before long.
The third one is On Writing. This was another book that was gifted to me for my birthday, albeit about 15 years or so since IT and thankfully one that didn’t take me quite as much time to get round to reading. (Only nearly a year!) And on finally reading it within a week, I’d say it was a very thoughtful gift and one that I may refer back to every so often as I venture through my own first novel and may even apply to my Wrandom Writing articles.
For some reason Stephen King is a novelist that I have never had much interest in and I honestly can’t explain why. He’s legendary in the world of literature and has churned out hit after hit. He has an intimidating library (both in number and length of books) that I don’t think I will be able to get through but who knows? I haven’t read a single one of his novels yet – they might all be rubbish! (I’m sure they’re not.) I don’t have to like his work, of course, but I won’t know unless I try.
Either way, On Writing certainly got me interested in his work and reminded me how enjoyable a good autobiography can be. This book is technically about writing (hence the title) but is dressed up in a very autobiographical style with some of the major events in his life that finally led up to his success, and others that affected him deeply. One of which I can share with him in having an accident resulting in broken bones, surgery and physiotherapy. His experience was much, much worse, but I can at least empathize with him. For me this was one of if not the genesis for my wanting to write more seriously and take a good hard look at myself as a person overall. One day I will stop writing about that, but it’s still very cathartic for me – sorry!
Reading a book like this lifts my spirits back out of the dumps (where they often are) and can provide genuine inspiration when it is needed most. I think that’s probably why I was able to race through this book so quickly; I needed it. And for an author who (I think) has written lots of disturbing horror novels, he comes across as a genuinely nice man with a deep love of his wife and children. Not that I thought he was an axe-wielding maniac or anything, but it’s easy to assume that a writer like that could be a bit loopy.
The book offers more than just an insight into his upbringing but also his top tips for those who think they would like be a writer. Although nowadays success like his would likely be put down to white privilege, it took him a long time until he finally starting making money in a market that was so much smaller than it is today. The thought of being paid to write short stories for monthly publications seems a world away now, and it probably is! I’ve been lucky enough to find myself a little side job writing for a local tourist company and I couldn’t be happier with it; it’s baby steps towards an ultimate goal that takes a lot of time, effort, and perseverance, which I saw very clearly in this book. How this can be done nowadays is very different to 1960s America, but the sentiment remains the same.
I’ve looked at videos online on writing tips and it’s interesting to see how many people have essentially regurgitated King’s words. That’s not to say that they are just copying him, but I think it goes to show how apposite his advice is even today. The book showed its age (originally published in 2000 when JK Rowling was still relatively new and less controversial than she is now) in a few ways, but it didn’t take anything away from the book, and if anything it opened my eyes at how things have changed so much over the years.
He offers a good insight into what he thinks a writer needs in order to be successful that he keeps in his ‘Toolbox’, including:
- Fewer adverbs (he really hates those!)
- Perseverance. Make sure to write every day as much as possible!
- Avoid plot. I’ve never been much of a plotter myself and agree that good stories can come from the adventure in the process.
- Read a lot. Seeing what and how others write helps a great deal in creating your own style and improving on others.
He also advises to stop watching TV, but I’m not totally convinced on that one!
Along with this advice he gives a line for line example of his editing process, which is a stage that I have barely touched in anything that I’ve written, as you can probably tell from any single one of my posts! I was a bit disappointed that in the example he gave, it felt like most of the editing was a just a name-change that occurs throughout the text but overall it was still a nice glimpse into his process.
I can’t say I came away with the same type of structured advice you’d get from a textbook on writing, but King certainly put forward his ideas in an interesting and engaging way and at the very least it has been inspirational, which stuffy textbooks fail to achieve (or likely even set out for). I think it’s also important to note that this book could still be entertaining to someone who isn’t interested in becoming a writer at all, so it’s structured well with enough autobiographical elements for that to be true where it may often be not. It’s probably a difficult balancing act but for me it was about right.
Oh, and if anyone ever thinks about what they should get me as a gift, a book is a good place to start 😉