The name “Stephen King” has by now become a byword for “successful author.” He’s one of those authors, along with J.K. Rowling, that are always cited as the exception to the rule that most writers won’t be able to live solely off the fruits of their writing. He’s ubiquitous. In light of both this and my interest in fantasy and sci-fi, which often encroaches upon the borders of horror fiction, it might surprise you to learn that I didn’t read my first Stephen King book until nearly 4 years ago – that book was Insomnia and even he admits it was a muddled novel. So, what do I think of a book about writing, written by one of the titans of the industry? Let’s find out.
About the book: Part memoir and part instructional manual, On Writing ties together King’s career as an author with more personal facets of his life. In an unusual move, the instructions about writing – arguably the biggest draw – are placed towards the end of the book, and On Writing instead devotes its first half to King’s childhood, adolescence, and attempts to break into the publishing world.
What I liked: From the start of this book, I felt that I was in the presence of someone who made me comfortable and welcome. More than that even, I felt a tremendous sense of self-assurance when I read it. King’s been there before, knows the pitfalls, and is happy to steer you around his memories with confidence. Every time I finished a section or chapter in this book, I told myself, “OK, it’s time to put the book down now.” And then, of their own accord, my eyes would snake down or over to the next page, and I would be held fast once again. This was, literally, the first book of the year that I could Just. Not. Put. Down.
Throughout the book, I got the sense that although writing was something he put effort into, he didn’t fall into the pretentious Byronic-hero hole that so many other authors, both beginning and established, fall victim to. (It’s a hole that I’m only now learning how to crawl out of.) Instead, he made it feel as natural, physical, and vital as chopping wood. If you have enough wood, your house stays warm. If you crank out enough words, you stay warm.
A lot of the time, I judge a book by how vividly I recall the images later, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t expunge from my mind the scene that King describes of having an ear infection as a child – one so intense that his eardrums had to be repeatedly lanced with a needle to drain the pus. I have tried and tried, with no avail, to stop imagining the looming needle coming closer to perforate my own eardrums. That is strong writing.
In the instructional section on writing, King unpacks the metaphor of a “writers’ toolbox” and runs with it. The advice inside is fairly commonplace – know your grammar, remove adverbs, etc – but they’re relayed in such a matter-of-fact manner that they acquire additional heft. He also provides an extremely useful glimpse into the revision process by including a “before and after” sample of his own writing, and then going step by step through the changes he made to tighten up his prose. Revision is an extremely important part of the writing process, but seldom is it actually demonstrated instead of discussed.
Besides all that, look at the cover. It’s got a Corgi on it! I love Corgis. Knowing that Stephen King owns them just makes him even more awesome in my book.
What I disliked: The length – it’s too short! I could easily have read another 200 pages. In particular, the move away from the memoir section was too abrupt, as it stopped nearly right after the acquisition of Carrie, his debut novel. King did write about his substance abuse problems, but I would have appreciated greater insight on what led him down that path and why he felt he needed to self-medicate. Yes, it’s not a topic that really lends itself to a discussion of the writing craft, but it is something that a lot of writers end up dealing with anyways.
The verdict: I originally gave this book 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. Then I started reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and that book paled in comparison to this one so much that I retroactively bumped it up another star. Whenever I read this book, I felt I was in good hands. What better can be said about an author than that?
Next up: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.