There’s nothing scarier than when somebody who’s successful at something writes a book to explain why. I felt a bit of a chill as I opened this offering from “The Master of Horror”, Stephen King. As I read on my fear subsided. Mr. King presented an excellent work that served as part memoir and part guide to proper writing techniques. I give him tremendous credit. Of all the books I’ve read regarding the craft On Writing was the only one I couldn’t put down. Most works on the subject tend to be rather dry and clinical. Mr. King penned a very witty and entertaining take on the subject. That alone showed me this author earned the right to write a how-to on the topic.
King established dual theses in this book. He explained that good writing entails mastering the fundamentals of the craft (such as vocabulary, grammar, and the elements of style) and stocking one’s “toolbox” with the right equipment. He also emphasized how it is possible to turn a “competent” writer into a “good” one. (Page 142) While he didn’t consider it one of the major goals of the book he referenced that writing solid fiction entails telling the truth. (Page 158) It may sound counterintuitive, but his explanation made it sound lucid. All writers, regardless of genre, should write about what they know.
King presented many great ideas in the book, some of which, I felt happy to read, as I do them myself. I thought his suggestion of writing in a room “with the door closed” fantastic. (Page 155) It sends a message to others, and especially to the person writing, that it’s work time. This is something I practice, and agreed with him. I also liked his suggestion to “write the first draft with the door open and the second with the door closed.” He meant that only the author should see the first draft. Several beta readers should read the second and comment on it. I haven’t done this personally, but King got me thinking. I may need to re-evaluate my current process.
Ironically, the best piece of advice on writing in the book wasn’t one of King’s original ideas. He cited a comment he received on a rejection letter. I’ve heard other writers tell me the same thing, as well. I thought it interesting that a writer presented it in the form of an equation. King wrote, “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” (Page 222) As I’m familiar with the way many writers choose to hash out their first drafts, I took this as very sound guidance.
King provided many prudent observations on grammar and craft that writers at any level would be foolish to ignore. After all, he made his living as a high school English teacher before writing novels full time. I thought his witty asides served as the true highlight of the book, though. They made it much more understandable and fun to read. If I had to select a most memorable one, I’d cite the following thoughts on back story.
The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying. (Page 227)
King’s candid acknowledgment of his own challenges as a writer impressed me most about this book. He reached the absolute pinnacle of his field and even he’s faced tremendous obstacles. He explained how he struggled to complete On Writing following the accident that nearly ended his life. In the memoir section of the book he detailed his battles with drug and alcohol addiction while a working novelist. He wrote Cujo during this period, but couldn’t remember doing so. (Page 99) I thought it remarkable that someone with these kinds of issues could still have the discipline to write every day, let alone end up successful at it.
I’m embarrassed to acknowledge that On Writing is the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I found it surprising that someone famous for writing horror novels could have such trenchant observations regarding the craft. He pointed out that to be a writer one must read a lot and write a lot. (Page 145) I’ll be taking that advice and adding some of King’s works of fiction to my reading list.