SUMMARY: (4 of 5 stars) King is a real master of commonplace language and reading through this book exemplifies his ability to make long passages of text sound conversational and interesting. The memoir portions of the book are interesting and endear him to me, but I was reading for the portion about writing. A lot of what he says is advice you’ll hear everywhere. Some of it is just his opinion about how to write well and although it is spoken as gospel should not, in my — not a published author and not likely to ever reach his level of renown — opinion, be regarded as such. But there are a lot of real gems here. And what he says explains a lot to me about his writing style. I would definitely recommend this book to aspiring writers just because it is so well-expressed from start to end.
SPOILER WARNING: From this point forward, I’m going to discuss this book without any concern about spoilers. So, if you don’t like spoilers you should stop reading now.
When all my friends in high school were getting into Stephen King’s books, I resisted the urge to read them myself. Part of the reason for that is because I don’t like being someone who jumps on a bandwagon. Another is because his most famous books seemed to contain too much gratuitous violence and darkness. I also wrongly assumed that his books contained a lot of smutty content like those of Anne Rice. So, aside from Firestarter, which I loved, I just didn’t get into his work.
But I recently read several of his books and was very happy to realize that I was wrong and had judged his books too harshly and without sufficient knowledge. Although I don’t find his stories to be very complex or idea-driven (this book explains why) his powers of characterization and ability to give each character a unique and consistent voice are impressive and compelling.
So, when I heard on one of my podcasts that he had a book about writing, I immediately downloaded it. I wasn’t disappointed.
As mentioned, I wasn’t very interested in the memoir portions of this book. I tend to separate the artist from the art and the lives of complete strangers and celebrities are something I find easy to resist. This book contains just the right balance between lessons on writing and telling his life’s story in his own words, so those portions come off as interesting and thought-provoking. His life is also pretty equal parts inspiration — he’s a very focused and dedicated writer — and cautionary tale — he’s an addict/alcoholic.
When it comes to his advice on writing, your mileage may vary.
I’ve tended to take my writing advice from those who are “outliners” or “planners.” These are people who outline and plan their work before sitting down to write. King is a “pantser,” meaning he writes by the seat of his pants and he feels very strongly that this is the correct way to write fiction. Although he notes that there are good writers who don’t follow his methods, he seems to think that more often than not his method produces the most success for decent writers.
Nevertheless, I think he gives a lot of great advice. Among the gems:
- Write on a schedule.
- Write. Don’t make excuses. Write.
- Read. Read what you want to write.
- Read some of what you don’t want to write just to see how it gets done.
- Don’t watch (so much?) TV.
I think his antipathy toward plot is unfounded, but given his method, I get it. I also think he accurately summarizes the experience of the creative process, but does not conceptualize it very well. By his description, it sounds almost mystical and a-causal.
One thing that I thought was interesting is that his description of writing fiction aligns almost perfectly with my experience writing non-fiction. When I’m writing my “political posts” on FB or when I used to blog more long form content, my approach and the feeling of doing it is exactly how he describes writing fiction. I’d love if I could start to write fiction in that way… even if it’s only how I do first drafts.
There’s a lot of meat to this book and I think I’ll re-read it at some point. I would certainly recommend it to my aspiring writer friends.
Affiliate Link: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King