On Writing by Stephen King

It’s been a long time since the shiny black covers of Stephen King novels filled the bookshelves latterly vacated by the works of E.L.James. Back in the day, he dominated the world of mass-market fiction.

His books scream the 1980s like the movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even though he still has a pretty hefty throughput of new fiction, King has never managed to match the roll of success he enjoyed from 1973-1987 when everybody was reading hit novels like Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Pet Semetary, It, and Misery.

Since then his star has waned slightly. Written back at the turn of the century, here even King bemoans the fact that everybody thinks his best work is in the past. Nevertheless, in On Writing, he sets out to explain how and why he became the writer and success that he did.

Despite his achievements, King is clear-eyed enough to see that he’s not going to be addressing the Nobel Academy any time soon. As one of his high school teachers tells him:

“What I don’t understand, Stevie,” she said, “is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?”

I had no answer to give. I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write.

He also slightly prickly about his treatment by the critics. Just look at the subtitle of this book, A Memoir of the Craft. Not an art, but a craft. Writing bestsellers is more like making a dining room table than painting the Sistine Chapel.

It’s not just the critics that give him heat. King also mentions how he receives mountains of mail from angry readers complaining about the content of his novels, which are often astonishingly crude. For which, he makes no apology:

rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

The first half of On Writing relates King’s hard childhood as the son of a single parent in impoverished circumstances. It is also incredibly funny, and one of the best author autobiographies that I’ve ever read. I had no idea how witty a writer he was, because his novels are so dark. For example, this moment when the teenage King remembers a 1961 trip to the movies:

On the long hitch home that night … I had a wonderful idea. I would turn The Pit and Pendulum into a book! Would novelize it, as Monarch Books had novelized such undying film classics as Jack the Ripper, Gorgo, and Konga. But I wouldn’t just write this masterpiece; I would also print it, using the drum press in our basement, and sell copies at school! Zap! Ka-pow!

As to guidelines of how to be a successful author, the usual suspects are here: don’t use the passive; avoid adverbs; only use ‘he/she said’ when apportioning dialogue etc. That could fit on a page of A4 paper. Note that I have willfully ignored all this advice during this review.

Success as an author usually comes down to writing one top-notch bestseller that catches a wave of public interest (in King’s case, this was Carrie). Then, once you have become a ‘brand’, the publishers will print any old rubbish with your name on it. Or as the master puts it:

One thing I’ve noticed is that when you’ve had a little success, magazines are a lot less apt to use that phrase, “Not for us.”


7 responses to “On Writing by Stephen King

  1. Nice review. I liked ‘On Writing’. The craft part was okay like you mention, but what I enjoyed most was seeing the development of a writer – how he came to be. Well, okay, I also loved the casual profanity! I have to say that Stephen King’s books are the only ones I read where I flip to the last few pages before reading. He creates characters that I get so sucked into. I want to know which ones survive until the end before becoming emotionally invested in them during the story’s journey.

    • Ooh that’s cheating! I think that King’s main message is that if you want to make a success of writing, you need to do it a lot. Or as someone once said “the art of writing is the application of bum to seat!”

  2. I have this book and haven’t got round to reading it yet. You’ve convinced me I should do Alastair. I love most of his book – The Stand – being an all-time favourite. Thanks for this excellent review!

    – Esme getting her act together upon the Cloud

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