Recently I read Stephen King’s ‘On writing’. I would recommend it to everyone; not only to people who try to get words on paper or screen.
Why would I do that? Because this book is more like a friendly conversation than a ‘how to’ book. We don’t need another ‘how to’ book anyway. There are a good lot out there. A few of them are essential and worth reading; many are superfluous.
What King does in this book is different. He is not so much interested in the ‘how’. He is more interested in the ‘why’.
In the first part, he shares his childhood and adolescent memories and shows us the circumstances of his life that first turned him into an avid reader, and then into a writer. In his case poison ivy, a supportive mother and the possibility of earning extra cash had a lot to do with it. He takes us through his early successes and mistakes and shares good advice he got along the way. This part of the book feels like you are sitting with him in the den by the fire. You have a drink and he tells you a story.
The next part of the book comes down to the nuts and bolts of the craft. Here he tells you about grammar and the necessity to know it and support networks and the necessity to have them.
He gives writing examples, both good and bad, both his own and from other authors and he analyses them with you. He is not afraid to name names and hand out reprimands and praise. The man has specific opinions and by golly you shall know them.
I especially liked him describing the actual process from having an initial idea to turning it into a working story. King is a proponent of a character driven, evolving story and not of a plot driven one. He throws characters into horrible or ridiculous or challenging situations and sees what develops. His stories work with ‘What if’ questions. “What if this kind of person has to deal with this kind of thing?”
The detailed description of this process was dear to me, because I use this approach as well. I had an euphoric ‘yes, exactly, that is what I do’ moment. But I think even if you are a plotter, this book has merit.
King also talks about getting published, but because the industry has changed so much, it looks more like a history lesson. I am sure though that the core principles he mentions still hold true.
The part that follows is the most personal and heart wrenching. King describes in detail the car accident that almost killed him in 1999. He tells you how precariously close he came to dying and how much pain he had to handle during his recovery. Why does he mention all this? Because writing this book helped him with the recovery and with keeping on.
The book ends with two hands-on parts. The first is a demonstration on editing. Here we get to see the first few pages of a later published story in its very first draft version and then in the first edited version. King explains exactly why things got cut, rewritten, or left standing. He lets us look behind the curtain, so to speak and I admire his courage to do so. The last part is a book list of books he liked.
I understand that this book is not very streamlined with a beginning, middle and end. You can read parts of it and skip others. It doesn’t have that textbook ‘how to’ character. But I like it, because it feels personal. It feels like there is a writer there, who cares a great deal about his craft and about his fellow human beings and therefore shares what he has come to know.