I’ve been hearing On Writing by Stephen King recommended by other writers for quite a while. I finally sat down and read it–and now I wish I could remember if the people who recommended it were readers of Stephen King. Because as a non-Stephen King reader, I find that I can wholeheartedly recommend…part of it.
On Writing is sub-titled “A Memoir of the Craft,” and that “memoir” part should have tipped me off. The first (pretty sizable) section of the book is Stephen King’s “curriculum vitae,” describing the events in his life that influenced his writing. This would probably be fascinating…if I had read any of his writing (well, I’ve read one novella, because they turned it into a Johnny Depp movie…)
So if you’re a Stephen King fan, you’d probably like this first section. If, like me, you’re not…well, it’s perfectly well-written and not a bad narrative…but I still skipped half of it. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Stephen King–he just doesn’t write the kind of books I read, and I came to this book looking for writing insights, not his autobiography.
The next section was titled “The Toolbox” which had a nice analogy about building your basic skills as a writer…but was also fairly basic, along the lines of read a lot and learn grammar. I think this was also the section where he talked about the importance of devoting large amounts of time to both reading and writing–along the order of 4-6 hours a day. And without any acknowledgment that most of us have to pay bills and can’t do it (right now) by writing. His description of his typical day as someone who writes for a living? Not helpful.
Happily, the next section, also called “On Writing,” turned things around. This was where he got into things like situation vs. plot, developing themes, the actual process of writing a draft, the value of feedback (and at what point in the process it makes sense…) I thought he was a little focused on what works for him without acknowledging that not all writers work the same way–but that note aside, there was a lot that was interesting and potentially helpful. This section, about 110 pages out of the total 290, I recommend for writers whether you read Stephen King or not.
This section also contained this quote: “If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.” Which made me think me too, and get out a sticky note to flag the page. It also did more to make me feel I knew Stephen King than the entire (well, what I read of it) curriculum vitae/memoir section did. Which, in fact, is an interesting writing lesson right there.
After “On Writing,” we went back to a section that was memoir-like except about the present-day of writing the book, and again…not what I came to this book for.
So! If you like Stephen King’s books and are interested in his life, I recommend On Writing. If you’re a writer who’s not all that interested in King but want to know what he has to say about writing, I recommend “On Writing.”
Buy it here: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft