Book Review: On Writing, by Stephen King
It’s easy to assume (and maybe even hope) that Stephen King isn’t a good writer—surely someone so prolific, popular, and obsessed with the supernatural can’t be much of an artist, right? But he is. He really is.
I was reminded of this several times while reading On Writing, King’s autobiographical musings on how to author quality fiction. Some of the book’s more memorable lines:
- (On his uncle’s toolbox) “Inside the top was a silk lining, rather odd in such a context and made more striking still by the pattern, which was pinkish-red cabbage roses fading into a smog of grease and dirt.”
- (On recovering from alcoholism) “I came back to [normal life] the way folks come back to a summer cottage after a long winter, checking first to make sure nothing had been stolen or broken during the cold season. It was still all there, still all whole. Once the pipes were thawed out and the electricity was turned on, everything worked fine.”
- (On the need for a support network) “Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
- (On nearly dying after being hit by a car) “I realize that I am actually lying in death’s doorway. Someone is going to pull me one way or the other pretty soon; it’s mostly out of my hands.”
- (On why the book is—by King’s standards—relatively brief) “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.”
King uses such prose to sketch how he was “formed” as a writer, a journey that included working several dead-end jobs (like washing maggot-filled hospital sheets) before he finally sold the paperback rights to Carrie. This was probably my favorite part of On Writing; his advice on the nuts and bolts of crafting fiction is less original. Read widely, write daily, tell the truth, limit descriptions to a few significant details, minimize adverbs (because “the road to hell is paved with adverbs”), etc.
King’s description of his writing process is intriguing, though. He’s firmly in the no-outline camp, and compares drafting a story to excavating a fossil: for him, the fossil already exists; he’s just unearthing it. To do so, he simply starts with a situation, places his characters in it, and sees where they take matters. As King admits, this approach “has more to do with instinct than with anything resembling ‘higher thought.’” I’m not sure I could pull it off—it’s the polar opposite of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, a technique I’m currently trying and enjoying.
But relying on intuition obviously works for King. I imagine he wrote On Writing in this fashion, which is probably why it’s a bit wandering and thoroughly readable.
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