A true guide to the craft of writing – the nitty gritty, the nuts and bolts. King is a clear master of his trade and he lets us in on his ‘secrets’ – with sections covering grammar, the road to getting published, genre, the Ideal Reader, dialogue and much more, any aspiring writer really ought to read this book. You don’t have to be a Stephen King fan (I barely read his fiction) to enjoy this, and most of all to learn from it.
King talks in depth about his “toolbox” – the armour he needs to write, and not only that, but to become a phenomenally successful writer. He does not suffer fools gladly, and he does not skirt around anything – in his second foreword (he’s Stephen King, he gets two forewords) – he begins with: “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” This one isn’t, it really isn’t. He admits that while some call him a “workaholic dweeb” he writes every day, including Christmas, the Fourth of July and his birthday. He once wrote a book (The Running Man) in a single week, and he likes to get down 2,000 words a day (ten pages). King wrote his first two books in the laundry room of a doublewide trailer, pounding away on his wife’s typewriter and balancing a child’s desk on his thighs. He banishes the idea that you need fancy equipment or serene space in which to write; we get the sense that King is much more of the ‘just do it’ school of thought. And let’s face it, it’s worked for him.
On Writing is personal; it is also a part memoir, detailing the day King set out on a walk at about 4pm on June 19, 1999, and was hit by a blue van that almost took his life. He writes vividly and carefully about this day, and the aftermath; he had, as he puts it, “a cataclysmically smashed hip” and had to rely on his wife to rig up a table in the back hall of their house, where his wheelchair, a printer and a little fan could fit. He doesn’t shy away from the pain and the self-pity that he felt, but he does come around to the fact that writing managed to haul him out of the hole of the accident and its effects: “And I had been in terrible situations before which the writing had helped me get over – had helped me forget myself for at least a little while.”
King is a fascinating man to spend time with, and in On Writing he shares some essential and valuable tips for writers. He gives examples of good and bad sentences, invites the reader to compare two pieces of text, writes in a personable, friendly tone – one chapter begins “Grab that book you were looking at off the shelf again, would you?” and only occasionally allows for the odd bit of sentiment: “We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style…but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”
I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly; if you’re a writer, consider keeping it in your bag to dip in and out of, there when you need a reminder – a pep talk, a grammatical question – this book has almost everything you need. It ends with King’s very own booklist – the best books he’s read over the last three to four years. Work your way through it, if you will – Stephen King’s booklist is a Booklist with a capital B.