“I’ll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don’t spend actually doing it.” – Stephen King, On Writing
My first real encounter with Stephen King was reading Salem’s Lot at university. Sure I know about the famous ones, like Carrie, IT and The Shining but I’d only recently begun to realise I liked horror as a genre and I hadn’t watched the movies, or read the books. Salem’s Lot was an absolute behemoth of a book, and I devoured it.
But that is a review for another time. Literally, I’m reading one of them right now.
On Writing was given to me as a Christmas gift by a good friend and fellow aspiring writer who as a massive horror fan is well versed in Stephen King and his creations. We’d read a little of it on my Creative Writing course at university, and it was the only ‘instructive’ text that didn’t bore me to tears so I was excited to read the rest of it. King has a wonderfully conversational writing style, possibly because of his own disinterest in non-fiction, and is incredibly funny while also being informative. Less of a how-to and more of a discussion of how he writes (which, he is aware, could differ greatly from how you write), the book is roughly split into two parts. The first part deals with King, his life and how he became the worldwide bestselling author he is today through perseverance despite an ever-growing pile of publication rejection letters. The second part is more of a guide to writing, but maintains the easy, mostly light-hearted and anecdotal tone throughout.
Stunningly honest about everything up to and including his struggles with addiction, King’s life is an interesting one to explore. He and his brother printed their own local paper in their garden shed, King wrote reams upon reams of short story entries for magazines until finally they began to pay attention – not with publication, but with advice. Writing is, according to King, a craft that requires both thick skin and the ability to listen when people tell you your work sucks. If you can’t take criticism, you probably shouldn’t write. But if you want to write, then for goodness’ sake do it. The biggest weakness of many a fledgling writer, in King’s eyes, is the idea that writing is something you need to earn the right to do. This book is a permission slip to write, a message from someone who has done so successfully to those who may not yet have done so sharing a love of the craft and offering a helping hand if you’re not quite sure where to start. I found it fascinating how his circumstances through life shaped the form and content of his writing, and would happily have read this even if it was simply an autobiography.
As for the latter half of the book, I found King’s advice to be easy to follow and – most importantly – useful. He describes a ‘toolbox’ with which a writer may work, the levels of which vary from simple vocabulary and grammar to killing your darlings and using less frilly extra language. One suggestion that stuck with me is that if you have to describe how a character has said something, you’ve not written well enough before then. Surely, it should be obvious or at least highly suggested? Simple things like how a person talks can affect a story, and perhaps don’t use sixteen big rambling words to say what can easily be said in six short ones. Simple stuff, but incredibly useful.
As part of my degree I spent three years attending creative writing lectures and seminars where – like King once did – we shared round barely-formed works with a group of people whose opinions would somehow shape it. I hated these seminars. To take something I had written so recently and expose it to the prying eyes of those around me was awful, especially given the extremely personal nature of writing. Sure they were allowed to hate it, I’m no pen-wielding dictator, but I’d rather have time to finish the damn thing before they tore it to shreds. It was extremely comforting to me, then, when King shared a similar sentiment the summary of which is this: don’t share a work until it is done, until you feel ready to share it and then you pick who you share it with.
To King, writing is a unique form of telepathy. The writer takes an idea, an image, a story, and places it directly into the mind of the reader regardless of distance or time separating the two. Stephen King wrote On Writing when I was a young child, and now as an adult I am reading it and using the advice within to inform my own writing. I would highly recommend this book to anybody who writes, or simply to anybody who likes Stephen King. It’s funny, and honest, and helpful and it made me want to write more. Starting a piece, King states, is the hardest part. After that it can only get easier.
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖📖 5 books out of5