Last night I finished reading Stephen King’s non-fiction On Writing, a book I almost couldn’t find on the shelf because of its unassuming spine. A narrow rectangle of white marked with a spare black font. The cover consists of a matte black field with a photo of the author, feet up, writing at his desk. The covers are as unpretentious as everything written between their pages.
The first section of the book is a memoir, a series of amusing vignettes that function like so many breadcrumbs, leading the reader to the King we know today. King is forthright about his experiences and choices, never attempting to cast himself in a more flattering light nor descending into self-flagellation. It is what it is, a sensibility that characterizes all of King’s work.
The second section deals with the nuts and bolts of writing, structured by a toolbox analogy, giving plenty of examples using both snippets of King’s own work and many literary citations. He does an admirable job of remaining focused, resulting in a short read (291 pages in the re-released edition) packed with useful, well-supported guidance tied together by his philosophy of writing. Several short sections at the end give a detailed look at how King edits his own writing working from a first-draft sample and suggest books that an aspiring writer might find it useful to read.
I find this book to be useful because I had been floundering a bit, and rather than being dragged from the water by a lifeguard and taken to safety I feel as though I have been told in which direction to swim, that I might save myself. That is the type of help I like to get.
I admire Stephen King’s writing, and I feel that it is so tremendously popular, because he writes honestly about the world that I live in. Vampires and aliens aside, his characters are people that I’ve met in my life regardless of the fact they almost all come from Maine and I’m a rural Northern Californian, and their motivations are ones that I understand (though mine may be different). I would hope to write just as honestly. This is why I chose to read his book on writing over the many others out there.
What I got from it:
I strive to be honest with myself, and I already knew that grammar was going to be an issue. In fact, I bought a textbook last year to improve my grasp. I hold a degree in French language and in my studies discovered that my strengths were accent, vocabulary, and listening. Grammar was a huge stumbling block (which may be because I learned all of my English grammar in reverse from French classes, we never got around to anything more than nouns, verbs, and adjectives in school). This holds true for my writing as well: I am quite comfortable with dialogue and word choice, fairly sure of communicating the tone I intend, but I tend to fall short in mechanics. Grammar is on the first level of King’s toolbox. My first-level is only half-stocked. I’m going to have to work on that.
My manuscript is going in too many directions. This is likely why I was floundering. While reading King’s section discussing themes in The Stand it finally occurred to me what my book is really about. What it’s about is already there but clouded by a lot of unnecessary digression. There will be a lot of rewriting.
King made some observations, particularly related to inspiration and criticism, that I had observed myself in my practice of fine art and dance. That we both drew the same conclusions confirmed my suspicion that his book was the right one for me. It’s a good book, and one that could be useful for anyone writing in any genre of fiction (or non-fiction for the sufficiently adaptable). I recommend it.