On Writing by Stephen King


Not being a fan of the horror/fantasy genre of novels, I must confess at the outset that I have not read any of Stephen King’s other books. I do know, however, that he is a very successful and prolific author in his particular genre, and that several films have been made of his books.

I decided to download and read this book after seeing several recommendations for it in writing groups I belong to, and it certainly is an interesting read. The man can write, and I breezed through the book in eager anticipation of finding the holy grail of how to get published and attain bestsellerdom that every writer seeks.

The first half of the book is taken up by what the author calls his C.V. It is in fact pure autobiography, and is in itself an interesting story. Growing up in a single-parent, lower-middle-class household in middle America is not the best start in life for anyone, let alone an aspiring writer. Still, it would seem that young Stephen showed aptitude for writing from an early age, and his initial attempts to produce a newsletter or journal provide considerable entertainment for the contemporary reader who knows what happens later.

I’m going on the assumption that Stephen King’s account of his initial failures, abundant rejection letters and repeated disappointments are true. He has a good memory, or perhaps has kept a record (or both), but it gives one heart to see how long it took and how many failures he experienced before he actually managed to get into print (a short story in a magazine). This pattern seems to have continued throughout his teenage years and even into young adulthood, marriage and his early career as a schoolteacher. The initial pages of his first bestselling novel, Carrie, were rescued from the trash-can by his wife, who convinced him to continue with the manuscript. It is also interesting to read how the idea for the book came to him, on the basis of his own experience at school and his work as a high-school teacher of English.

When it comes to telling the reader/ what it takes to produce a good book, Stephen King has some helpful albeit platitudinous advice. Read a lot, write a lot, avoid adjectives and ‘kill your darlings’ are among the prime paradigms on which he has expanded extravagantly, contravening his own admonition to cut wherever and whenever possible. He stresses the need to adhere closely to the rules of grammar, which seems to be stating the obvious, and advocates sticking to the apostrophe s to indicate apposition, even when a word or name ends in the letter s, even though in many cases this is superfluous.

Right at the end of the book we find ourselves once again embroiled in an excessively detailed account of how he was run over and seriously hurt as he was out taking a stroll one day. His injuries, which he describes in considerable medical detail, were undoubtedly horrific and life-threatening, requiring a long and painful recovery process/ Relief came only two months later, when be was able to sit down and start writing again.

I’m not sorry that I made the effort to buy and read this book, though I’ve read too many similar texts to be able to find anything revolutionary and new in this one, at least as a guide to the aspiring writer. It does provide some insight into the mind and workings of someone who has proved himself to be a successful writer, and that in itself is important. At the end of the book is a list of the books Stephen King has read and found helpful, and it is certainly long and wide-ranging. I must admit that I have read only a few of them, and I’m disappointed that not a single book by Virginia Woolf is to be found there. But then, what did I expect?