On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—Stephen King

This book on writing starts with two contradictory epigraphs: “Honesty is the best policy” and “Liars prosper”. Good fiction is a mix of the two. Writers invent, but also draw upon what they know.

This book is far more than a primer on writing well. Stephen King starts and ends the book with a series of vignettes from his life. He describes his memories as a “fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees . . . the kind that look as if they might like to grab and eat you”. You follow him from his childhood as a budding writer all the way to his huge success, his marriage, his battle with alcohol and drugs, and going clean. All of this made him the writer he is. Sometimes his books give a a glimpse into what he was going through when he wrote them: for example, Jack, the main character in The Shining is an alcoholic writer.

In the last section, he writes about a terrible accident he had halfway through writing this book. He was hit by van and almost died. Recovery was slow and painful and finishing the book helped him through it.

King leads into the “how to” part of the book with a piece about his grandfather’s toolbox: a large handmade wooden box, with three levels and a silk lining of “pinkish-red cabbage roses fading into a smog of grease and dirt”. King says that a writer needs to have a similar toolbox, with the first level containing the “common tools”: grammar and vocabulary: “as the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got, honey, it’s how you use it’”.

He makes two points: one is that “good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals”; and the second that with hard work, dedication and timely help, it is possible to make a good writer out of a competent one. The hard work is critical—there are no shortcuts. And if you want to be a writer, you must read voraciously.

There is a lot more good advice here, which I won’t go into. I like King’s style—he addresses the reader throughout, and feels strongly about most things. He hates adverbs and the passive tense with a passion (and people who say “That’s so cool!”). I loved his passion about his craft, although I didn’t always agree with him.

At the end of the book—normally the annexes, but here referred to as “And Furthermore”—King shares a first draft of his writing and the edited version. As an editor, I found this fascinating. He also shares a list of must-read books. An interesting list, but with a handful of exceptions, it lists mostly Anglophone writers from the West.

If you want to write, I suggest you read this book. Once you have mastered the fundamentals and figured out your genre and style, you need to throw in some stardust. King’s earliest memory is “of imagining I was someone else”. Most children do this, or have an imaginary friend (I did). We start out with the wonderful ability to imagine and create our own worlds, but sooner or later, many of us allow life to knock it out of us. Being creative is keeping that ability and wonder alive. As King says, “We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style. . . but…you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.”

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

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