I have never read any of Stephen King’s novels and as far as I am aware, I haven’t seen the film version of any of them either. So you could probably say I’m not a fan. In a way that’s good when it comes to reading and reviewing his book On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft, because it means I wasn’t awestruck, dumbstruck or any other kind of struck by his reputation and so could get on with reading and learning.
There’s a photo of Mr King on one of the front few pages. Not that this has much to do with this review, but while reading it I had a dream in which Bill Gates came to visit me. It was definitely Bill Gates: I apologised to him because although he’s a very nice man, I have always used Macs since I found their systems easier. Except the guy in the dream didn’t look like Bill Gates; he looked like Stephen King. Actually, maybe it does have to do with the review: I’d probably feel like saying something similar to Stephen King – in On Writing he comes across as a very nice man, and I began to feel maybe I should read his novels instead of dismissing them as horror. It turns out some are not, and it turns out he can write better than I’d expected.
Stephen King is a phenomenally popular writer. Now I think about it, he wouldn’t like me to write that. Not because he disagrees, but because he doesn’t like adverbs. So instead let’s say he has sold over 350 million books. He’s right not to like adverbs – they don’t say a lot. By giving you the figure, you know how popular he is. It’s huge, it’s mind-boggling.
It’s also a lesson he learned very early on in his writing career, when as a schoolboy he was sports correspondent for his local weekly newspaper. The editor took a black pen to his first article, scored out everything superfluous and asked for the exact date a record had been made, instead of King’s “the years of Korea.” King was hugely impressed by this and says this editor taught him more than any of the many teachers of English literature he had in school and college.
I learned a lot by reading this book. I didn’t so much learn how to write as how – and possibly why – to have confidence in what I write. The opening chapters of the book are a memoir of King’s childhood and young adulthood, mainly as it relates to writing. What struck me about it was the deep sense of confidence that King seems to have had about his writing from an early age. But then, he was eleven when his mother gave him his first typewriter for Christmas. She gave it to him because she believed in his talent. It was interesting, towards the end of On Writing, to discover that even King has wobbles of confidence. This book took him longer to write than any of his novels, and he even left it for 15 months because he was, “not sure how to continue, or if I should continue at all.” Yet On Writing is recommended by writers, critics, editors and academics.
King is aware that he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. He gets letters telling him so, and some critics regard his writing as anything but literature. Here’s Harold Bloom’s reaction to King receiving the National Book Foundation’s annual award for distinguished contribution: “extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.” King doesn’t let this bother him. He writes for his own enjoyment. This, he says, is what writers must do, though he also advises to have an “ideal reader” in mind, someone who will usually be the first person to whom you show your work, though it might not be. His ideal reader is his wife Tabitha, who has been a huge support to him throughout his career.
In spite of his millions of sales (and therefore millions of dollars) King says several times that money was never the motivation for his writing, that it is his passion. If you want to write for the money and don’t have that passion, he suggests you do something else, because you are unlikely to get the money.
While the first section of On Writing is mainly memoir with smatterings of advice on writing, the second section is mainly advice about writing with smatterings of memoir. I prefer this second section and was glad it was the longer one. I like that he says similar things about adverbs to what I do about adjectives – use them sparingly, choose them with care. King says that adverbs: “like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.” He also admits that at times he commits the sin of using them, so I hope he’ll let me off with “sparingly.”
I was fascinated to see that King’s perspective on writing is not so different to that of much more literary writers such as Anne Lamott or Natalie Goldberg. I was amazed to read that he doesn’t plot his novels, but prefers to let them develop of their own accord. He describes his process as digging up a fossil that is already there, all he does is uncover it. I was also struck by how he likes to think of himself as the novel’s first reader and to feel the excitement of discovery as he goes. Reading that has helped my own writing – it is how I tend to write, but I’d always felt I should be more organised, more diligent about plotting and more careful about themes. It’s not that King doesn’t consider these aspects, but that they are for the second draft. If this is good enough for Stephen King, it’s good enough for me!
Photo of Stephen King by: “Pinguino” [CC-BY-2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons