Review: “On Writing” by Stephen King

Before The Ring became a Hollywood movie starring Naomi Watts, it was a Japanese horror movie starring Nanako Matsushima. Before that, it was a record breaking best seller by Koji Suzuki. He was a student in a writing seminar where he wrote the first chapter of his novel as a short story. It was so popular among his fellow students, they kept asking for more, so he kept on writing every week until the novel was finished. By all accounts, it is a gripping page turner, but the prose was so poorly written I could not get past the first few pages.

This happens in every language: Badly written books becoming phenomenal best sellers.

Some writers can get away with bad writing. It is a mystery for a struggling writer like me. There is not a single book out there that teaches you how to create a badly written best seller. Most books teach you how to write well. But if your objective is to sell a lot of books, good writing is actually optional. I for one would rather be E. L. James than Faulkner.

Stephen King’s On Writing is the only instructional book I know that practically skips the issue of good writing. I do not think Stephen King is a poor writer, though he had been criticized as such. He was at the forefront of subtracting exposition from the narrative, a revolution in story telling that was highly maligned early in King’s career, but is now the standard in most fiction. (Back in the day, serious fiction had pages and pages of exposition without dialog or action, like Joseph Conrad.) Other than that, King is not Shakespeare, but he does not deserve the vitriol he took early on. That said, On Writing is short on how to write good prose and long on how to tell a good story.

I classify all books on writing on a three dimensional graph with three axis, plotter-pantser, inspirational-instructional, beginner-advanced. I would say this book lands in the pantser-inspirational-intermediate category. Stephen King is famously a pantser. He does not plot, outline, or diagram in advance. He just starts typing at the beginning and lets the story take him where it will. Sometimes, what he intended to be a short story grows into a sprawling novel.

On Writing is not structured like an instructional manual and it is frustrating to go back to it to find the lessons you picked up. But it is a much easier read than most instructional books. The author entertains while dispensing his wisdom. The book serves more to inspire rather than instruct.

The book can be destructive if taken too literally by a novice writer. According to the book, King types away two thousand words a day letting the story guide him until the first draft is done, then he turns that into a second draft which is about ten percent shorter than the first and turns it over to the publisher. Apparently, King is so talented he can practically type out the final draft in the first try. Most writers cannot do this and should not attempt it.

He also says you should not keep idea notes because they will only preserve mediocre story ideas that you are better off forgetting. He believes good ideas would be remembered. That is another piece of advice you should not follow.

He does tell you to read a whole lot and write a whole lot. In his early years he wrote constantly, collecting a thick wad of rejection letters which he impaled on a nail in the wall. After reading and writing and reading and writing, he came to a point when he could see that his stories were better than some of the published works. Eventually, the publishers saw it too. His stories started getting accepted. He has been doing the same thing ever since. That is the part that budding writers need to take home.

Since this is a man who just sits down and writes without analyzing, he has very little in the realm of technique to teach. In fact his lessons can be distilled to a page of bullet points, most of which are inspirational quotes.

So how do you create a good story? And does King succeed in elaborating it?

The answer to the first question, as King seems to be saying, is enthusiasm. Follow your excitement. Follow your smiles. Follow the words that make you gleefully clap your hands and chuckle to yourself. Follow the fun and that is where the readers will go.

The answer to the second question is: Not very well. Stories need story questions. (Will she prevail? Will he survive? Will the child escape?) Good writers focus on the story questions, and readers read for the answers. The most obvious story question for King’s memoir is “How did he do it?” but the master of story fails to focus on it. Part of the reason is that King’s life is a series of tragedies; poverty, rejection, critical enmity, alcoholism, loss, traffic accident. He needs reassurance that he can focus on his success. So he tends to focus on his mistakes, things not to do. But that is not what we the readers are here for. Any drunk can tell us about the evils of alcoholism. Only Stephen King can tell us the secrets of his success. Yet he shies away from his main story question, to our great disappointment.

I wrote about the ingredients of Stephen King’s success before. It takes some creative reading to wean them from his book. On Writing, in King’s mind, is not about the secrets of his success, although that is what we read it for. His book is about the life of a writer and how to come to terms with its inherent miseries. But reading On Writing for its life philosophy is a little like buying Playboy for the articles.

Will this book really help you write a better book? I cannot say. But it is a good book and a heartfelt story that every writer should read. What lessons you manage to glean from it is up to you.

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