04 March 2023

Review: On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King book cover

My first impression after reading On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, is just how hard the author has worked to get where he is today. Many readers know Stephen King was raised by his single Mum and grew up poor, but he also worked his arse off from a very early age doing all kinds of jobs; working in a laundry and washing sheets being one of them.

I enjoyed the stories he shared of his childhood antics with older brother David, and in recounting his upbringing, I'm reminded just how old King's references are. His US centric pop culture references are decades before my time, and his love of old movies and books lead me to suspect that even those within his immediate generation might miss a few titles here and there. This is a memoir as much as a treatise on the craft of writing and it was an enjoyable read.

There's a tonne of advice in here for aspiring and established writers, like this:
"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open." Page 56
King is a powerhouse and an absolute work horse, even when the writing isn't going well:
"Stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position." Page 82
Stephen King is incredibly relatable, and this is a conversational how-to from a willing mentor rather than a dry rule book or style guide from a fusty professor.

The author is up front about his years of addiction although few lines are dedicated to it. His wife Tabitha King is an established author in her own right, and together with family members staged an intervention. There is no pity party and no excuses. Eventually King got clean, but it was a hard road to sobriety. Throughout his life, Stephen King has dedicated his all to his writing, and after receiving more rejections in his career than we can possibly imagine, started seeing success. He soaked up every piece of advice along the way and readily shares lessons large and small with the reader.
"What follows is everything I know about how to write good fiction. I'll be as brief as possible, because your time is valuable and so is mine, and we both understand that the hours we spend talking about writing is time we don't spend actually doing it. I'll be as encouraging as possible, because it's my nature and because I love this job. I want you to love it, too. But if you don't want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well." Page 163
There are some basic rules on grammar, but above all, King's message is that you learn by reading and by doing. By writing.
"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut." Page 164
When reading, watching or listening to author interviews - or conducting them for Carpe Librum - I'm always surprised when a writer says they don't have time to read. Some say they're too busy writing, or they don't want to be accused of plagiarism or stealing another person's work, but I'm not buying that. Some writers choose to read a different genre from their own while working, or switch to non fiction or the reverse if applicable. I agree with the author, if you want to improve your vocabulary and writing style, you must read and you must write. You must evolve. There are some helpful examples of good writing and bad writing, and I was able to learn a lot from these comparisons.
"In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling." Page 207
Yes! This explains how King can make a 500 page novel such a page turner. He isn't vain or 'self indulgent' and believes in cutting content that isn't necessary.

Hit by a van while out for his regular walk in 1999, I was reminded of just how lucky King was to survive the accident. King's injuries included a collapsed lung; 4 broken ribs; a spine chipped in 8 places; hip fracture (his lap looked sideways); broken left leg (in 9 places); broken right knee cap and a scalp laceration that took 20-30 stitches. I was interested in the author's recovery from multiple surgeries and subsequent rehab but didn't learn if he has any residual injuries or ongoing chronic pain.

Like me, King reads 70-80 books per year, and this 2012 edition of On Writing includes two lists comprising more than 180 books he personally recommends. King is generous with his time and praise for his peers but I was surprised to find how few I've read.

Known to fans and members of the publishing world as the King of Horror, he's also the King of Persistence. This is a recommended read for those interested in the man or his craft.

My Rating:

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