Budding fiction writers are thirsty for advice and direction on how to craft a well-written, bestselling piece of work. There are thousands of books advertising how to write, how to plot, how to create unforgettable characters, but these tomes fade when compared to Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Equal parts memoir and lesson book, On Writing is a gift to novice wordsmiths.
Part One: The Memoir
Describing one’s childhood with clarity and accuracy is, King admits, an unrealistic task, but his memoir provides glimpses into an imaginative boy’s formative years. His older brother used humor to distract a young Stephen from their single mother’s struggle to make ends meet, and King turned to reading and writing as a creative outlet. As a child, he wrote short stories for his mother and published his own newspaper; as an awkward teenager, he shipped stories off to magazines for publication (though the rejects greatly outnumbered the selects). Only after maturing into an adult was King able to churn out higher quality work while supplementing his income with teaching. Carrie was his breakthrough.
King’s anecdotes of his childhood are, at times, flat-out hilarious (e.g. his misunderstanding that a bitch was a tall woman), and it is always fascinating for wannabe writers to learn about the challenges a now wealthy and popular bestselling author endured. King received rejection after rejection early in his career, but rather than being discouraged, he was bolstered by the negative responses. The lesson to be learned here, courtesy of the former teacher, is that with enough persistence, luck and hard work, it is possible to have a story published.
Part Two: The Advice
King’s background in education is evident as his lessons on writing are simple, straightforward and logical. What matters, according to King, is the functionality of words. For a writer to be good, a noun should be a noun, a verb should be an (active) verb, and an adverb should be deleted. Clichés are clichés for a reason and make for stale, unimaginative writing. Again, delete. Once the words in a story have been parsed and edited, a story will appear better written. But in order for that story to be great, to be a quality piece of work, it must have an original plot. King advises taking a well-known plot, like a man murdering his wife, and turning it on its side – a wife murdering her husband – to create a fresh story. Then put the story in the oven, bake for 30 minutes at 350, and voila!
All joking aside, what makes On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft inspiring is that King’s advice is grounded in experience. Having been repeatedly rejected as a new writer, and now being a successful novelist, King is in a position to relate his learning lessons and opinions. While his advice could seem condescending, it is not; King’s narrative reflects that of a teacher’s, and his advice should be taken seriously from one who knows his subject. And King knows writing.
- King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Pocket, 2002 ISBN 9780743455961