On Writing – Stephen King

I’ve been dying to read On Writing for quite a while, especially after hearing so many good things about it on the blogosphere. I was initially skeptical: first of all, I’m SO not a fan of non-fiction; I like my stories made up, thank you very much. Second of all, as much as I have loved Stephen King since the first time I read The Stand, and as much as that love has grown since, I’ve naturally always thought of him as a fiction writer, and figured if I was going to read non-fiction it should be by someone who writes non-fiction as a habit and as a trade. Especially because if I’m going to read non-fiction it’s generally to learn something about a field I’m already interested in (usually music or linguistics), and while I like to write, I have little interest in writing fiction.

However, as I heard more and more about it (and learned more and more about the man behind my favorite books), On Writing started to seem more and more like something I had to read. Of course, once I started my Stephen King project it became something I would “have” to read anyway, but it kept inching nearer and nearer the top of my list. Finally, my desire to learn more about King reached critical mass and I bought the book on Amazon.

Even as someone who does not aspire to write fiction, On Writing was easy for me to appreciate, especially because the first half included hilarious anecdotes from King’s childhood (my favorite was his childhood babysitter who used to pin him down and fart on his head). These anecdotes were carefully selected, of course, to show his progression as a writer, but they were all very humanizing, which is something I’ve always loved about King—anything he writes about himself always has a refreshing lack of sugar coating.

The second half of On Writing covered basic stylistic techniques for those readers who actually intend to write. Even though I am not one of them, it was fascinating to read about King’s revision processes and his own personal beliefs about certain writing conventions. He’s a huge fan of Strunk and White, and lives by one key phrase in the Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” (He also abhors adverbs, but admits he has a weakness for them and can’t always stomp them out, even when he knows he should.) He also included a short section on grammar, and I really geeked out over that part since I LOVE grammar, even though I know I myself don’t always use it correctly and can rarely explain why something is wrong even though I know it is.

Something I especially loved about On Writing was a section in the back where King answers a question he almost always gets: “What do you read?” He lists about a hundred books that he read in the years that he was writing On Writing and other novels, and there were several on there that I too have read—and I swear I almost squealed like a little fangirl: “Stephen King reads Harry Potter?! I read Harry Potter!” Made me think quite a bit about Jillian’s post from a while ago about how every time she reads a book, she feels connected to everyone else who has had that same experience. Stephen King and I are totally connected, you guys. Swoon.

It was also enthralling to see some explanations of his thought processes while he was writing some of his novels (Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Stand, and Misery in particular play starring roles, with supporting appearances by ‘Salem’s Lot, From a Buick 8, and some others I’m not remembering). Since I’ve read the large majority of the novels he discussed, it was exciting to get to see the man behind the curtain.

There were so many other great things about On Writing, but this review is already too long, and even though it’s not a novel I don’t want to give everything away! I’ll just leave you with this: On Writing is a must-read for anyone who wants to write and for anyone who loves Stephen King, but especially for anyone who fits both those descriptions.

A

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17 thoughts on “On Writing – Stephen King

  1. I’ll have to read it sometime! Even one of my academic colleagues—-who is writing a commentary—-says On Writing is one of the best books about writing that’s out there.

    I like to listen to Stephen King on DVDs’ special features (i.e., for Storm of the Century, or The Shining) because he makes a lot of thoughtful comments about what was going on in his mind when he wrote the story, and other paths he was thinking of pursuing but didn’t.

    • Yeah, it was so interesting to hear HIS thoughts about his works. It’s easy to forget sometimes that books are written by people with their own thoughts and ideas independent of their stories–and that some of those stories we love so much were thisclose to being completely different.

  2. I loved this book. I had a fanboy moment when he mentioned that he played in a band with Barbara Kingsolver. Then I was sad that I had never seen them.

    Regardless of whether you aspire to be a writer or not, I have found that everyone who reads this book uses at least something from it. I’ve taken so much from that book. More than anything, King has released me from the shackles of the adverb.

  3. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel but started reading this book a couple years ago because I do want to write, and because everyone around me said I should read it. I really couldn’t get into it at all and disliked the early anecdotes enough I stopped reading. I still own it and might pick it up again to see if I can read it with a new perspective…

    • I mean, it’s definitely not for everyone. I wouldn’t necessarily think it was your style–I found the anecdotes hilarious, but some might not, or might be bored with them and be more interested in the “this is how I write” part. If you want to try again, skip to the second half where he talks about that; there are some interesting tidbits in there.

      I personally just really enjoy his style of writing. It’s very conversational, and I like his dry humor.

        • Oh! And not to disrespect the feeling you have that you are reading with him! I actually saw this post because you linked to mine and I got a trackback, but I forgot to mention your pull to Stephen King in this book — because I got caught up in trying to understand why I didn’t like this book. Cheers and such! I know he’s a respected writer and as always am only frustrated with myself for not “seeing” it. 😉

          • Haha, no worries! I know Stephen King is definitely not for everyone–even when he’s writing somewhat “dry” fare 🙂 The analogy I always use for things like this is The Sixth Sense: I’ve seen it about three times and I understand its value as a movie, but I just really don’t like it. And that’s okay! Same with Dickens and some other writers. Just not my speed.

  4. I’m like you. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I also REALLY liked “On Writing”. King is a great explainer and having read a lot of his books, I felt the connection between him, the work and me (the reader).

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