For fans of the suspense and horror genres, Stephen King is a household name. Chances are, if you read the genres at all, your kindles are filled with a novel or two of his. But King’s prolific career has not stayed within the genre. In fact, one of King’s greatest efforts came in the form of a nonfiction memoir.
King’s On Writing blends personal memoir and advice on writing craft that results in a must-read for enthusiasts of King and writing in general. Admittedly, I was tentative to begin the book, as I’ve always looked down on King for lacking the “artistic touch” of the Franzen’s, Foster Wallace’s, and Carver’s of the literary cannon. However, after a few pages guided by the approachable, working-class-sensible, voice of King, I was hooked. By the time the shocking reveal of the “On Life” section came, I was deeply invested in King’s life and opinion.
King begins the memoir with his “CV,” a hundred or so pages detailing formative life events that led to his career as one of the most successful American novelists in history. King’s childhood was full of struggle and sickness, but he spends no time wallowing in self-pity.
King was raised by a single mother, and he describes his mother’s efforts to provide for him in a light-hearted manner. It is hard not to root for a woman who had the energy to drop her things, sit on the floor after a long shift, and read her son’s early attempts at story telling. According to King, to further support his blossoming talent, she would pay him a quarter apiece for his early tales.
As King progresses the narrative, he shares his experiences with submitting his work to magazines before he gained a reputation. As a struggling writer, these sections were particularly interesting to me. Apparently, King used to nail all his rejection letters to his bedroom wall. As he describes the excitement he felt when his rejections garnered personal notes from editors, I could feel his authenticity. By the time he shares his first successful publications, I felt as if I too triumphed. It was truly inspiring.
The highlight of the personal memoir section comes when King learns that his breakthrough novel Carrie had been sold to publishers for 200,000 dollars. King’s response? “Are you sure?”
At the time, King was living paycheck to paycheck in a rundown apartment with his wife and two kids. His description of buying his wife a hairdryer out of sheer excitement is a feel-good moment for readers.
King transitions to the writing craft section of the novel by explaining what he calls the “writers toolbox.” King’s working-class upbringing shines through, as he lays out a toolbox “level system” for understanding the oft-mystical qualities of writing fiction.
On level one, he details the importance of vocabulary and grammar. For King, vocabulary should be kept to what you know, not what you think is impressive. Grammar, on the other hand, is presented as a less negotiable tool. King believes writers should either have a good understanding of grammar, or that they should find a new trade. However, King believes most people have an instilled understanding of grammar that can be brushed-up with a reference or two to a style guide.
The second level of King’s writing toolbox is style. In short, King covers the basics of style—paragraph form and pacing—but leaves room for personal preference. He really stresses the importance of a good paragraph, and reading the book gives some enlightening tips for how to form one.
King ends the toolbox section by transitioning to the third level. The magic level. The storytelling level. King believes that fiction writers should focus on the story above other elements, such as plot. Tips on story telling make up the bulk of the “On Writing” section of the book. I will not go into detail of each and every tip, that’s for you to learn if you choose to read the book, but I will comment briefly on his interesting views on plot.
King believes that writers should not place a hyper-focus on plotting out their stories. Instead, King suggests starting with a situation. From this situation, he encourages writers to put their nose to the grindstone and let the story tell itself. This stance goes against many of the writing workshops I have attended, which place great importance on meticulous plotting. But after reading his justification, I have to agree with King.
King finishes the memoir with a stunning “On Life” section. He details the tragedy he experienced at the hands of a blue van on a rural Maine Road. While on vacation with his family, King was struck by a sporadic driver who was returning from a trip to the grocery store. The accident left King’s lower half destroyed. The story of how King recovered from death’s door and reignited his passion for writing is an inspiring one. If the memoir and writing craft section hasn’t sold you, you should download On Writing for this section alone. It is a stunning look into humanity’s ability to overcome tragedy.
The personal memoir On Writing is not a typical King novel. It contains no clown monsters or bloody prom murderers. But the insight into both life and writing craft makes it one of his most interesting literary successes. So, if you are looking for a new story to download to the Kindle, give On Writing a try. Who knows? You might just be inspired to write a story that lands you an eBook deal.
Buy the Kindle Version on Amazon: On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft Kindle Edition by Stephen King