Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

I’ve been a Stephen King fan ever since I’ve been little when my mom bought me Pet Sematary. I remember staying up well into the wee hours of the morning reading about Gage and Church, and being scared out of my mind that all the pets my dad and I buried outside in the back yard where going to come back to life and kill me. Yeah, thanks mom. Good idea. But it was that feeling of fear that kept me reading, and after it, I couldn’t stop. There’s something about the way that King crafts his stories that never ceases to amaze/terrify me, and at 23 years old, I’m still reading, and rereading, his novels. So it’s no surprise that I all but devoured his book on the craft, On Writing. However, what is odd is that I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, but never got around to reading it. And after the semester I had last term, I felt that I could use some much needed inspiration from one of my favorite novelists. So in desperate need of guidance, I started his book.

Now as a writer, I know it’s the kiss of death in the business to use a cliché, but in this case, screw it. This book changed my entire outlook on writing, and very well might have damn near saved me. No one told me writing a book was going to be easy, and I didn’t expect it to be. BUT, I didn’t except to struggle with it to the point of tears every time I sat down to write. I was beyond frustrated, and writer’s block coupled with a very difficult time in my personal life was not helping the situation. Frankly, I was ready to give up after this semester. I had even started to look at graduate programs for literature since I felt that this writing thing wasn’t going to work out for me.

I’d lost my spark.

But then I read Stephen King’s story. Not his this-is-how-I-did-it story, but his this-is-what-I-went-through one. And wow. I was blown away. I think I needed to hear how one of literature’s creative writing Gods struggled every single day with the craft, and even ended up throwing Carrie away in the trash only to have it be saved by his wife who, till this day, remains to be his biggest fan (although Annie Wilkes may have something to say about that). I needed to hear that he worked several odd jobs, in addition to teaching, to get through life, and that the craft almost killed him in his search for a good story. I guess what I really needed at that time in my life was for someone to tell me “You know… you’re not the only one this happens too.”

But I’ll spare you my tortured artist story, and get to the second part of the book. In this section, King gives you a toolbox, one of the big ones with four layers, and lots of hidden drawers to keep your odds and ends in. In it, he gives you the necessities of writing such as vocabulary, grammar, and style (Thank you Strunk and White). He talks about the death of adverbs, the difference between active and passive voice (where I had a light bulb moment) and the importance of a strong verb.

King talks about his cigar smoking muse, and the importance of reading in your genre. He writes, “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.” He also stresses the write every day mantra, which is something that I had been improving on but wasn’t quite there yet. So I figured what the hell. What did I have left to lose? I had promised myself that I would finish out the semester regardless, so I might as well give it one more fighting chance. At this point, I think I all but fired my worthless muse, and then sat down and organized this semester’s reading list (in addition to everything else I had to read for class). I ordered a dozen books that were comparable to what I was writing, such as The Exorcist, and The Storm of the Century, and I can’t even begin to tell you how many exorcism movies I’ve watched/studied in addition to reading books about demons and flipping through the bible. I forced myself to write every day, even if I only was able to churn out a decent paragraph of 150 words, and towards the end, I forced myself to stay in that chair for 2, maybe 3 hours just to get the word count. I fixed up my writing desk, disconnected the internet, and started to write with my door shut. I completely changed everything I did when it came to writing, and now, what I was once forcing myself to do, has become a steady rhythm in my day that I look forward too.

I think that King’s book is something that I’m going to come back to time and time again. I have pages flagged, paragraphs underlined, and sections starred, and every time that I feel myself slipping or getting stranded again, I find myself grabbing it off of my bookshelf. Essentially, it’s become my pick-me-up book and looking back, it kills me that I didn’t read it sooner. But at the same time, part of me wonders if I was subconsciously waiting to read it until I really needed it, and thanks to Stephen King, I’ve decided to recommit to finishing the program and my novel. Funny how things like that work out. The man that kept me from sleeping as a child is still keeping me awake, but this time it’s from working on my own story. A story that someday I hope will terrify children (and adults) as well.


  1. I read On writing six years ago when it had just come out. It is a brilliant book by a brilliantly demented mind with a glowing 'third eye'.

  2. I absolutely loved "On Writing". I bought it for the autobiographical section, but his instructional piece toward the end was just as entertaining. I particularly enjoyed what he had to say about rewriting and revising. And including that short story at the end, with all his markings on the manuscript, that was helpful too. Like you said, it's nice to see that even the King needs to whip his stuff into shape before he deems it fit for public consumption. Currently working my way through "Nightmares & Dreamscapes" now and loving pretty much every moment of it. Anyway, just wanted to throw my two cents in.