Book Review: Stephen King’s On Writing

10569Stephen King’s On Writing was a Christmas gift; half-memoir, half-guide to writing, it was all memorable and enjoyable, regardless of the fact that I am not a huge Stephen King fan. I’ve read The Shining, but I don’t get much more into it than that.

Nevertheless, his stories about his childhood, early writings for local newspapers and re-workings of movie plots for his classmates were told with funny, self-deprecating flair, and the humble beginnings of his career were downright inspiring: two married English graduates raising little kids on King’s meager teacher’s salary, worried about affording “the pink stuff,” amoxicillin antibiotics, for their daughter’s ear infection, then to run away bestselling author of Carrie, followed by hit after hit.

Granted, Carrie was not his first novel and he had printed many short stories, but he went from seemingly impossible odds to near-overnight success; it gave my soul a smile to read about. When all seems lost, good things might be right around the corner.

As for the writing guide, that too gave a helpful outline of what building a literary career might look like as well as King’s opinions on language–(use few adverbs). Peppered with King’s typical, “earthy” language, a few of On Writing’s examples demonstrated perfectly what works and what doesn’t work in imaginative prose.

I’ll discuss two:

  1. The Simile: “When its on target, a good simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does.” (p. 178)

See that? He’s done it in the very sentence. A good simile connects a tiny piece of our experience and emotion to the physical act being described. All of a sudden, the author has made the connection for us. We all know how pleasant it is to recognize someone, and a good simile does just that.

2. King counsels the aspiring author to tell the story how she sees it, paying no head to trendy critics who pronounce the death of the linear novel. He tells us that he prefers stories written in order while admitting that you might not. Nevertheless, he says, “I’m an A-Z man; serve me the appetizer first and give me dessert if I eat my veggies” (225) as a metaphor for a story told in order.

I appreciated this sentence a lot for its simplicity of image and language, but also for how well it captures the simple pleasure of things taken in order. This is right about the level I like for longer prose. It’s illustrative without making you think about it; it just clicks.

Another book I am reading, which will not be named, uses far more poetic language in the structure of the novel.  She tells of finding her “glasses tipped atop her knobby head.” This sentence annoys me;  I have to stop reading to compose the mental image.

In poems, I like that. In novels, the things built from complete sentences, I’m not such a fan of phrasing that requires mental weight-lifting.

So I liked On Writing. I enjoyed the free-flowing examples incorporated into the text and the personal stories from his life and career.

Do you have any favorite memoirs? Are you a Stephen King fan? Got any favorite books on the craft of writing?




4 thoughts on “Book Review: Stephen King’s On Writing

  1. The defunct “Book World” of the Wash. Post had a series on writing by a featured author every week that I found fascinating. Each writer had unique approaches to the craft based on different influences. Your review of King’s memoir makes me want to read it for the reasons I used to enjoy reading those “Book World” vignettes.
    I liked the King novel “11/22/1963” for the realistic descriptions of everyday life in the early 60s by the protagonist who repeatedly travels back in time to change the course of events leading up to that fateful day in Dallas.
    My favorite guide to writing is the E. B. White & Wiliam Strunk classic “The Elements of Style” with great examples of how to apply the advice they give.

    • Hi David, it is SO fascinating to hear about the style and habits of authors and artists. And yes, the Elements of Style resides pleasantly on my book shelf, it being the first style manual I ever read. Good to know.

      • Stephanie, did you see last Sunday’s “Parade” article on the best 75 books of the past 75 years? “On Writing” made the list for the 1990s! It was interesting to compare it with the Amazon 100 best books list to see the differences, quite a few, which shows that any best book list is somewhat arbitrary.
        Happy Independence Day to you and your family!

      • Thanks David, I’ll have to check that out! I liked Amazon’s list though I had only read 14 of their 100. Maybe I’ll do better on the Parade one. It is subjective to rank books like that especially contemporary ones. Happy 4th to you too!!

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