My brush with the ‘Books All Writers Must Read’ list earlier this year left me somewhat wary of Stephen King’s On Writing, surely the most recommended title of it’s kind. I rarely read horror, so I’ve never read any of King’s novels, which begs the question of why I would be taking advice from someone whose fiction I won’t even read. However, with NaNoWriMo 2015 on the horizon, and October being the month for all things spooky, it seemed like the appropriate time to read and review On Writing.
The first section of the book is a memoir; an episodic account of formative experiences in King’s life that developed his writing. This may seem self-indulgent to someone who’s primarily looking for a writer’s how-to guide, but I think there is a real value in showing how it’s possible to become a world-famous author from difficult beginnings. Namely, by working really hard, and having supportive people around you. It was also interesting to see how King’s early interests parlayed into the subjects he comes back to in his writing. The take away message here is not ‘write what you know’, so much as ‘write what you know you like’.
The second section gets down to the business of writing, and springs from a list of questions that King wishes fans/interviewers would ask writers. The result is a practical guide that dismisses the notion that genre fiction isn’t preoccupied with language, questions the value of outlining, and asks you to consider who you are writing for (the idea of writing for an ideal writer – in King’s case his wife – is not one I’ve come across elsewhere). There are a few exercises for the reader to try, but most of what King says is backed up by his wealth of experience. In case we were in doubt of the main point – you learn the most by writing regularly – there is an epilogue dealing with his near-fatal accident, and the part that his writing habit played in his recovery.
I now understand why On Writing tops so many lists of key books for writers; the guidance is simple and practical, and the humorous, anecdotal approach makes it a joy to read. I’m unlikely to use this as a reference on writing technique, but I will go back to it for encouragement.