I recently listed to the audiobook of Stephen King’s “On Writing – a Memoir of the Craft”.
It seems perhaps like an odd choice of book, I know, given that I’ve only read about ten or so of his non-Dark-Tower novels. However, I found a list somewhere of “all Stephen King’s books, ranked from worst to best”, and On Writing was ranked at #2! So, I thought this must be something quite special.
The book is divided into three sections, and each one gives an insight into Stephen King and his writing style. Section one is a mini-autobiography, intended to give the reader an idea of where Stephen King came from in becoming a writer and choosing his subject matter.
The second section describes a set of dos and don’ts when it comes to writing, and in it I got a very clear idea of what makes Stephen King’s works so classically his. He describes an approach whereby the writer (i.e. him) doesn’t focus on plot, but on character. Once an overall idea comes to King’s mind, he starts creating the characters that populate that idea, and explores them on paper in real time, not worrying too much about editing, but getting the raw guts of the character on paper and following their journey. He describes the story in a book as a fossil, something that already exists, but needs to be uncovered by the writer to see what is there. I think it is this approach that sometimes causes King’s works to ramble along (most recently in Sleeping Beauties, co-written with his son Owen King). His description of writing The Stand, and explaining how he got writer’s block with the work and eventually realised the only way forward was to kill off half the cast of characters was particularly enlightening … and amusing! It is this section of the book that really explains how, when asked how The Dark Tower was going to come out, King genuinely had to answer “I don’t know”. Because with this approach he really didn’t know! He hadn’t got to that part of the fossil yet.
The third section of the work is an epilogue in which King describes his near-fatal car crash. This is of particular interest to Dark Tower fans as the fictionalisation of this experience in The Dark Tower can be compared directly to King’s first hand account of the actual event. And this was written shortly after the accident itself – in fact, it appears that it was the first thing King wrote following the accident.
Overall I would thoroughly recommend On Writing to any aspiring writer to understand the process of becoming a writer professionally, but also (and especially) to Stephen King fans who want to understand his writing at a deeper level. And I would also very much recommend listening to the book on audiobook. Stephen King himself reads the book, and so it is very much as if he is talking directly to you about his life and his life’s work. It is a very personal experience.
Long days and pleasant nights,