On Writing by Stephen King
Non-fiction (2000 - 288 pp.)
"Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad." (10)
Writing advice can be fun. When it's based on personal experiences, rather than lorded over the person who's set to receive it, it's even more fun. Although I've never been able to get into a Stephen King novel (I promise I'll try The Stand at some point), I thoroughly enjoyed these almost 300 pages of theory and practice he's put into his prolific body of work.
King's inspiration largely comes from encountering questions in the world and then answering them. A short example he uses is switching the sexes of the protagonist and either the deuteragonist or antagonist (172). King gives a stock news-style story about a man stalking an ex-wife, then turns it into a writing prompt in which a woman stalks her ex-husband. Why does a stalking ex-wife need to escape a mental institution rather than the city jail? There's a question. Later on, King discusses "the Hotel Story" (271), which later became the 2007 movie Room 1408. (It was an entertaining movie, corny reasoning behind the selection of the room number aside.*) The developments of prompts into stories, beginning with King's breakthrough 1974 debut Carrie (80), makes discussing the writing process fun.
I had never thought of King as having a huge comedic streak, but I was consistently in stitches. From a childhood story about visiting the ear doctor (25), to a reflection that high school is like "hostages locked in a Turkish bath" (54), to, on the literary side of things, a discussion of Edgar Wallace's Plot Wheel (167), King produces laughs.
My favourite part of On Writing is its lack of didacticism. I don't mind didacticism in fiction, but when it comes to actual writing advice, building discussion around personal strengths is far more productive than trying to funnel everyone into one mould. King's worldview clashes with many, and that's fine. For example, King discusses his ideal reader at length, who for him is his wife Tabitha. (215) This completely opposes Joyce Carol Oates's philosophy: "Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else." King also goes so far as to to dismiss research-heavy books in saying "I simply made up all the stuff I didn't know" (229), as well as write without having a clue how the book will end (165), which has garnered him a reputation as a "pantser". He dismisses setting-based stories (178), yet I consider setting-based stories like Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest among the classics. King isn't trying to give a writing lesson so much as impart his views, complete with biases and self-aware of those biases. I can respectfully disagree with King where I choose and not have to feel like I need to prepare an academic rebuttal.(Consider the quotation at the top.) There's a lot we don't know about creativity. I appreciate that.
One point King makes that I cannot abide, however, is that in medias res "necessitates flashbacks". (224) The preceding events can also be filled in using setting description, King's aforementioned bane. Take a Law & Order-style situation in which the viewership first sees a grisly murder taking place, and then sees a pile of ten bodies immediately afterward. Flashbacks are unnecessary to conclude that ten murders have taken place. Alternatively, if they haven't, my example can be a good red herring. There's usually more than one way for a writer to get wherever he or she is trying to go, so I lean against any statement that a certain situation forces a writer into a corner.
I also disagree with King's defence of creative writing subsidies. Creative artists are frequently shoehorned into doing what their funders consider acceptable, making patronage only partially useful. As a writer, I would be fine being hired to write something, as long as I'm trying to release a product rather than pure art.
The very end of On Writing lists 96 of King's favourite books. (286-288) Among them are John Irving's A Widow for One Year and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Curiously, the list lacks Richard Matheson's I Am Legend despite King's testimonial on the cover of this edition. I don't know how far I'll get into the whole list, but it's a nice repository that'll live on even after much of everyone else's work.
Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 5
*1 + 4 + 0 + 8 = 13. I'm serious, this is how it was picked. Throw in the tendency of some hotels to omit the 13th floor, essentially making the 14th floor the unlucky one, and there you go.