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Frank's Book Log

Literature is a relative term.

On Writing
A Memoir of the Craft
2000 | Nonfiction
A still from On Writing by Stephen King (2000)
  • A-: 5 stars (out of 5)
    on 21 Mar, 2022

    When writing my review of The Cellar, I remembered something King had written in On Writing about reader-friendliness. Looking for the exact quote hooked me and I decided a reread might prove inspirational.

    On Writing remains the gold standard for professional memoirs cum instructional manuals. The first section proffers a compelling autobiography. King details his professional ascension alongside his personal descent into addiction and eventual recovery. The second section offers pragmatic guidance for would-be professional writers. In the third section, a coda, King details his near-fatal accident, rehabilitation, and return to writing.

    King’s charming conversational tone shines. Consider this bit detailing his early writing follies:

    “They were camped in a big dratty farmhouse room,” I might write; it was another year or two before I discovered that drat and draft were different words. During that same period I remember believing that details were dentals and that a bitch was an extremely tall woman. A son of a bitch was apt to be a basketball player. When you’re six, most of your Bingo balls are still floating around in the draw-tank.

    That last sentence had me chuckling aloud.

    For writers, King offers solid advice. Be brief (second draft equals first draft minus ten percent), be clear (beware pronouns), and don’t be lazy (avoid adverbs). He gives great examples, culminating in a first-to-second draft comparison of one of his stories, “1408”. For aspiring writers of all kinds, it’s a must-read.

    But King’s guidance also betrays his biggest weakness as a writer. He distrusts plot. He constructs all his novels based on situations. From the situation, characters take shape, and the story proceeds. This would explain his history of underwhelming endings. That said, he admits the following:

    The only plot-driven novel of mine which I really like is The Dead Zone (and in all fairness, I must say I like that one a great deal).

    Given I found The Dead Zone one of King’s most satisfying reads, I wish he could find a middle ground between no-plot and all-plot. He confesses to almost abandoning The Stand five-hundred pages in because he had lost the narrative thread. A bit of advanced plotting may have helped. It might even have prevented the awful ending.

    But I digress. After the world-class writing seminar, King demonstrates his mastery of the craft with a harrowing account of the accident that should have killed him. Even here, battling raw emotion and still recovering from traumatic injuries, King retains his signature voice. Consider this bit describing the man driving the van which hit him:

    He and Bullet left the campground where they were staying, he later tells an investigator, because he wanted “some of those Marzes-bars they have up to the store.” When I hear this little detail some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels.

    This breaks King’s own adverb rule, but proves mastery is knowing when that’s okay.