Short and snappy as it is, Stephen King’s On Writing really contains two books: a fondly sardonic autobiography and a tough-love lesson for aspiring novelists. The memoir is terrific stuff, a vivid description of how a writer grew out of a misbehaving kid. You’re right there with the young author as he’s tormented by poison ivy, gas-passing babysitters, uptight schoolmarms, and a laundry job nastier than Jack London’s. It’s a ripping yarn that casts a sharp light on his fiction. This was a child who dug Yvette Vickers from Attack of the Giant Leeches, not Sandra Dee. “I wanted monsters that ate whole cities, radioactive corpses that came out of the ocean and ate surfers, and girls in black bras who looked like trailer trash.” But massive reading on all literary levels was a craving just as crucial, and soon King was the published author of “I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber.” As a young adult raising a family in a trailer, King started a story inspired by his stint as a janitor cleaning a high-school girls locker room. He crumpled it up, but his writer wife retrieved it from the trash, and using her advice about the girl milieu and his own memories of two reviled teenage classmates who died young, he came up with Carrie. King gives us lots of revelations about his life and work. The kidnapper character in Misery, the mind-possessing monsters in The Tommyknockers, and the haunting of the blocked writer in The Shining symbolized his cocaine and booze addiction (overcome thanks to his wife’s intervention, which he describes). “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing.”
King also evokes his college days and his recovery from the van crash that nearly killed him, but the focus is always on what it all means to the craft. He gives you a whole writer’s “tool kit”: a reading list, writing assignments, a corrected story, and nuts-and-bolts advice on dollars and cents, plot and character, the basic building block of the paragraph, and literary models. He shows what you can learn from H.P. Lovecraft’s arcane vocabulary, Hemingway’s leanness, Grisham’s authenticity, Richard Dooling’s artful obscenity, Jonathan Kellerman’s sentence fragments. He explains why Hart’s War is a great story marred by a tin ear for dialogue, and how Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool could be the antidote.
King isn’t just a writer, he’s a true teacher. –Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
As his diehard fans know, King is a member of a writers-only rock ‘n’ roll band (Amy Tan is also a member), and this recording starts off with a sampling of their music. It may sound unsettling to some, but King quickly puts listeners at ease with his confident, candid and breezy tone. Here, King tells the story of his childhood and early influences, describes his development as a writer, offers extensive advice on technique (read: write tight and no bullshit) and finally recounts his well-known experience of being hit by a drunk driver while walking on a country road in 1999 and the role that his work has played in his rehabilitation. While some of his guidance is not exactly revolutionary (he recommends The Elements of Style as a must-have reference), other revelations that vindicate authors of popular fiction, like himself, as writers, such as his preference for stressing character and situation over plot, are engrossing. He also offers plenty of commonsense advice on how to organize a workspace and structure one’s day. While King’s comical childhood anecdotes and sober reflections on his accident may be appreciated while driving to work or burning calories on a treadmill, the book’s main exercise does not work as well in the audio format. King’s strongest recommendation, after all, is that writers must be readers, and despite his adept performance, aspiring authors might find that they would absorb more by picking up the book. Based on the Scribner hardcover (Forecasts, July 31, 2000).
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Why the President Should Read This Book
Heaven knows it’s not because I, the author of this post, am a fan of Stephen King. I’ve only read 1.5 of his books. I finished the first one, while the second was perhaps the first book I ever started in my life, and then did not finish. As to whether or not King is a good writer of fiction, I rely on the marketplace to inform me. He’s sold a lot of books, that’s for sure. Many of them have been turned into successful movies. Whether or not his writing is “good” (and who defines “good” anyway?), he is popular, and if he’s popular it’s because he’s found a way to connect with people and draw them in.
King tells stories. He tells them in a way which, I wager, makes many people feel as though they know him and that given the opportunity they could be great pals. A President should have this skill or ability. First, he/she should have the ability to tell stories, because that’s a large part of what any leader does. He tells stories that deliver information in such a way that people want to follow him. He knows how to connect with those who listen. He tells stories in such a way that they are memorable, and are passed from one person to the next so that even those who don’t hear the story firsthand still end up having it delivered to them in an effective manner, that is, in such a manner that they are influenced close to or as much as they would have been had they heard it firsthand.
And as King points out in the book, good writing is both an ability and a skill. If you’re a horrible writer, you probably won’t become a good one. And if you’re merely competent you’ll never be great. But if you’re good, perhaps you can become great, and if you’re competent, perhaps you can become good. Whatever we seem to have naturally can be improved upon and developed, and a President could improve upon his ability to communicate with the general population, whether in writing, speaking, or otherwise, by reading and understanding this book.