Stephen King has gotten a lot of flak over the years. He's a hack, people say. A sellout, a genre lackey. You know what, though? All those people can suck it. He's one of the still-living writers I most respect, and not just because he's sold like a billion books or something. The dude's got chops. He's written (and published!) more than fifty novels, a half dozen nonfiction books, and over two hundred short stories. If that in and of itself isn't a stellar CV for a writer, then I don't know what is. King adheres to one of the most basic principles of writing that I know of, and that is to be prolific. So he's got that going for him, if nothing else.
And, let's be honest, of King's books, some of them really are awful. He's admits to as much himself in On Writing. But some of them are absolute gems: The Stand, Bag of Bones, and his Dark Tower series are all great reads. And his first novel, the iconic Carrie--perhaps my favorite I've read form him--is a tour de force in terror and storytelling. He won an O. Henry prize for his short story "The Man in the Black Suit," and Best American Short Stories 2007, which he edited, is one of my all time favorites of the Best American series.
But perhaps what I love most about Stephen King is his no-nonsense attitude and approach to the craft, and On Writing is full of such awesomeness. King approaches the topic with a warning, first referring readers to Elements of Style by Stunk and White (one of the single greatest tools a writer can have), and then stating that
This [On Writing] is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. 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. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit. (King, "Second Forward")I've read a dozen or two books on writing and craft, and writers with this ability to zone out their pretentiousness when they talk about writing are rare. King merely states what has worked for him, along with some standard tools that every writer should learn to use, and that's about it.
The book itself is full of gems:
- King describes his muse, an old, cranky dude lurking in the shadows, smoking a cigar.
- Hearing about King's sale of Carrie, and his family's circumstances that led up to that event, is delightful, and more than a little motivational for aspiring folks like me.
- King talks about how there are four types of writers: the bad, the mediocre, the good, and the great. While you can't teach a bad writer to be mediocre, he says, and you can't teach a good writer to be great, you can teach mediocre writers to be good, and that's what On Writing is all about.
- King is also a notorious discovery writer in the purest sense of the term--he begins each story with an idea or a character, and lets the story take over from there. He doesn't believe in outlines or premeditated structure of any kind, and it shows in On Writing. While I'm not quite such a discovery purist as King, I'm much closer to that side of the spectrum than the outlining side. So hearing his perspective was helpful for me, especially when books on the craft seem to be predominantly written by outlining writers. (Although, if you're looking for other craft books by discovery writers, I suggest Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott--it's a distant but solid second for me as far as books on craft go.)
Also, I happen to have the audiobook version of On Writing, read by King himself, which was a delight to listen to. So, if you have the chance, check that out.
Long story short: Stephen King writes (and gives writing advice) like a boss. He's a great, talented, and prolific writer, and I've learned a lot of what I do directly from him. If you're a writer, and you're looking to learn, I suggest you go read/listen to On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft immediately.