Part of my revitalized effort to revamp my daily schedule included a designated physical reading time before I go to bed every day. The first book on my list was Stephen King’s On Writing, and I must say, it’s no surprise that it’s a bestseller. I’m under the impression that this is the only nonfiction book he has ever published, and in some ways, it’s a bit obvious. I think that is also one of the key points of the charm of this book.
First off, at the very beginning Stephen King says most books like this are self help with lots of somewhat abstract knowledge on “how to excel”. He says that this book is meant to be something of a contrast of that, giving the facts of writing alongside anecdote of one success. This book is not a manual. It doesn’t teach the reader about what an appositive is or how to construct a plot. That is sort of what I was expecting going into the book, but it’s actually pretty enjoyable the whole way through.
The first real half of the book is memoir. He talks about lots of important events in his life and what impact it had on his writing career (one example was when he wrote a fiction story based on Pit and the Pendulum and sold copies at his school, not realizing that the film itself was an adaptation.)
The second half is dedicated to the craft of writing. But again, it’s not a manual. It is driven towards providing a learning experience, but mostly he talks about major mistakes and why they’re bad, especially pet peeves of his. (He really hates adverbs and spends a good chunk of time explaining why they’re bad.) This section is focused on what tools a writer has at their disposal. What they are and when to employ them. He explains what they do, but he assumes the writer already knows how to use them.
The last bit is something of a lecture as to what the life of a writer entails, as well as a longer story about when he almost died by getting hit by a van. Finally, the reader is left with an example of one of the most important things he learned in his early career. “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”.
It’s a compelling read, especially for nonfiction. One of the reasons, as I said, is that it doesn’t read like nonfiction. He curses a lot, for one, and is quite sassy in the way he makes his points. A lot of his personality shows just through the way he writes, and that’s half the fun. I never felt like I was being lectured. Instead, it felt more like an informal conversation, and it gives the book a lot of charm.
One thing he said had a profound effect on me, as well. He claims it is a thesis of the book, though he doesn’t call back to it after the section. His philosophy is that there are four levels of writers, forming a pyramid of quantity. The first level is the bad writer. The second are competent ones. The third level, being quite small, are the really good ones, and above them the Shakespeares and the Faulkners. I believe Stephen King himself would place himself on the third level, below all the geniuses, and at first I would have said the same about myself, but after having read this book, I’m a little disillusioned to the idea at this point. He said this, which is equal parts encouraging and disheartening: “While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one”.
He does state that this idea would be rejected by lots of critics, but he makes a very strong argument for this claim. There is both a craft and art to writing, and the art cannot be taught. Before reading this book, I would have placed myself at the third level, but now it seems to me that that level is for the successes that have themselves together. Right now, I’m competent at best, but if Stephen King is to be believed, and I’m inclined to think that he’s qualified to say so, then I could be good if I applied myself enough.
So, would I recommend this book? Absolutely. In fact, I think lots of people that don’t write could get quite a bit out of it. It’s an enjoyable experience, and it dispels many illusions about the writing world as a whole.