I don’t know why I’ve never read On Writing, since it came out just before my Stephen King phase. I know it’s gotten a lot of praise—maybe even more praise than King tends to get himself.
I don’t really know where I stand on Stephen King. I think I read The Green Mile in sixth or seventh grade and I really loved it. I know I even re-read it. I also liked The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon pretty well. I thought Misery was better than the movie version and that The Shining wasn’t as good as Kubrick’s movie version. I was fascinated by Carrie, though I’m pretty sure the book actually bored me and I just wished I had telekinetic powers to torture people. (I was an angry teen; now I’d just use such powers to like prevent car accidents or something.) I gave up on the novel Firestarter and then ’Salem’s Lot made me give up on King altogether. In fact, I have a distinct memory of running into an acquaintance I didn’t like very much reading ’Salem’s Lot and writing him off altogether when he said it was good. Once a snob always a snob, I suppose.
I distrust my own opinion of Stephen King because I read him when I was in middle school. In fact, he might have been the first “adult” novelist I read (him or Amy Tan stick in my mind as favorites of the period). Perhaps I should consider it lucky that I burned through my popular fiction phase at a time when everything else in your life is just as embarrassing as reading the novel The Exorcist (not King, but when you’re reading about exorcisms and black masses to freak out your religious schoolmates, you’re not expanding your literary horizons).
On the other hand, the guy has published a billion novels and made money doing so, so you have to believe I really tried not to let my feelings about Stephen King’s other work color my reading of On Writing. I will say this, however: by this point in my Renegade Word career, I’ve read a handful of instructive books on writing. On Writing feels less like a book aimed at writers and more like a book aimed at Stephen King readers (not that those two groups are mutually exclusive).
On Writing is a curious hybrid: part memoir, part meditation, with a sprinkling of instruction. My other reviews for Renegade Word have been on books that come from a different context: they are written for writers hoping to improve elements of their craft: structure, editing, characters. They are shelved in section 808 of your public library. On Writing is shelved in Biography. This makes it rather hard to review, in my opinion.
I was surprised to find that my writing routine is actually pretty similar to Stephen King’s. Although now King enjoys hours to spend at his writing, he did get his start like most of us: day-jobbing and writing in any spare moments. His advice seems a little obvious at times. For instance, he reminds his readers they must have a good grasp of grammar in order to write. The fact that he has to dole out such advice was a sticking point for me, as though a significant portion of his book’s audience might just try their hand at writing because they happen to be reading this book.
But even more than that, we share certain idiosyncrasies. For example, he doesn’t really like plotting stories: he takes the scenario-based approach, answering a “what if…?” question. I can’t plot my way out of a paper bag, but if I try to bring a hypothesis to a logical conclusion, I can usually get a story out with some agony.
Above all, King says whatever you write has to be true—that is, it must be realistic and relatable to the reader. I can get behind that. In fact, I think one of the highest compliments in a workshop is when people comment on a high level of verisimilitude between their experience of the world and that of the characters.
So, all in all, I found the biographical portions of On Writing more interesting than those that address craft. Even the parts I related to made a tiny voice in my head say, “Yeah, but this guy wrote Rose Red and hates almost all adaptations of his work that aren’t made into terrible mini-series.” In On Writing, he appears unpretentious, but he’s such a celebrity in the publishing world it’s almost hard to just take him at his word.
But hey, the dude loves Blood Meridian and so do I. Maybe I’ll give Bag of Bones a shot. Who knows? I’ve got at least two other “writers talk about writing” books, so maybe the genre will become less mystifying to me.