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A book so revered by authors worldwide couldn’t possibly be sub-par, could it?
Actually, it could. And this one…sort of is.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was published in 2000, but its old age doesn’t make it any less popular among aspiring authors, many of whom seem to worship King like a diety. While I don’t share this passion for King and his horror, I can appreciate a good writing when I find one — and that’s what I was hoping for with this book. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t disappointed, at least in that regard.)
I actually had very specific expectations going into this work. King has repeatedly emphasized that while this book includes a narrative-style overview of his unarguably successful writing process, it is more autobiographical than it is a reference guide. As such, it is divided into two major parts: the former discusses his journey from youth to adulthood, including what made him interested in stories and how he got started in the industry amid familial turmoil; the latter focuses specifically on his candid tips for aspiring authors.
As I’m not a huge fan of King’s works overall, I didn’t expect that the first part of the book would interest me much. But I soon found myself captivated by his writing style. If nothing else, the first half of this book was thoroughly entertaining, and I could barely put it down.
Even before I got to Page 1, however, I expected that the latter half would be my favorite — so after reading such an amazing memoir section, I couldn’t wait to get to the writing guide. But once I got there, I felt sort of let down.
I’d heard from a colleague (an Atlanta-based author who I met during my 2016 trip to the College Media Association conference that year) that On Writing gets a bit slow in the middle, so I was ready to power through it. But while it did pick up the pace a bit eventually, the second half of the book never really lived up to its predecessor.
The writing tips were cliché at best — and nothing I’d never heard before. Perhaps this is because I read this book almost two decades after its release, but you’d think that with King’s immense success, he’d have a unique outlook on the craft of writing. But I didn’t really feel that was the case.
Instead, I got the same old tips that authors tell each other all day, every day: avoid adverbs, write the story you’re “meant to tell,” and follow your instincts.
That’s not tangible advice. At best, it’s motivating, especially if you know that you already don’t use adverbs or you’re a “pantser,” much like King. At worst, you glean nothing from it. Which is what I got.
While I understand that the book is more of a memoir for King than a writing guide, it would also be nice to see an improved structure in this work. The numbered sections all sort of ran together, and there wasn’t a sensible progression between them. Additionally, it would be very difficult, without diligent annotations, to return to the book and find King’s specific advice about a certain topic: there is no table of contents, or even labeled headers.
To me, a sensible structure should have been a priority for a book of this nature. Why wasn’t it?
Still, I did enjoy King’s reproach of scientific methods for writing books, and his emphasis on imagination and creativity. Too many writers (myself included, oftentimes) assume that good writing is all about the craft of outlining, sentence structure, and cohesiveness. But creativity is one of the most important traits a writer can possess, and King candidly recognizes this.
But even still, that’s nothing new.
I guess I wanted to read something groundbreaking, and this fell short. A fault of overly-high expectations? Perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling.
In short, if you’re a Stephen King fan, you’ll love this book. It will confirm your likely beliefs about the writing process and give you a glimpse into the life of an author you admire — which is nothing to look down upon. However, if you’re an aspiring author who’s just looking for writing or publishing advice, there are many more (better) books on writing that I could recommend instead.
What are your thoughts on Stephen King’s writing? Share with me in the comments below!
I paid for my own copy of this book with my own money.
This article was published Jan. 25, 2018.