On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
I annotated this book because I really had no choice. Stephen King was the first author of non-young adult fiction I ever read. I picked up Carrie a few years shy of Carrie’s age, at maybe 12 or 13, had my first taste of true horror, and never looked back. After Carrie came Pet Sematary, The Shining, Cujo, The Body, Christine, and I only stopped reading King when I attempted Needful Things and realized that where it came to raw adult humanity, at 13-14 years, I was out of my depth. But it is apparent to me now why I was so drawn to King in the first place: his grasp of language—and his understanding of when and how to use complex language in conjunction with simple language to captivate a reader. This book, On Writing, was no exception to that standard for him, even if, as he says, writing nonfiction for this book was like wrenching out his own teeth. It was an effortless read, an actual memoir page-turner, if such a thing can exist beyond Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.
Stephen King wrote this book, as he says, not to be a “literary gasbag or transcendental asshole,” but because he “care[s] about language [...] and care[s] about the art and craft of telling stories on paper” (viii). Unlike Ben Percy’s Thrill Me, King’s is not divided strategically into chapters outlining specific aspects of writing—per se. At least, the chapters are not titled accordingly and there’s no table of contents to indicate the book’s layout. Nevertheless, King covers the basics: vocabulary, grammar, style (technical/sentence-level), style (voice/tone/style), character, plot, imagery/symbolism/theme, revision, agents, and publication. He touches each in an amalgam of instruction and memoir, describing his own path to becoming a writer via anecdote interwoven with lecture. Because of this, even more so than Ben Percy’s craft book, this one engaged completely.
A few years ago, I heard somewhere that Stephen King and John Irving approach fiction writing in opposite ways. Irving knows his full plot, including the ending, before he starts; his effort is to bring his characters to an ending he’s determined. King creates a scenario and characters, then lets that scenario and those characters play; he rarely sees the story’s ending before it’s written—and often his characters surprise him, the ending surprises him. If it’s true, this distinction is telling. King’s approach feels natural, human. Irving’s, contrived or forced. Perhaps it is King’s approaches to inspiration and character that influence this. King explains that he cannot tell you where his ideas come from. They seem to appear out of nowhere—or out of everyday-life details—or maybe a combination of both. He writes, “There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up” (37). This inspires me because until six months ago, I assumed I could never come up with ideas sufficient to fuel fiction. King insists that is untrue—that fiction stems from strange connections in my everyday existence. And I think he’s right!
King also insists that his stories are founded in strong characters—which, if you allow for the standard definition of “literary fiction” would align him as a writer of literary fiction, not specifically horror. And this makes sense because not all his stories are genre horror. He really seems not to care about labels (like Percy) but emphasizes story. As for characters, King insists that the only rule is that characters act true to their nature. As a part of this lesson, he insists (again, like Percy) on giving them a job/occupation and sticking to what you know. My favorite lesson about character from King is that we do not have to really like the protagonist of a story to empathize with them. This resonated with me since I am currently writing a rather despicable antihero protagonist, myself. Carrie’s a great example. King writes, “I never liked Carrie […] but through Sondra and Dodie I came at least to understand her a little. I pitied her and I pitied her classmates as well, because I had been one of them once upon a time” (82). He writes quite similarly about Annie Wilkes, the captor in Misery: “…the nurses who holds Paul Sheldon prisoner in Misery, may seem psychopathic to us, but it’s important to remember that she seems perfectly sane and reasonable to herself—heroic, in fact, a beleaguered woman trying to survive in a hostile world filled with cockadoodie brats” (191). Again, we don’t have to like these characters—what matters is that in they are actors in their given situations and that they act truthfully to their nature. This means no sugar-coating humanity. It means never turning away. It explains why the father in Pet Sematary might bury his own child in an Indian burial ground, knowing full well that the creature that comes back will no longer be his son—it is attributable to his guilt and grief. It’s not pretty. It’s never pretty. It’s just true. I love this and will use it.
As for the more technical/mechanical recommendations in King’s book, there are two suggestions that stick with me. First is the 10% Formula for revision: For whatever you write in the first draft, eliminate 10% of that for the second draft. Take out everything that isn’t the story. This is a beautiful way to quantify revisions, and I will implement it. Second is this idea that we should submit our pieces for publication to magazines/publications inside that style/genre. I have not been doing this and I think it shows; I’ve had nothing published in five months, a desperate state. King writes, “Submitting stories without first reading the market is like playing darts in a dark room—you might hit the target every now and then, but you don’t deserve to” (240). King also recommends providing a brief synopsis of your work in the submission/cover letter. This is another thing I’ve not done—and will do.
Overall, I’d recommend this book to any reader, whether they’re interested in writing or not, specifically for its merit as memoir. Who wouldn’t want to know how Stephen King honed his craft, after all?