Today I’m bringing back a post that’s been sitting in the archives for a while. Stephen King’s On Writing is one of the most important books ever written on the craft of writing, one of the few texts that all writers should experience, regardless of your preferred form or genre. This post has been updated to reflect the latest facts. Enjoy!
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Elvis was the king of rock and roll. Michael Jackson was the king of pop. And Stephen King is the king of horror.
He’s one of the most successful authors in the world, the recipient of numerous honorable awards, and certainly one of the wealthiest and most recognizable writers alive.
As someone who loves good storytelling, regardless of genre, I can appreciate a good horror story. When it comes to Stephen King, I especially appreciate the creativity and artistic merit that goes into writing good horror fiction.
I’ve read a few of King’s books and enjoyed them, mostly those that fall just outside of horror: The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis, and The Gunslinger. I loved the film Stand by Me, which was based on his short story “The Body” as well the film adaptations of The Green Mile and Misery.
According to Wikipedia as of 2022: “King has published 64 novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and five nonfiction books. He has written approximately two hundred short stories,” and “his books have sold more than 350 million copies.” That’s a lot!
I have great respect for Stephen King. I love good writing and top-notch storytelling. With all his experience, success, talent, and craftsmanship, I can’t think of a better mentor for writers than Stephen King.
The Buzz On Writing
Years ago, I saw Mr. King’s book, On Writing, on a shelf in my local bookstore. I thought it was good that horror writers now had their own bible, and moseyed downstairs to the used-books basement, where I liked to hunt for old McCaffrey and Bradbury books.
The buzz about King’s book wasn’t immediate, but it was insistent. First one writer, then another, would rave about “Stephen King’s book on writing.” This is a convenient sentence because the book has a convenient (and brilliant) title; It’s called On Writing.
Eventually the buzz became a persistent hum, almost a chant: “You haven’t read it yet?” “Oh, you’ll LOVE it.” “It’s the BEST writing book EVER.”
Here’s the thing about writers: They don’t throw around book recommendations haphazardly, especially books about writing. So when every writer you know is telling you that this is a wonderful book that you simply must experience, you really ought to read it.
So I did.
A King’s Life
On Writing is part memoir, part instruction on the craft of writing. This is a smart structure, and one that’s rarely seen in books that aim to educate and inform. Doesn’t it make sense that people who aspire to become successful authors would benefit not only from learning writing skills, but also from studying the lives of other authors who have already achieved success?
The first half of the book takes the reader through Mr. King’s writing life from childhood, through young adulthood, and to his ultimate success as an author. Ever wonder what a wildly successful author read as a kid? Which movies he watched? When he started writing? What challenges he faced in getting his work published?
It’s all there, including the nail on little Stevie King’s bedroom wall upon which he impaled his rejection slips — a long nail, which eventually filled up and led to a second nail. But little Stevie King did something most young writers fail to do: he refused to give up. So the rejections piled up, but so did his writing skills. And then one day, his work was published. And then another day, he got a movie deal (Carrie). Book deals, awards, and legions of fans followed. But buried in all the acclaim and attention is a man who simply loves to write, a man who lives to write.
And Stephen King is a man who has mastered writing.
In the second half of On Writing, Stephen King gets down to the nitty gritty. This is the part of the book that’s just for writers. The first half, being somewhat of a memoir, will delight readers and fans of his books, films, and stories. It will delight writers as well, but we want to know what advice the king has for his loyal subjects, and whether or not you like horror, (indeed, whether or not you like Stephen King’s writing at all), any writer who yearns to carve a career out of the passion that is writing is one of Mr. King’s subjects.
It all starts with the one thing every writer must have: a toolbox. In your toolbox, you’ll put your vocabulary, grammar, and a host of other tools you’ll use to create effective works that resonate and compel. Mr. King talks about plot, characters, where to get ideas, and why The Elements of Style is his favorite writing book.
When I opened this book and started reading, I didn’t know what to expect. I was in the middle of at least four other books (a poetry collection, two novels, and another writing book). I quickly forgot about them all. I could not put this book down, so I devoured it in less than two days. That’s a testament to Stephen King’s writing, because I’m not easily impressed, and it takes damn good writing to keep me turning pages and singing praises.
The value of On Writing is immeasurable. I find that writing advice is valuable, but when you add personal story and experience to the mix, it becomes priceless. Every year, I buy and read books that promise to help writers. Most of them end up in the discard pile and get hauled off to the used bookstore. Very few make it to the shelves of my library, let alone to the recommendations I make here at Writing Forward, but now, On Writing has become one of my favorite selections.
Do yourself a favor and get a copy, then read it right away. You won’t regret it.
I agree with just about every thing you said, here. I don’t like horror, either. Not even a little, so that this book on writing is the only Stephen King I’ve ever read … and that it was entirely worth it.
It’s a gem! I feel like it filled in a gap in my writing resources collection, mostly because of the memoir that is included. I love reading, watching, and listening to biographies!
The book is an essential part of my writing library. Whenever rejection gets me down or motivation is lacking I immediately read the key parts.
I especially like his reference as to why one should write – “not to get paid or laid”, but for the joy of it.
If you are serious or want to be buy the book.
It has become an essential book in my library as well. I was especially fascinated with the part describing the nail in the wall upon which he put all the rejection slips. Another part that stood out was when he revised a story and sent it to a publication that had previously rejected the very same story, but this time they accepted it (presumably because he had established a name for himself). There’s a treat on every page!
Not a fan of horror. Isn’t everyday life harsh enough? But I like mysteries and I suppose without all the horror elements King could be considered a kind of mystery writer. I’ll have to think about this book, but at the moment my plate is full.
This book was on my wish list for well over a year before I finally bought it. I feel like I read it when the time was right for me to read it, so if you’re meant to read it, then you will (when the time is right). This book has nothing to do with horror; it’s just about writing and being a writer. Also, Mr. King has written novels and short stories that aren’t in the horror genre at all, such as Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (adapted into the film The Shawshank Redemption) and The Green Mile.
Melissa, I am SO glad you shared this review. I can relate to every word! I am not a big horror fan at all. And although I have watched a couple of his movies (out of curiosity), I have also walked past his book many times. I even saw it the other day sitting on a shelf–used. It was around $1 or $2. I’m SO kicking myself right now because I almost bought it. *sigh*
I think I will treat myself to a copy sometime soon. And I’ll definitely read it quickly. I’ll let you know my thoughts. 😀
Thanks, Melissa! I value your opinion, so I know I want this book!
After reading this book, I’ve already decided to read more of Stephen King’s work, though I will probably stay away from the hardcore horror. However, first I have a big pile of books to get through, so maybe in a year or two…heheee. By the way, I received my copy of Grammar Girl’s book last week (on your recommendation), and I’m greatly looking forward to reading it and then reviewing it here. Also, I’m loving the Larabars!
If you’re not a horror fan, but want to read more of King’s work, you might try Bag of Bones. He describes it as “a haunted love story.” I liked it, and while it has a little gruesomeness in a couple of places, it has some sweet parts and is much less icky/traumatizing than some of his work.
I’d like to read Bag of Bones as well as The Stand and The Dark Tower series. I’ll be busy for a while…
Hi Melissa – It’s a few years since I read this book and I loved it too. I’m going to have to get myself another copy and re-read.
When you mentioned the nail in the wall, you reminded me of how persistent a writer has to be and I definitely needed reminding again.
The older I get, the more I believe that persistence is the true key to success, and that’s probably why the nail in the wall struck me so much.
I love horror and even if there’s a genre I don’t like, I don’t turn the book away because it’s in that genre. Every book is different and unique no matter what the “genre” is. And if the story is written well enough it doesn’t matter where it’s shelved.
I have not yet read “On Writing” but look forward to it.
I’m the same way, Hannah. I have read some horror novels, and I’m definitely open to reading more in the future. My main problem with horror is that I have a difficult time suspending my disbelief. I don’t know why, because suspending my disbelief is not a problem at all with fantasy and science fiction. It’s strange. In any case, On Writing is excellent, and I do hope you’ll read and enjoy it.
Thank you for this review. My daughter loves Stephen King and has a lot of his books. I do not like horror either, but have heard of this book. I have it but have not read it yet. But I definitely will now.
It’s definitely a great read whether you’re a fan of horror or not. Come back and share your thoughts after you’ve read it!
I used to love King’s books, but never thought of myself as a horror reader. Now I don’t really read any horror at all, but am still a big fan of On Writing. The man has a gift.
Yes, although I’ve read just a little bit of his work, it’s clear that he has mastered many angles: story, plot, characters, craft, mechanics, and more.
Beautiful write up. I know someday I will read it. It sounds too compelling.
Have you tried the Talisman? It’s less horror. I remember reading it one Summer and it was a crazy adventure. Actually, it was more like an experience.
I haven’t tried The Talisman; in fact, I don’t think I’ve heard of that one. My Stephen King reading list sure is growing! Thanks for your kind words, J.D.
I love this book and just about every King book I have ever read. Horror is one of my all time favorite genre’s and King is definitely a master at it. When ‘On Writing’ came out I ran right out and purchased it and have read it a few times since. Wonderful post on this book and this writer by the way.
Since your not a big fan of horror, one of Kings books you may enjoy is Dolores Claiborne. More mystery than horror and of course a wonderfully written page turner.
Ah yes, I saw the movie, but I don’t remember it very well. I do love everything I’ve read by Mr. King so far, and the only movie I wasn’t crazy about was Pet Sematary. I’ll add Dolores Claiborne to the list (after I finish the Dark Tower series). Thanks for the recommendation, Tiffiny!
You know I love this post! I gotta get this book!
You’ve definitely gotta get it! I inhaled it. Such a good one.
The chant still persistant. I had the book in my list of books to get, but after this great post I think I am going to get it sooner.
Yes, I think any writer should have this one at the top of the to-read list (if it’s not on the already-read list). I highly recommend it, especially for fiction writers.
other then the Dark Tower series, give me stephen king’s top five books…
Since I have not read all of his books, I wouldn’t attempt to list the top five. However, I’m sure you can find reader recommendations online with a simple Google or Amazon search.
I read Stephen King’s “On Writing” in one go too. It was fascinating and highly enjoyable and instructive. But above all it was inspirational. It made me want to write even more. If I ever get stuck I’ll pick it up and have a read and then I just have to go and write. Highly recommended for any writer.
A well crafted book on writing should always inspire! Stephen King hits the spot.
I love Stephen King and his book On Writing! It’s the type of book that stays inspirational no matter how many times you’ve read it. I actually put it at number 1 on my list of top 10 writing books of all time.
On Writing is what it says on the tin. For King’s writer-readers that want to know what his tips are for writing horror specifically, that book is called Danse Macabre.
I wholeheartedly agree. I bought this book shortly after starting writing. It was one of the best buys I’ve ever made.
Having said that, another book that should be on every writer’s bookshelf is Mary Deal’s Write it Right.
Mary is an excellent writer. I have read several of her books.
Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll have to check that out.