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 (as of 2019). 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.
While I’m not crazy about horror stories, I do appreciate the creativity and artistic merit that goes into writing good horror fiction. Maybe the fact that I’m bonkers over sci-fi and fantasy will redeem me. Maybe Stephen King will forgive me.
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 2019: “King has published 61 novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and six nonfiction books. He has written nearly 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 the shelf, 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 persistent. 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.