At the top of most writers’ list of must-own books is Stephen King’s On Writing. Yes, Stephen King—author of Carrie, The Shining, The Stand, Misery, and fifty-four other novels, six nonfiction books, and about two hundred short stories. If anyone should be able to speak about writing, it is Stephen King.
The first half of the book is a memoir. King describes his childhood as “a fogged-out landscape in which occasional memories appear like isolated trees.”
The nine months King should have spent in the first grade, he spent in bed. His problems started with the measles—a perfectly ordinary case—and then got steadily worse … In that year he spent either in bed or housebound, he read his way through approximately six tons of comic books, progressed to Tom Swift and Dave Dawson, then moved on to Jack London’s bloodcurdling animal tales. At some point, he began to write his own stories.
There was nothing about Stephen King’s life that was easy, from his hardscrabble childhood When he received his first rejection slip for one of his stories, he pounded a nail into the wall, wrote the title of the story on the rejection slip, and poked it onto the nail. By the time he was fourteen, “the nail in the wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced it with a spike.” At sixteen, he began to get rejection slips with handwritten notes. The first of these was from the editor of a fantasy and science-fiction magazine who wrote, “This is good. Not for us, but good. You have talent. Submit again.”
“Those four brief sentences scribbled by a fountain pen that left big ragged blotches in its wake, brightened the dismal winter of my 16th year,” King recalls.
He met Tabitha Spruce in 1969, when they were both working in a library, and fell in love during a poetry workshop. By the time they had been married three years, they had two children. At his mother’s urging, King earned a teaching certificate, but he couldn’t find a teaching job. So, he went to work in a laundry for wages not much higher than those he had been making in high school.
From a financial point of view, their two kids were probably two too many for college grads working in a laundry and at Dunkin’ Donuts. His clearest memory of those days was of coming home one Sunday afternoon after spending the weekend at his mother’s. He describes carrying the baby and a tote bag full of “baby survival equipment,” while Tabby carried their toddler, who had just spit up in her, and dragged a sack of dirty diapers behind her. The baby was sick, and they were broke. As he managed to get the door open without dropping the baby, King saw an envelope sticking out of the mailbox. It was a check from a publisher for a story he had not believed would sell anywhere. The check was for $500, the largest amount he had ever earned.
The book that changed everything was Carrie, King’s legendary debut novel about a teenage outcast and the revenge she takes on her classmates using her power to move things with her mind. He sent the Carrie manuscript off to Doubleday and pretty much forgot about it until he received a telegram from Bill Thompson, an editor at Doubleday (the Kings didn’t have a phone). “Congratulations,” it read. “Carrie officially a Doubleday book. Is$2500 advance okay? The future lies ahead. Love, Bill.”
Twenty-five hundred dollars was a small advance even at the time, but King didn’t know that and had no literary agent to tell him. Before it occurred to him that he might actually need an agent, he had generated well over $3 million worth of income. The paperback rights for Carrie were sold to Signet books for $400,000, $200,000 of which would be his. He was so stunned when he heard the amount, he slipped down the wall to the floor.
King was an alcoholic and at some level, he knew it when he wrote The Shining in 1975. By 1985, he had added drug addiction to his alcohol problem. Somehow, he continued to function at a marginally competent level, but his wife and family eventually staged an intervention. It was very tough love, and though it was successful, getting well was neither easy nor fast. “Little by little,” wrote King, “I found the beat again, and after that, I found the joy again. I came back to my family with gratitude and back to my work with relief.”
In the second half of the book, King switches gears to writing and “The Toolbox,” in which he treats the rules of grammar as the indispensable tools of the writer’s craft. Ever the storyteller, he recalls his uncle’s huge, too-heavy-to-lift toolbox and how each of the tools were to be used.
A master of metaphor, King writes: “It behooves you to construct your own toolbox and then build up enough muscle so you can carry it with you. Common tools go on top. The commonest of all, the bread of writing, is vocabulary.
“You also want grammar on the top shelf of your toolbox. Communication is composed of seven parts of speech organized by rules of grammar upon which we agree. There is a comforting simplicity to grammar, where there need to be only nouns, the words that name, and verb, the words that act.” What could be simpler? Spot runs. That’s a complete sentence. Anything else is extra and technically unnecessary, from what spot looks like to how fast he travels.
Every writer has a favorite bible. If one of mine is On Writing, Stephen King’s is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. He quotes their little classic repeatedly when he is trying to make an important point. (I wonder who Strunk and White quote when they need a higher authority.)
On page 140, King rolls up his sleeves and gets down to business. The second half of the book is dense with advice, opinions, observations, and wisdom On Writing. There is no way to do it justice by trying to summarize its content or even pick out the best of what is between its covers. What follows is only a small sample of what puts this book at the top of my list of favorites.
“You should avoid the passive tense. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it is frequently tortuous.”
“The adverb is not your friend. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation.”
“I would argue that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing – the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words.”
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. We read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great to get a sense of all that can be done.”
“If you are a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one.”
“You can read anywhere, almost, but when it comes to writing … most of do our best in a place of our own. The place can be humble, and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut.”
“Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work.”
“Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Writing description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot.”
“The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”
“Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing or hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see or hear with equal clarity (and without using a lot of tiresome, unnecessary adverbs).
“Writing fiction, especially along work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.”
“When you give out six or eight copies of a book, you get back six or eight highly subjective opinions about what’s good and what’s bad and it. If all of your readers think you did a pretty good job, you probably did. This sort of unanimity does happen, but it’s rare.”
“You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi, post office.”