King has written fifty best-sellers, many of which have become hit movies. It would be churlish therefore to deny him the mantle of greatness. Yet as a how-to book for writers, this one is pretty weak.
The book has only about 100 pages of writing advice. The first 100 pages and the last 50 are autobiography, not really memoir as the title claims. King fans will probably find the autobiography interesting in its own right, though I didn’t see how it connected to his writing. The question we would all like answered is, “What made you such a successful writer?” There are few answers. He always wanted to write, and he always wrote a lot. Well.
The middle section, which is advice for writers, is perhaps useful for a beginner. For grammatical advice, he recommends Strunk and White. Backstory? Keep it short and weave it in. Research? You don’t need much. Characters? Use composites of people you know. Adverbs? Minimize. And so on. Nothing here you wouldn’t get from any issue of Writers Digest.
At the end there’s a (very) short story: a draft and then another showing editorial marks against the first draft. This is mildly interesting until you realize that at least half of the edits are the replacement of a character’s name from “Ostermeyer” to “Olin,” something you would accomplish in a few keystrokes on a computer. It looks like more than it is, marked up in longhand.
Other changes are patently obvious, such as dropping the last two words from the phrase, “His heart sank a little.” In all, I didn’t find much insight in the demonstration.
King is noted for his aversion to outlining. He is a strong advocate of seat-of-the-pants writing. Just start writing and see where the story takes you. That approach doesn’t work for me. It leads only to dead-ends and/or chaotic confusion. And maybe that’s why I don’t enjoy King’s fiction. Truth is, I don’t even enjoy the movies made from his fiction. They strike me as obvious and overwrought.
There’s enough literary space in the world for all kinds of writers and all points of view, so I allow that King’s fiction appeals to a whole lot of people. Those same people might like this nonfiction book as well.
King, Stephen (2000). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner (284 pp.)