Jesse Kornbluth reviews On Writing by Stephen King.
Reader Review: ‘I got this book for an airplane read. Sat next to the window and started in. That book had me laughing so hard that tears were pouring down my face. I did my best not to make any noise, but wasn’t completely successful. The woman sitting next to me thought I was distraught and in the midst of a total breakdown.’
“On Writing” is two books, both excellent, for the price of one.
The first is a memoir, maybe the closest to an autobiography we’ll ever get from Stephen King.
It’s also a lesson in writing.
From paragraph two: “I lived an odd, herky-jerky childhood, raised by a single parent who moved around a lot in my earliest years and who — I am not completely sure of this — may have farmed my brother and me out to one of her sisters for awhile because she was economically or emotionally unable to cope with us. Perhaps she was only chasing our father, who piled up all sorts of bills and then did a runout when I was two and my brother David was four.”
Lesson one: Tell the truth. And skip the charm if none belongs.
At six, Stephen wrote a story. Or, rather, copied it. His mother praised it. Stephen was forced to admit it wasn’t original. “Write one of your own, Stevie,” his mother said. “I bet you could do better.” He did. His mother praised it.
“Nothing anyone has said to me since has made me feel any happier.”
The young writer was launched.
His high school newspaper adviser was his next big influence.
“When you write, you’re telling yourself the story,” he told King. “When you rewrite, your job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.”
I underlined that; you should too.
King married. Two kids in three years. On a teacher’s salary. Meanwhile, he wrote and wrote. Men’s magazines paid for his kids’ medicines. Two novels made not much of a dent in the book world. His wife never wavered: she believed. His third novel was “Carrie.” It sold to a hardcover publisher for $2,500 — King had no agent; what did he know about advances? — and then to a paperback house for $400,000. He got the call on Mother’s Day; $200,000 of that advance was his. He looked around his dumpy apartment and cried. Then, in a Maine town where you really couldn’t find anything to splurge on, he went out and bought his wife a hair-dryer. [To buy the paperback of ‘On Writing’ from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
How do you follow a story like that? Well, if you’re Stephen King, you go right on to this: ‘I got drunk for the first time in 1966.’ And to where that leads. Alcoholism. His mother dies, sadly, badly. Cocaine addiction follows. His family intervenes. He cleans up. And now — after a hundred inspiring and brutal pages — he’s ready for Part II, which is his book about writing.
Subject, verb, object: that’s one “secret.” Verbs are active, not passive. “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Want to be a good writer? Read! A lot! And then write! A lot! And write fast: The first draft of a novel should take no longer than three months. Rewriting: If you haven’t removed 10% of your previous draft, you haven’t done it.
What’s great is that King doesn’t sit back on his throne in the pantheon and hurl thunderbolts of advice, he offers great examples. Takes you through his own errors. Shows you how you can fix yours. Oh, what a friend we have in Stephen!
As the book ends, Stephen King takes us through his late-life trauma — getting hit by a careless driver as he walks along a Maine highway. His recovery is long. And painful. The idea of writing seems very distant.
One day, his wife helps him to his desk. He lasts an hour and forty minutes. He writes 500 words. When he stops, he’s dripping with sweat and howling with pain.
But none of that is the point. The point is that he did it. And, the next day, did it again, a little longer. And, eventually, finished his book — which is this book.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start,” he tells us.
You could do a lot worse than learn to write from Stephen King.