I remember in high school that English teachers recommended we get Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Not really interested in writing at the time, I got a copy but never read it (typical high school student). Years later while attempting to put together some fiction myself, I found it on a bookshelf and started flipping through it. I was soon engrossed in how helpful and precise the recommendations were. Not a formula for success rather a framework to tighten up existing skills and produce better prose, it was somewhat humorous even more years later to read Stephen King in his 1999 On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reference Strunk & White’s little book. (See kids, those teachers were right.)
In what is a wonderfully candid yet brief look back at youth and the events that led King to be a writer, On Writing is indispensable for the Stephen King fan, as well as the would-be writer of popular fiction. While not going into the detail many fans are hoping for, King nevertheless touches upon the circumstances, both personal and social, that led to the writing of some of his novels, as well as the thought processes and approaches taken to deliver the story desired. Wary enough, King openly admits there is no formula to success but that following a few simple guidelines like: writing in active voice, being true to characters, eliminating as many adverbs as possible, trimming first drafts by 10%, and a few other smple steps can go a long way toward being a better writer, and possibly being published—nothing groundbreaking, just an affirmation hard work and precise attention to detail are necessary.
But what sticks out most in On Writing is King’s awareness of the difference between being a writer and wanting to be a writer. Writers write (and read), whereas people who want to be writers spend more time preparing to write or thinking about writing than actually writing. King uses the wonderful example of his son Owen when he was in grade school, and his desire to be a saxophone player like Clarence Clemons. King bought him a sax and organized lessons. But after six months he approached Owen and said ‘It’s ok, you don’t have to continue playing.” because he could see his son was playing only when lessons demanded he did so, not because deep in his heart he truly enjoyed the sax or was a natural musician. Looking at the saturated market today, particularly the rise of self-publishing, sets the value of this point front and center. If you don’t enjoy sitting down to write and desire to continually be better and better, then writing is probably not for you.
Finding a wonderful balance between detailed and open-ended recommendations, King recognizes that ‘good’ fiction is not the result of a black & white formula. He uses sample sentences and paragraphs from other writers to illustrate what is good and bad, while admitting that at a higher level it all comes down to the overarching vision and the ability to adhere to that vision throughout the entire production phase. It’s vague, but King argues that the best way to accomplish this is to tell the truth through the ideas and characters; if they lead you away from your intial vision, then it’s likely best to follow as what comes after will likely be more natural—more truthful—than forcing the story down pre-organized lines that may not fit the characters or scenario.
In the end, I would argue that even reviewers like myself—people who are not writing fiction but are ‘critiquing’ it—can benefit from On Writing. Everyone is entitled to their opinion (it is the 21st century after all: we’re all experts), but I cringe reading many online ‘reviews’ these days saying such-and-such a writer writes beautifully when in fact they write bloated shit. Of course some might argue the same of King (looking at you, It), but at a basic level there is no arguing King’s recommendations—exactly like Strunk & White’s advice in Elements of Style.