I bought this book many years ago, perhaps when writing my novel. I read it, enjoyed it, and passed it on to a friend with the recommendation to read it. The book never returned. When I saw it in the library, I wondered if it was as good as I remembered.
Stephen King is a very good writer. I know that sounds like an odd thing to say, given his widespread renown as an author, and perhaps it is. I don’t think I’ve ever read any of his work (outside this) or seen any of the movies based on his work. But here, he makes the most mundane story extremely compelling.
The subtitle of this book is “A memoir of the craft” and roughly half the book is memoirish.
The first half of the book is a collection of anecdotes about King’s life. Most of them are just everyday life/ growing up stories, yet you are left with an impression that King lead a wild and exciting life. King entitles this first section “CV” and suggests that these events are key to understanding him as a writer. I’m not sure this is true, plenty of people have had similar life stories and not become a writer. There are two things that stand out to me though. One is that King consumed wildly in the sci-fi/thriller/horror genre as a child. This is key to learning what works and what doesn’t. It also shows that he has a true passion for the genre in which he writes. But what is even more illustrative is that King started writing and submitting his stories at a very early age. He racked up a stack of rejection slips before he left high school. He, like many others, put his 10,000 hours of mastery in before he hit it big.
King briefly discusses grammar & the mechanics of writing (“The toolbox”). He illustrates his thoughts with snippets from other sources. He does this deftly. I’m reading another book about writing that employs the same tactic and it is driving me up the wall. The clips are either extremely boring, or perhaps worse, vastly more interesting that the actual text. Here, King’s examples are interesting enough that you don’t lose interest in continuing to read, and his writing is lively enough that you are eager to get back to his thoughts.
King has a unique perspective on writing ; he believes stories are like fossils. The writer merely excavates them. He hates “plot”; in his mind plot is artificial and a tool used by a bad writer. Things like themes and symbolism likewise shouldn’t be deliberately planned in the first draft. A good writer just, I don’t know, channels the story from somewhere. As a consequence, he argues that the first draft should be written very quickly, so the author doesn’t have a chance to overthink it. The draft should then be put away for several months, until it is completely forgotten. (I guess I’m taking this to the extreme then; my draft has been aging for a decade!) Then, editing can happen. At this point, the theme or symbolism that was inherent will be detected by the author. Now, it is perfectly fine to polish, edit, rewrite, and retune the work to emphasize the themes or symbolism.
I think King can write this way because he spent decades honing his craft and internalized the necessary components of a good story. He doesn’t need to sit down and plot out the story; his subconscious knows how to construct a compelling plot. I think this is common with experts; they just do it, and half the time they don’t even know how/why they did. This does lead to problems when they try to teach, since they don’t exactly know their own process. Magic just happens.
I don’t know that I agree with King’s rules on writing. But I think his book is a beautiful illustration of mastery.