Book Review: Stephen King, On Writing

You rarely see honesty about failure.  One recent example of someone who embraced the failure and struggle came to me from a surprising source – Stephen King.  With him, the struggle was real, success almost never came, it certainly didn’t come overnight, and he failed many times.

I’ve labeled this a book review but it’s more like observations of a book and mainly me trying to convince you why I think you should probably read it.  This book was recommended by Physician On Fire, and it’s Stephen King’s book, On Writing.

If You Read Fiction You Will Be Interested

Anyone who has ever read a fiction book should immediately order this book and read it.  How’s that for an endorsement?  It doesn’t matter if you don’t like Stephen King’s books.  That’s irrelevant.  The insight provided on the process of a successful author is interesting enough, regardless of who the writer is.

For me, I have read a number of King’s books.  Some I have liked (Green Mile) and other’s I have put down after reading a few hundred pages (Bag of Bones). Including this book, I have read 3 of his books since June.

I Thought It Was Going To Be An Instruction Manual

I was expecting to pick up a few insights on the practice of writing from one of the truly modern day, successful writers of our time. What I got was so much more.  I finished this rather short book of a few hundred pages feeling so much respect for an author who has been writing as long as he was capable of the task.  This man was born to write.

King had wanted to write a book about his process.  His love of writing.  In order to do that, he decided to tell his reader about where he began – how it all started.  To say he started from humble beginnings is a bit of an understatement.  In a home without much means, he found his passion through telling stories.

In a world without blogs (imagine that) he became committed to trying to publish his stories in magazines.  As a young teenager he began submitting stories and enthusiastically collecting rejection letters.

In the early days, his definition of success became how many rejection letters he was collecting.  Eventually these rejection letters started coming with little special hand-written notes.  The notes were encouragement from editors of magazines.  Some were tips on how to get better.

These notes from editors proved to be a sign of progress.  Eventually he became published.  Being published paid him a small fee as compensation.

His Teachers Knew He Was Talented

His writing actually got him in trouble at school.  Apparently the teachers didn’t find it very funny to be included in some of his writings.  However, at the same time, they seemed to recognize that this young man had some ability.  One teacher even arranged him a job at the local newspaper.

As a young man, married, with a child, he did what many aspiring writers do.  He became a teacher.  Basically, he was living just above the poverty line in the 1970s.  His daily struggle was to write in the evening after a day of teaching.  That struggle eventually lead to more and more stories being sold.

He Was Really Poor And Ever So Consistent

The struggle was real.  Not having enough money to afford antibiotics for his sick child, he luckily received a check from a publisher for one of his stories that allowed him to afford a doctor’s visit and some of the magic “pink stuff” medicine.

While writing Carrie in the early 1970s, his wife actually pulled the story from the trash can, telling him that he had something there and he should keep going.  This would change his life forever.  At the time, Stephen was making $6,400 a year as a teacher.

After sending the transcript off the Doubleday he had kind of forgotten about it.  Busy with kids and life.  Then one day while in the teachers break room he got a call over the intercom saying that his wife was on the phone (the world with not texting sounds weird now).

The call from his wife was to inform him that his book Carrie would be published and an advance of $2,500 was to be paid.  Big time money.

It Gets Better

The description of the phone call from his editor describing the royalties from the paperback sales of Carrie is pretty amazing.  While standing in the kitchen of his small 4-room apartment, his editor tells him that the rights were sold and would earn him $400,000.

When the money finally started rolling in for King, you aren’t left thinking he didn’t earn every little bit of it.  He was on the edge between failure and success for so long.  It is wonderful to read of the moment he reached his success.  He pulled his little family out of near poverty to a life of plentiful.

Love him or hate him, Stephen King is a force to be reckoned with.  He’s an example to anyone of the commitment and frequency of action needed to succeed.  As he describes it, he writes every day.  It’s just what he does and who he is.  Even through struggles with alcohol and drugs, he still managed to persevere.

He Almost Died

You may remember that King was nearly killed while going for a walk.  Hit by a drunk driver.  At the time of the writing of this book it was one of the longest periods of time with no writing.  But as soon as he was able, his wife set up his desk and he began writing.

The Book Also Gets Into How To Actually Write

The process he describes is unorthodox.  King doesn’t even really recommend writing classes or traditional techniques for novel writing.  Many writers of fiction will create character boards and story lines to help map out their novel.  King doesn’t do this.  The one story he did this type of planning for, “Bag Of Bones,” he admits that the end result wasn’t that good.

What he does do is simply ask a question.

“What if a mom and daughter were stuck in a car with a rabid dog lurking about?”  And there you have Cujo.

“What if a famous writer was held captive by a fan?” And there you have Misery.

His process of asking a question sparks his imagination.  His characters and story take form as he writes them.  Once the draft is complete, he lets it sit until he almost forgets what he wrote.  He then comes back and does the second draft.

One of those rejection notes I mentioned earlier had a word of advice he claims to still follow.  First draft – 10% = second draft.  As a self-proclaimed “putter-inner” versus a “taker-outer” he has always remembered to reduce the second draft, eliminating the clutter of the story.  It’s hard to imagine from an author who has had some fairly large novels published.

One Of The Biggest Takeaways

Lastly, what King demands of any aspiring writer is that you must read.  He is an avid reader and actually includes a rather long reading list in the book.  Writers should be reading and writing every day.

Anyone else out there read this book?

What’s your favorite Stephen King Book?