Literature Review: “On Writing” By Stephen King
The first part of Stephen King’s 1999 memoir/writing guide is autobiography. King talks about his memories of growing up, the jobs and people that shaped him, both as a person and a writer. In the second part of the book he discusses his ideas on how to write, what good writers do, and things of that nature. It’s very good stuff. I’ve read embarrassingly little on the subject of how to write, and this served as a great guide to writing.
Probably the part of the book that resonated with me the most was King’s assertion about the importance of developing story first, and then worrying about things like theme, style, motifs, and so on. He said that the first thing you should do when writing a fictional story is come up with a situation, and then work from there. For instance, say you come up with the situation of a little girl lost in the woods with a radio. Once you have that basic situation in mind, the first draft should sort of write itself. Basically, he was saying that you don’t have to map out an entire story before it happens; let the words come out of you while you’re writing. Which was great fucking advice. There have been so many times where I’ve come up with a decent idea, but then I’ll think “Oh, I don’t know how I would make this work,” so I’ve just given up. And I have found that a lot of times when you’re writing, you just kind of come up with ideas while you’re in the process of writing. The story is like a river; you want it to take you along with it, wherever it’s going. It’s once you start forcing things that writers get in trouble.
Another lesson from On Writing was the importance of being willing to cut things out that don’t advance the story. Every story has some superfluous details, clearly, but most if not all of the words in a story should be around to help push the story forward. Even if what you wrote was great, a writer has to be willing to “eat their own darlings” as King put it.
Compared to most of Mr. King’s other works, this one is short and reads easily. I read the whole thing in a day-and-a-half. If you’re at all interested in the craft of writing, or even if you just enjoy Stephen King, then you should read this book.