Have you ever thought about being a writer? I’ve wanted to be one since I was in the third grade—ever since I saw a film in the library that showed a children’s author go through the writing process in a very practical way.
In the years that followed, I kept trying my hand at storytelling, with mixed results. I wrote my first novel at the end of high school and, with dreams of glory in my head, submitted it to several big publishers. I pity the slush readers who I subjected to it, because it would take another decade before I was good enough to consider publishing.
The writer’s journey is one that differs for everyone. Some fall into it somewhat naturally, while others study for years to learn what it takes. And, sadly, there are those who will never be able to crack that nut. The tone-deaf of literature, if you will.
But to everyone I’ve ever talked to about writing, there is one book that I always end up mentioning—On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It taught me more about writing fiction than all the courses and workshops I’d taken combined. No joke.
I should start of by saying I’m not a rabid King fan. He’s hit and miss for me, but what I like, I really like. I’d even argue that some of his books (The Stand, The Gunslinger, 11/22/63) approach literature. But regardless of your views of King as a writer or even as a person, if you’re interested in writing, you owe it to yourself to read this.
On Writing is divided into two parts. The first half is a memoir of Stephen’s life, from growing up in the 50s up to adulthood, in which he gives some insight into the events that shaped him as a writer. This alone is worth the price of admission, as it is a fascinating look into the man’s life. This is followed at the end by a short epilogue detailing his near fatal accident in 1999, and his recuperation afterwards. It reminds us that our lives shape us as writers, since you can see some of the influences that came out later in some of his better known books.
The second half all about the craft. But for a book that is supposed to be teaching you, he does a great job of not making it feel like you’re reading a lesson. It all flows from the same easy narrative style as the rest of the book. From explaining old chestnuts of advice like “kill your darlings” and slaying adverbs, to editing with the door closed and then open, he also weaves in anecdotes from his own life and other writers that help underscore his points.
The brilliance of the book doesn’t come from how he teaches you everything you need to know about being a writer. It comes from the fact that he doesn’t. He teaches you enough. The fact is there is no one way to be a writer, and it’s a mistake to try and force anyone along a predefined path. You can give all the detail in the world about how YOU write, and why what you do works for you, but you run the risk of just teaching people to write like you do. You might also be filling their heads with useless stuff that doesn’t even apply to them.
You don’t want to drive an aspiring writer to his or her destination, you want to teach them how to read a map, give them a compass, and let them find their own path to their own destination. It’s the journey that matters, as they say. And that’s where King succeeds. He gives the would-be writer the basic tools, and encourages them to use them as they see fit. Because a writer cannot be made through classes and workshops.
There are only two things that will make someone into a writer: Reading a lot, and writing a lot. Everything else is details, and it takes TIME. There are no shortcuts. Don’t be afraid of lousy first drafts, because all first drafts are lousy. Don’t worry if your first book isn’t that good, because with few exceptions, that’s true for everyone else as well (I still have the one I wrote in high school in my office)
Finally, the energy infused in the On Writing is contagious as hell. Any aspiring writers who read it will find it difficult not to start on a new project (or maybe finish an old one) as soon as they’ve read it.
I bought my copy of On Writing in Japan back in 2001 for 1580 yen, and still have it today (faded Japanese price tag visible on the back). I’ve read it a half dozen times so far, and no doubt will read it a half dozen more.