The second greatest book I have ever read on the greatness of writing is actually the more practical of the two. While Zen in the Art of Writing provides the motivational jumpstart you require to get the creative juices flowing, this volume, also a collection of previously published essays, is the more nitty gritty one.
For On Writing by Stephen King paints a vivid picture of the how’s and why’s of his creative process. And when he explores all the facets he has gone through, you will walk away with a very profound feeling inside.
In the beginning, King gives you his autobiography, a cleansing of his soul, so we can understand the man he was, the man he became, and the man he is now. The earliest childhood recollections do possess a certain Stand By Me vibe, with some memorable traumas evoking sympathy for the man who scares us so much. After all these decades, it always felt like nothing could terrorize the horror master. But now we learn different.
On Writing churns through the rest of King’s life. His first foray into alcohol, starting when he was a teen, with brutal effects. The massive love and admiration for his wife Tabitha, right from the moment he locked eyes on her. His first rocky years of adulthood and marriage and having children and low wage soul-sapping menial jobs. Poverty and misery was his existence. Pounding out story after story was his future.
At this point, the tangential connection of two very disparate ideas collide in Stephen King’s mind. This spark of a random comment combined with an obscure article he remembered brings forth a few typed pages, which he then promptly tossed into the trash. Tabitha fished them out. Told him to finish it. To get it out of his system. Upon completion, he submitted the manuscript, and waited. The mounting bills and disconnected phone plague them as time rolls on. Then one day King receives a telegram. His first book has been bought by a major publisher. For $2,500. And this was 1973. The book was Carrie.
At this point, after Carrie finally saw publication, King’s career skyrockets and the legend is born. But while the sales and his life radically improve, his alcoholism grows exponentially as well. By the late eighties, after numerous interventions, he finally swears off booze and drugs forever. What ruins this renaissance is when King almost dies after being hit by a van in 1999. A long painful recovery culminates in his finally taking back the keyboard, and storming up the bestseller lists as if he never left.
When you hit the second part of his testament, King dwells into all his sundry ideas and thoughts on the actual craft of writing. Working religiously all mourning, pounding out page after page till he meets a certain goal. It it takes three hours, fine, if it takes six hours, okay. It takes what it takes. The rest of the day is spent consuming hours of various reading materials of all types and styles. King goes everywhere with something tucked away to read. You must feed the engine. And along the way, he embarks on a walk in order to clear his head and let ideas simmer and ruminate. The ending for The Stand came about from one of these wanderings.
King also mentions repeatably early advice he trusted. Make your second draft ten percent shorter. And the next draft even shorter. And so on. And so on. Get the idea? How this is done is up to you, but one of King’s favourite methods is by changing characters names, making them shorter. Details are included with one short story being dissected quite mercilessly. Learning how to be cold-blooded with your pet, your wonderful story, is not easy, but King shows you how with startling results.
One of his final steps is to show his finished offering to a few trusted confidantes. As he puts it, if they find a logic hole, then everyone else will find the same hole. Many more great concepts of how to get your idea out are included, and all creative folks should pick and choose and try out what suits them. But this volume is filled with a metric ton of thoughts to keep you moving, so their should be no shortage of tricks to try.
On Writing is the second best book I have ever read on the art and craft of writing. And it was incredibly well worth the read. King plums his own past, showcases his career, admits to his foibles and failures, and lets us peek into his personal comebacks. And how ideas, large and small, can be found anywhere and anytime. While it sounds all so simple, it took lots of hard work of the actual doing for King to succeed.
So now we switch from the earthly to the practical.
So get writing. Start right now. And keep going. Stephen says so.
P.S. All images are copyright 2012 to Stephen King. And like all Stephen King books, it is rated R for language and subject matter. All those easily offended should avoid.