On Writing Summary

On Writing, as its title suggests, is Stephen King’s book on how to write.

  • King has split the book into two parts; in the first, he narrates the story of his life in a series of vignettes to describe how he became the author he is today.
  • As the narrative progresses, King shifts discusses his fascination with horror films, his nascent writing attempts, and his moving account of selling his first novel, Carrie.
  • The second part of the book is devoted to the actual mechanics of good writing, and King offers advice about various topics, including voice, grammar, and strong storytelling.

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755

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Stephen King is among the world’s best-selling authors. He turned out one or two novels a year for over twenty-five years, bringing his grand total of novels, short stories, screenplays, and even comic books to over forty. His previous books include Bag of Bones (1998), Hearts in Atlantis(1999), and Storm of the Century (1999).

Ever since he published his first book, Carrie (1974), King has been asked how he writes on a regular basis. He hints around in interviews and in the forewords to his books, but only now does he finally tell the reader the truth in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. King has dividedOn Writing into three main parts: autobiography, how to write, and an account of the 1999 automobile accident with Bryan Smith that almost ended his life. Unlike other writing books, King writes On Writing as he would write anything else, with the honesty and middle-class crudeness that his fans would expect of him. Instead of being a turn-off, this “middle-of-the-road” style is to King’s advantage. Everybody knows he is like McDonald’s rather than the Brown Derby, so he tries to write that way, as well.

In the first part, “C.V.,” King tells the reader his life story. Unlike other biographies where the author tells everything from beginning to end, King honestly says that he cannot remember everything. Instead, he offers the reader little vignettes from his life, skipping years here and there as need be. By the end of it, though, King has told his readers how he became a writer and what inspired him (his horror influences, though, are more clearly presented in 1981’s Danse Macabre). Here King is perhaps more “honest” than in the section about writing itself. The reader sees over and over again how King escaped poverty by writing. He and his brother David started their own newspaper, Dave’s Rag, and he was submitting fiction to magazines before he was sixteen years old.

The fact that King was writing about the films he saw or anything else that crossed his mind did not really matter. He was writing, and just that by itself was an accomplishment. Writing was hard work, but King loved it. His best example of this is when he was a sports writer for the LisbonWeekly Enterprise, his local newspaper. John Gould, the editor, showed him what to leave in and what to take out. It was simple, and King says Gould showed him in ten minutes the things that he still uses today. The rest of the autobiography tells how King met his wife, Tabitha, started a family, and how Carrie almost did not happen.

King also deals with, for the first time in print, his battles with alcohol and drugs in great detail. He started drinking during a high school senior trip to Washington, D.C., and by 1974 King was an alcoholic who gave his dead mother’s eulogy while drunk. By 1985, he had added cocaine to his problems. He says that many books he wrote during this time he cannot remember very well, and his novel Cujo (1981) he barely remembers writing at all. He finally gave up his addictions after his wife took his wastebasket full of cigarettes, cocaine, beer cans, and other paraphernalia out of his office and told him to choose between them and their marriage. King was writing Misery (1987) at this time, a tale about a writer held hostage and forced to take drugs, and he was wondering if the fictional writer and King himself were one and the same. King chose to save his marriage. Amazingly, in spite of the effects of his drug abuse, King continued to write and publish at least one or two best-selling novels each year during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

The second part of the book is called “On Writing.” Here King tells the reader how to write through specific, nuts-and-bolts examples. He talks about active and passive verbs, explains why a writer should never use adverbs, and provides examples of good and bad writing. King uses this section to put down on paper what he does and does not do; he says these rules will work for any writer, but they are really either for beginning writers or just those who are curious to know how Stephen King writes. To critics of King’s style of writing, his advice sounds like it came from a workaholic: Write every day, seven days a week, no matter what. The advice King gives is honest, but it is also difficult to take. King makes writing sound like work, and though King says he loves writing, he also says point-blank that it is work, even for him.

King offers very precise examples of how to write a novel. He says the first draft should be written with the door closed. If the writer has to think of a word to use, then probably it was not the right word to use in the first place. A beginning writer should write 1,000 words a day, seven days a week; King himself writes 2,000 words a day or 180,000 words in three months. He says that any serious writer should stick to this plan as closely as possible, and wonders what Harper Lee, Thomas Harris, and several other writers who have published significantly fewer books than King are doing with their time instead of writing.

What perhaps is most startling to his fans is this simple fact: King seldom works out plots for his stories in advance. He might have an idea, such as “one kid lost in the woods,” and out of that evolves The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) about a little girl lost in the woods who keeps sane by listening to pitcher Tom Gordon on the radio. King plots once in a great while, but tries to avoid it as much as possible. Considering how long King’s books are—six hundred pages on average—this is very surprising. Plot and story are two different things in King’s mind, with story being very important and plot being used as a last resort. Everything is secondary to the story itself, something King has hinted at on more than one occasion. He started Different Seasons (1982) with the motto, “It is the tale, not he who tells it,” and then proceeded to give an example of this very motto with his story “The Breathing Method.”

“On Living: A Postscript,” the final section of the book, gives readers a blow-by-blow account of how King almost died in June of 1999, and it is as current as King could get prior to printing. It recounts how he was walking along Route 5 in western Maine when he was hit by a van driven by Bryan Smith. Smith was distracted by his rottweiler, Bullet, who was jumping in the back seat and trying to open his Igloo full of meat. Smith turned around to grab the dog and in that split second hit King. The irony of all this is not lost on King; King says that his being hit by the van is very similar to something that might happen in one of his own books.

King recounts sadly that Smith told him he never had an accident before, and marveled that the first time he did, he hit the world-famous author Stephen King. Actually, Smith had been involved in many car accidents similar to this one stretching back to before he was eighteen years old (Smith was forty-two when he hit King). As he was sitting beside King, Smith’s voice sounded like what happened to King did not really matter, as if Smith were watching television and having a snack. This strange story goes on even after On Writing: Smith killed himself on September 21, 2000, King’s birthday. (In interviews, King said that he did not hate Smith and that he wished Smith’s life had turned out better.)

King tells all of this with some humor, but at the time there was no humor involved. King’s right leg was broken in nine places, his spine was chipped in eight places, his right knee was almost gone, his right lung was collapsed, and four ribs were broken—not to mention the cuts and scrapes all over his body that would require stitches. It would take five surgeries to get King somewhat back to normal, and he still had a long way to go, physically; five weeks after the accident, though, he was back to writing.

That, perhaps, is fitting. The one thing King knows is writing—it is the one thing besides his wife and family that does not let him down. King closes On Writing back where he first started—writing in a little room like a laundry room where he wrote Carrie—ending his personal journey where he began it. The book he was working on just before the accident was On Writing, and On Writing is the book to which he returned. That is not all, though. As On Writing was going to the printer, word had it that in early 2001 King would release either another long novel,Dreamcatcher, or the novel From a Buick Eight (the latter had been pushed back because it depicts an automobile accident very similar to the one King himself suffered). As these two books show, the stories of King’s retirement from writing are, for now, far from the truth.

While King’s personal story is as absorbing as much of his fiction, On Writing presents problems for some critics. If this book is a manual for writers, why does King spend almost half of it on his autobiography? If this book is an autobiography, why call it On Writing? King chose not to write a “standard” work of either instruction or biography, but to incorporate both in a book that showed how the two are related while providing an entertaining read for anyone. On Writing is considerably shorter than his other books, and King says this is deliberate. He does not tell the reader everything about his life, but he says this up front. He does not tell the reader everything about writing, either, but after a while King can only go so far. Then it is the writer’s turn to tell the tale.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (July, 2000): 1971.

Daily Telegraph, October 7, 2000, p. 3.

The Guardian, October 7, 2000, p. 10.

Kansas City Star, October 1, 2000, p. 18.

Library Journal 125 (July, 2000): 92.

The New York Times, October 5, 2000, p. B10.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (October 8, 2000): 11.

Publishers Weekly 247 (July 31, 2000): 79.

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