“A Memoir of the Craft”
Believer it or not, Stephen King holds a special place in my life as a conscientious reader. Growing up, I had never been a very heavy reader, despite the fact that I could have been influenced by both a school reading program that rewarded readers with free books and that wonderful Pizza Hut program that rewarded faithful readers with personal-pan pizzas. My parents have both been heavy reader their entire lives, but I thought for a while that the gene had skipped my generation. That is, until my 17th year.
While working that summer at a VHS rental store, I watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, based off Stephen King’s book of the same name, and was blown away by the subtle horror of it all. As a sheltered kid, that was one of my more eye-opening experiences of youth. Even more so, however, my eyes were opened when I picked up King’s original novel, the book which became my “entry drug” into the wonderful world of reading-for-pleasure. Having never touched a non-youth-oriented novel in my life, I finished this adult thriller in just 4 days, which for me at the time was like rocketing to the moon and back for a quick brunch. What shocked me about this experience was this: I had watched the movie for about 2 hours and loved it; but I was then able to live through that same ‘movie’ for a full 4 days, and ‘love’ can’t even begin to describe how much I enjoyed that! Since that initial experience, my passion for reading-for-pleasure has never since abated.
For these reasons, I’m not as naturally turned off by Steven King’s writing as many Christians might be. I hope that this appreciation comes more from the things that I’ve learned from him as an author than some morbid desire to see behind the curtain, and since I’ve actually read only 3 of his novels, I do believe that this is the case. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Steven King is by no means “required reading” for the believer, and I would never recommend his books to just anyone.
That said, I really enjoyed On Writing, because I read the book as a writer wanting to improve my craft. As of this writing, I’ve already completed my first novel but haven’t found a publisher, I’ve published some children’s books and random articles, but I have not yet found my final niche. Alongside this, I truly long to grow my God-given talents, for I know that when He blesses His child with a gift, it’s useless unless exercised, and it’s infantile until purposefully developed through practice and hard work. King’s book has helped me in many ways to get the proper focus again in my writing, so for that reason alone, I’d recommend him to aspiring writers (though it should be noted, he can get a bit vulgar at times).
Part One of On Writing offers a brief introduction to what gives Stephen King the right to teach the world anything about writing. It’s a semi-autobiographical running-start into a series of “tricks of the trade” that he has learned over his then twenty-plus years of successful writing. From silly childish essays, to his first big break (Carrie), to works he’d finished—and forgotten—while completely wasted on booze and narcotics (Cujo), to this encouraging guide to would-be writers, King’s publications are a testament to the fact that anyone with a passionate persistence and a steady hand can unlock any number of the doors in his imagination and thereby entertain the world.
The remaining parts to the book all deal with writing as an art and are just riddled with sound advice for how a writer can improve his craft. My “Quotes” file regarding the art and mechanics of writing filled up pretty fast with this read, and I’m sure yours will as well. For this post, I’ll only share a few things that stuck out to me.
While Stephen King is certainly one writer among millions, and while he has a niche in thriller-horror stories that don’t appeal to everyone, I think his advice about where stories come from can be of use to any story-writer across the genres. He considers any story to be a fossil buried in the earth and needing extraction. Anyone can force the fossil loose, but he sacrifices too much of the original specimen while doing so. This illustration describes what happens to too many writers who plot their stories beforehand, who outline and detail their books before they ever actually get down to writing. Admittedly, this is me, which is why his advice has been so inspiring. Don’t plot, he recommends: just discover the scenario, find some characters to live it, and then watch them escape as you write. The author is always a book’s first reader, so if you’re surprised by how things move in your story, imagine how your readers will feel.
King also discusses a great deal about the importance of writing a first draft “with the door closed,” meaning that you don’t let anyone in on your story (since you’re not even sure what the full thing entails just yet anyway). He then recommends setting the book aside for a minimum of 6 weeks in order to let the dust settle and to allow you to return to it as an almost unaffiliated reader. During this second-draft phase, you also write “with the door open,” meaning you let the world in on your tale by sharing it with a few trusted readers who will hopefully share their opinions, critiques and overall feelings. Did they sense a theme that you hadn’t intended? Did they tire at any certain parts? Were they confused at all by how a character responded or developed? This closed-door and open-door philosophy is something I hadn’t considered before, because like most young writers, I get so excited about a story idea that I start sharing it with others before it even has time to develop. These outbursts are deadly to a fossilized story still locked in the ground, like a jackhammer trying to rip it out quickly and for all to see. With such vivid images in mind, I think I’ll be a bit more hesitant in how I approach future story ideas as they come to me.
If you’re interested in learning more tricks of the trade from Stephen King, I’d recommend you pick up a copy of On Writing and begin reading at Part 2, where he really starts delving into the mechanics of writing. I enjoyed this book a lot, and it’s already inspired me to shoot for a minimum of 1,000 words of fiction each day. I’m five days strong on that commitment, and 21 days makes a habit…so here we go!