On Writing by Stephen King (2000) 297 p.

Say what you will about Stephen King’s fiction, but in all his non-fiction – his forewords, his introductions, his EW column and this book – he’s refreshingly honest, down-to-earth and easily readable. On Writing is part memoir and part writing guide, written as King was entering his fourth decade of being an author (and, if I’m not mistaken, had only recently been unseated by J.K. Rowling as the world’s most popular author).

On Writing begins with about a hundred pages of vignettes across King’s life, beginning with his earlist memory and ending with him kicking his drug addiction in the 1980s. It moves on to a central section full of King’s thoughts about writing (theme, plot, characters, dialogue etc) and advice on how to become a writer, and finishes with a section about his near-fatal 1999 car accident (painful even to read about, particularly since he chose to weave it into The Dark Tower series). One of the most interesting things throughout is his little thoughts on all kinds of things related to the trade: genre prejudice, the reliability of agents, anecdotes about writing at Rudyard Kipling’s desk, and so on.

King said he was aiming to write a book on writing without any bullshit, and I think he succeeded. He makes it quite clear throughout the book that there is no magic solution or bag of tricks to being a writer. You just have to work very hard. You have to write a lot and read a lot, and there’s no getting around that. Creative writing classes and writing guides (including On Writing) may help a little, but nothing will get you there in the end except hard work. Lazy people won’t be writers (which I shirk from hearing, since I’m very lazy indeed).

He also shoots down a common myth in the creative writing world – something that’s almost taboo, in fact – which is that a bad writer can ever become a good writer, or that a good writer can ever become a great writer. A mediocre writer can become a good writer, but other than that, you either got it or you don’t.

It only took me a couple of days to breeze through, since Stephen King (being Stephen King) is quite easy to read:

Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking. Besides, all those simple sentences worked for Hemingway, didn’t they? Even when he was drunk on his ass, he was a fucking genius.

A refreshing change after the Byzantine prose of Kim.

Whether you’re a Stephen King fan, or an aspiring writer, this book is definitely worth a read. Roger Ebert (one of the greatest writers in modern America) called it the best book on writing since Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which I’ll also have to get around to reading someday.