Stephen King is a human being. He’s a normal man who happens to be good at, and enjoys, writing horror novels. He was a little boy with recurring ear infections, who spent a lot of time bedridden, reading and copying comic books. At the encouragement of his mother, he wrote his own stories, and his mother gave him a quarter for each of them.
That was before Tabitha King fished a bunch of notes out of Stephen’s waste bin and read the idea he’d been playing around with about a girl called “Carrie”. Tabby looked past the problems Stephen saw with the concept and wanted to know how the story ended. In 1973, after a meagre advance from the initial publisher, the paperback rights for Carrie sold for $400 000.
Stephen King admits that his memory is flawed and limited, probably due to his addiction to alcohol and drugs in the first half of his career (he doesn’t remember writing much of Cujo). I wish he’d remembered more of his early life, because the memoir section of this book is fascinating, and far too short.
Stephen King’s advice about writing
The third part of the book is the official section “On Writing”, although King includes interesting writing anecdotes throughout the book. The value of this section is immense due to King’s extensive and instructive writing examples. He includes further discussion of writing, re-writing, and the symbolism of Carrie and some of his other works, and also some submission and querying examples.
King’s writing advice itself is fairly standard and targeted at beginners, but writers at any level of experience will benefit from the analysis he offers of his work. As a postscript King includes a raw first draft opening passage of The Hotel Story, followed by a hand-revised version and detailed explanation of the revisions. This section alone is worth studying carefully.
In his older (wiser) age, King has definitely softened in his derision of writers who plot their books (King is a notorious freewriter). I remember reading his earlier, very scathing, remarks in an introduction to The Gunslinger, and that has left a sour impression on me. I was glad to find him more tolerant of us these days.
Everything you wanted to know about that accident
King includes a detailed description of his accident in 1999 in a postscript – far more detail than the earlier memoir. Even in this section King manages to turn the story into a lesson about writing. The accident occurred while King was battling with this very book.
Again, it was Tabby who did the necessary encouragement and gentle pushing to get him back to writing. King returned to working on On Writing still in a wheelchair and in pain, getting through the terror of trying to put words on paper again without inspiration. The moral of the story? If he can, you can.
Sometimes editors know their writers too well
There are two editorial issues I need to comment on. King’s editor has been working with him for a long time, and that’s why I think these two points slipped through. When King introduces his mother, he gives her name as Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King, but neglects to mention that she was known as “Ruth”. The reader picks this up later after he has referred to her as “my mother” or “Mom” for several pages, and then writes: “Ruth, on the other hand, had been left holding the baby when Don ran out.”1
Another confusing point comes after the length of description given to King’s first two children, who are named and about whom he tells a number of anecdotes. King then neglects to mention that he and Tabby had a third child until much later in the book. Owen is only mentioned very incidentally as part of the story of King’s accident, when Owen is an adult himself.
Excellent reference resource for any writer
The story of how Stevie King gradually became best-selling horror writer, Stephen King, is fascinating for anyone – whether a writer or reader. If you’ve ever asked, been asked, or wanted to ask a writer how they do it, where they get their ideas from, here’s your answer. And you get the answer from one of the most famous of today’s popular writers. King doesn’t just try to answer these illusive questions, in typical story-teller fashion he attempts to SHOW the process.
On Writing is an inspirational journey and a very personal one. I’m not a major fan of Stephen King’s books, but I’m happy to admit I chuckled a lot through this one, and writhed at the description of a doctor bursting young Stevie’s eardrums. King can still tell a story. This is a book I think I’ll refer to occasionally for inspiration, and for that feeling that someone else knows what it’s like to spend time at this writing thing.
1 Page 16: On Writing by Stephen King, published by Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, Inc, 2002
This article was first published on BellaOnline in April 2006. © Elsa Neal