The master of the macabre sets aside his chosen genre of craft and instead devotes himself to introspecting the tenets that lead to a writer accomplishing his objectives. The result is a marvelous quasi memoir; part tutelage on the art of professional authoring. Extremely readable and extraordinarily candid (Stephen King writes without inhibitions of the times when his writing was fueled by indiscriminate portions of alcohol and indiscriminate substance abuse), “On Writing” is a precious manual, if not a downright textbook for all aspiring as well as established writers. Stephen King is under no illusion when he warns the reader that writing is not for the fainthearted. However he is equally assuring when he assuages any apprehension by stating that for a writer to succeed, he/she needs to constantly keep at it in a manner befitting a fervor.
The book is cleverly divided into three parts. The first is more of an autobiographical tableau (although King takes pains in the preface to negate the fact that “On Writing” is either an autobiography or a memoir”), dealing with the early life and childhood of King before proceeding to traverse the circumstances which forged his career as a bestselling author. Of particular interest is the daredevil and absurd exploits King is forced to indulge in as a reluctant perpetrator-in-crime, courtesy his hyperactive and intellectual curious elder brother Dave. Evacuating in the open and then being forced to wipe his bottom with a handful of poison ivy leaves, (leading to catastrophic consequences, as is to be expected) makes for moments of bewildering reading.
The second part of the book forms the core and crux of the theme which Stephen King aims to imbibe the reader with. Citing his own experience as well as referring to the habits and practices of other accomplished writers, King endeavours to instill a few ‘habits’ deemed uncompromising by him for a potential author. This includes religiously taking time out to write every single day; chosing a comfortable place to perch oneself in and one in which the writer is comfortable plying his future wares and also to get rid of the dreadful practice of plot formation and thematic writing. He warns the wanna be author to abdicate a mindset that is rigid on fixing a plot and is avowed in its objective of perfecting a theme. King also strictly follows the George Orwell principle which has at its edifice the elimination of unnecessary words. Putting it in a manner that can only be described as strikingly rustic and severely direct, he encourages the author not to blanch if he has to write “he wanted to take a shit”. In King’s informed opinion there is no need to resort to complex and convoluted language where the use of simple words would very well do the trick. Another advice imparted by King Concerns falling into the adverb trap. King is wary of the employ of adverbs especially those that end with “ly” such as strictly, severely, remotely etc. He exhorts the reader to expunge the adverb unless its use is indispensably warranted (I just put his advice to the sword in this very sentence by the way!).
The third and concluding part of the book deals with King’s life post a horrific road accident in 1999 which almost killed him. A careless driver in an oncoming vehicle ploughed into King who was on one of his long and leisurely evening walks. The painful convalescence over a period of five months involved multiple surgeries and subsequent physiotherapy. Even while not in the best of physical shape, King returned to his obsession with writing the moment he could regain his mobility. This proves in no small detail that this world renowned author diligently practices what he preaches. King ends the book with exhibits of his edits from a chapter of one of his novels where the reader can see for himself/herself the revision made by him of an original draft. King follows a motto imparted to him by one of his role models which dictates that the edited version should be shorter than the original version by at least 10%. King rounds off the book with two appendices which list out his most favourite recent books.
“On Writing” has been hailed as one of the best books on the art of writing to have been published since the immortal “Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B.White regaled the world of English literature. While such praise might be a bit exaggerated, although genuine in opinion, there is no doubting the fact that “On Writing” is a treasure that needs to be possessed and resorted to frequently than in mere passing.