I picked up Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, because it seems to be a commonly recommended book for aspiring writers. I’ve never read any Stephen King. I am not often drawn to best-selling authors. (By best-selling author, I mean an author who writes a book every year that ends up selling millions of copies.) I’ve heard of Stephen King, of course. Unfortunately, I found little in his memoir about writing that helps me in my personal craft. I think his memoir should have been named On Writing Best-Selling Horror Novels.
There were a few gems in On Writing, most of them obvious. For example, to improve your writing, you need to make the time to write. (King suggests a goal of words, like 4,000 a day: I think “quantity” as a standard is ridiculous.) He also discusses the need to read good writing (obviously) and learn grammar so you can actually write (doubly obvious). However, for me, the most inspiring thing I learned was the realization I had every time I picked up On Writing: I don’t want to be a best-selling author.
My General Thoughts about Writing and Books
I feel that there is a big difference between writing well and writing a story. A superior novel (or short story) needs both aspects: just because an author has created a great story and written it does not mean it is good writing. Also, I feel very strongly that quality is more important than quantity. An author can write one book and be a great author; an author can write 35 novels and be mediocre (although they certainly have a great imagination and a knack for turning out books for publication). I also feel intended audience and subject matter is important to keep in mind when approaching writing.
Stories and Writing: Many best-selling books are great stories, but not great writing. For example, I think the Harry Potter series is a great story. I am in awe of J.K. Rowling for having an imagination to conjure up such a world! I have read the series and I enjoyed it. However, I do not think J.K. Rowling is a good writer. Her writing is contrived and repetitive. (I may be unpopular among die-hard fans, but I believe it is true!) I feel many of the best-sellers also lack the good story element: they neither are good stories nor contain good writing. I read them sometimes, but I read them knowing that they are not great. Sometimes I may be pleasantly surprised.
Quantity and Quality: The more novels a popular writer publishes, and the more frequently those are being published, the less likely I am to read their books. There may be some gems, and I’d love to give those highly recommended gems a try, but overall, I can’t stand the thought of writing that has been produced in such a short time: can we really call that quality? For an analogy, I think “quality” writing is like risotto: I know I can’t rush risotto. If I do, the creaminess is missing; to produce good risotto, I must stir it constantly for 30-40 minutes. To produce good writing, I think it’s necessary to polish it again and again. (King has four drafts of each novel. Yeah.)
Audience and Subject Matter: Stephen King is obviously a horror novelist. I guess he has found his calling in life, but I found even the summaries of his novels disturbing. I have no desire to think outside the box if that is the result! I would never be proud of what I’ve written, if that is what I’ve produced. Even 35 novels worth; even for millions of dollars.
For me in my writing, I’ve determined that I want to write quality letters, stories, children’s poems, and prose. I especially want to write for my family, friends, and others whom I respect. As Stephen King described his methods to arriving at his “success,” I realized I have no desire to write the next best-seller.
The Main Reason I Didn’t Like On Writing
The biggest reason I have no respect for Stephen King’s advice in On Writing is this one comment (encapsulating the above issues):
I’ve written thirty-five [novels] … On the other hand … there is Harper Lee, who wrote only one book (the brilliant To Kill a Mockingbird) … [names other authors who wrote few books] … I always wonder two things about these folks: how long did it take them to write the books they did write, and what did they do the rest of their time? . . . I’m probably being snotty here, but I am also, believe me, honestly curious. If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it? (page 118)
Excuse me, Mr. King? Did you just compare your horror novels to Harper Lee’s novel? How dare you?!
I guess this goes back to the fact that I’m not drawn to best-sellers. I have the stereotype in my mind that best-sellers do not contain good writing and probably lack good stories. Stephen King thinks he is being snotty, but I found it painful to read his comparison of his 35 horror novels to a masterpiece like To Kill a Mockingbird.
Obviously, some best-sellers are well-written and come to be considered “masterpieces.” I’m generalizing here. However, best-sellers, in my mind, are nothing compared to real writing. In Stephen King’s case, I’m sure he may be a creative (yet disturbed) story teller, but he is not a good writer (in my definitions). With that one paragraph, I lost the little bit of respect I still held for him. He thinks he writes like Harper Lee!
I may offend people. More likely, you will think I’m being “snotty,” just like Stephen King claims he was being “snotty” to criticize Harper Lee for writing only one book. But this is what I’ve learned from Stephen King’s On Writing: popular, best-selling authors think they are also good writers. That may be true sometimes, but generally, I don’t believe it.
What do you think? Do you expect “best-sellers,” in general, to contain “good writing”? Is an author a “good writer” if they have published dozens of novels?
By reading On Writing, I learned that if I want to write and I want ideas on how to write, I should read authors I respect. I hold no respect for Stephen King, 35 horror novels or not.
Have any good writers compiled their thoughts on writing? No, probably not. They have better things to do.
I was more inspired to write a few months ago when I read a masterpiece. I guess I’ll stick to reading masterpieces for my inspiration.
Other reviews (from those who probably liked it more than I did):
If you have reviewed On Writing, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add your link to this post.