Stephen King's ON WRITING: the book that brought me back to writing horror fiction.
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
(Originally published at THE GINGER NUTS OF HORROR.)
In the fall of 1994, I quit Stephen King cold turkey. Mid-book, I threw up my hands (and the book) in frustration. “That’s it! I’m done with Stephen King!” And I brought the book back to the library unread.
Oh sure, I would later gobble up all the movies and “television events” I could get my hands on, like a reformed junkie sneaking back to the old digs for a little taste. I couldn’t miss out on The Stand, The Shawshank Redemption, Storm of the Century, The Green Mile, and Rose Red, not when everyone else was enjoying them. But for ten years, I never read another word the Master of Horror wrote.
I read plays, I read mysteries, I read transgressive fiction and the classics. I read literally dozens of screenwriting books (more on that later).
Until the day I threw that book down in sheer exasperation, I was a King connoisseur. I’d read every word he’d ever published, even Danse Macabre, his non-fiction exploration of the horror genre, which at the time I mispronounced “Dance Mackaber.” Not so funny when you know that only a few years prior I thought karate was pronounced "care-ate."
King fans among you may recognize the date of my separation from his writing as just about the time he gave birth to Insomnia. That’s not a coincidence. I absolutely loathed Insomnia, and for the life of me I can’t remember why. I’d read and enjoyed the first three books of the Dark Tower series, so its connections with Roland Deschain and his ka-tet clearly didn’t bother me. I’d also read and enjoyed books with elderly characters before, so that couldn’t have been the reason, either; my own debut novella, Scavengers, is narrated by a retired gentleman--something about the book must have stuck with me. I like to think I dropped it because I noticed what Stephen King himself would eventually admit about Insomnia and Rose Madder, that they are
“stiff, trying-too-hard novels.”
Whatever the reason, Stephen King was off my reading list, and remained that way for just over ten years.
In 2004, King’s latest movie, Secret Window, had just come out and like just about every other horror fan I was excited to see it. I read Roger Ebert’s reviews weekly back then before seeing the movies, and in his review of Secret Window, Ebert wrote:
“A lot of people were outraged that [King] was honored at the National Book Awards, as if a popular writer could not be taken seriously. But after finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery.”
And so, finally overcoming my own misgivings (or snobbery, if that’s what it was), I decided to check out On Writing for myself. In those days I’d been struggling to write screenplays for about as long as I’d given up on King’s stories, ever since I read another of King's books, Nightmares & Dreamscapes, which included a script for his teleplay “Sorry, Right Number.” It looked relatively simple, a lot easier than the novels and short stories I’d been pounding out at the time, and I loved writing dialogue—which, it seemed, was what screenplays were all about. Pulp Fiction had just hit big around this time, too, so naturally I had dreams of becoming the next Tarantino or Steven Soderberg. If I haven't made it painfully obvious, Stephen King is my biggest influence. Before our breakup, I gleefully plagiarized his short stories "Battlefield" and "Survivor Type" for class assignments, and even attempted to write my own Dark Tower-like fantasy-horror novel, along with a book that was meant to be an odd mix between Needful Things and Ira Levin's Sliver. Already Clive Barker's mix of horror and eroticism was seeping into my stories, and this book, whose title I can't recall, would be the child of that marriage. Of course, they were godawful. I never finished either of them. Writing novels was too hard; screenplays would be my salvation. My ticket to fame and fortune. Clearly I never made it. I felt stifled by the format. I could think visually well enough, but those act breaks broke me. Eventually I moved on to writing TV scripts, or teleplays. The five-act structure (six acts in modern shows, to allow for more commercial content) seemed to suit me better, with a major plot point every five to ten minutes. I came out with a few decent scripts, and an award from a then-fledgling screenwriting contest.
But better than that, I'd discovered my "voice," which any writer or editor will tell you is paramount if you want to write for a living. What does Stephen King's writing sound like? How about Clive Barker's? That distinctive "sound" is the Writer's Voice, and all of those years spent hacking away at scripts helped me find mine. But the screenwriting industry frowns on too much voice from neophyte writers. Any good short story or novel, on the other hand, requires it. (Although I have heard it said that Richard Matheson, writer of such blockbusters as I am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Hell House, has a distinct lack of voice. Perhaps that's what made his books so filmic; perhaps these readers suffer from their own snobbery.) It still wasn’t quite working. I wrote script after script, one false start after another, and just couldn’t get it right. I wrote spec scripts (scripts for existing TV shows), and pilots, and while some of the latter might have worked well on TV, I never felt entirely satisfied with the process. Coming up with characters, original premises, astounding visuals, then writing only one episode, leaving the characters in limbo, their stories without an ending… it felt like all of those false starts again, just in different packaging.
Then I read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Roger Ebert was right, it is a great book—not just a "memoir of the craft," but a memoir of his life, and a how-to manual to, as King himself put it, "make a competent writer into a good one."
Reading it returned Stephen King to my good graces, and I started writing prose again in earnest. I reread all of King's books prior to 1994 and have picked up every release since. (Oddly enough, I couldn’t finish Rose Madder, and still haven’t gone back to finish Insomnia where I left off ten years prior.) I snapped up the Bachman Books, as well, discovering a story I was never able to get into in my youth, Roadwork, which I now think of as one of King's finest works. I was a born again "Constant Reader." A Castle Rocker, through and through. And while it was King's distinct voice, inventive terrors and inexhaustible imagination—fueled by cocaine, beer and cigarettes, as everyone seems to make a big deal of nowadays—which initially drew me to writing, it was On Writing that made me think I might actually do a decent job of it someday. Whether or not that's a good thing is still up in the air, but I have to admit, I'm enjoying the ride. Every excruciating word of it.