Stephen King's ON WRITING: the book that brought me back to writing HORROR.
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
“stiff, trying-too-hard novels.”
“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. (FROM THE VAULT. Originally published at THE GINGER NUTS OF HORROR, October 2014.)
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