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Stephen King, author of horror, thriller and fantasy bestsellers such as Carrie, Misery and Green Mile, turned seventy-five on September 21. His website lists more than fifty novels, eighteen novellas and ten short story collections. By all standards, the man is inexhaustible, second only perhaps to Georges Simenon, the creator of fictional detective Jules Maigret.

The analogy is not haphazard, even if there are more differences than similarities between the two authors. While in Brussels earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit an exposition on Georges Simenon at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, which among else provided insight into his concentrated, ritualized and, at times, manic way of writing. Last week, I was reminded of this while reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner 2000, 2010).

The first part of On Writing pulls out those memories and experiences which turned King into a writer: an early childhood illness, his relationship with his mother and brother, his ambivalence about school, his love of the movies, the trap of his alcohol addiction, last but not least his luck to have found his ‘ideal reader’ in his wife—all of the above combining to lead to the realization, comparatively early in his life, that, first, he writes “for the pure joy of the thing” and, second, “Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around”. The latter is also the reason why not to choose a fancy writing desk or place it in the middle of the room.

King’s decision to write a book about writing was in part motivated by his desire to show—or, even, prove—that popular novelists are as knowledgeable about and committed to language as are writers of literary fiction. (George Simenon was similarly of the opinion he deserved the Nobel Prize more than his contemporary Albert Camus.) At the same time, King is more intent on discussing writing as craft rather than as a science or art form. Accordingly, this is also the focus of the second part of his book.

One important message is that there can be no good writing without reading. As a self-defined slow reader, Stephen King reads sixty to eighty books per year! Message number two: writing, like everything else one aspires to be good at, is about practice: the more you write, the better you become. King’s formula: two thousand words per day, seven days a week, but as a beginner, thousand words will also do, and you can skip a day or two!!

The key to good writing is, however, honesty. This has something to do with the well-known maxim about writing what you know, which King interprets “as broadly and inclusively as possible” since fabrication is, after all, “the fiction-writer’s purest delight”:

“If you’re a plumber, you know plumbing, but that is far from the extent of your knowledge; the heart also know things, and so does the imagination. Thank God. If not for heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place. It might not even exist at all.”

But honesty has also to do with letting one’s characters speak freely, i.e. switching off the ego, super-ego or one’s multiple selves, each with their own goals or drags. This is also why the story rather than the plot is more important, and why outlines are not always useful:

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. … I want to put a group of characters in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free … The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.”

On Writing has many such graphic lessons about the whole range of issues concerning writing, from grammar and vocabulary to theme and narration, all the way to writing with the door closed and editing with it open. It is a useful and enjoyable book at the same time. It ends with one, then a second, list of books Stephen King enjoyed reading while writing this book—a proof of Umberto Eco’s observation noted in an earlier blog on writing that fiction writers have a fondness—or perhaps a compulsion?—for it never ending …

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