Stephen King, On Writing/Secret Windows (Scribner’s, 2000 and BOMC, 2000)
[originally posted 6Nov2000]
“Most of the things you find in books on writing are bullshit.” How can you not like a book on writing that begins so endearingly? Shortly after, King makes a promise to keep the book as short as possible, and for King, he does an admirable job (it weighs in under 300 pages, a short story for this guy). Capitalizing on the publication of On Writing, Book of the Month Club (who are the behind-the-scenes orchestrators of the Stephen King Book Club) contracted with the man to release a companion volume to it called Secret Windows as well.
Much of what King writes in On Writing is simple common sense (“the adverb is not your friend…”), but some of it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. King is a situational writer as opposed to a plotter, and the vast majority of “how to write your novel in <x> days”-style writers’ manuals are written by plotters. This alone makes the book valuable to the struggling author; when everyone’s told you one thing, and it doesn’t work for you, hearing someone validate another way to do things is sometimes the most important thing that can happen to you. And King delivers his advice in simple, straightforward prose, providing examples when necessary (at the very end, he gives us the opening paragraphs of Blood and Smoke‘s “1408,” both in rough and finished drafts, and it’s probably the best example of revision I’ve seen in a how-to-write book). Good, solid stuff, probably the best I’ve read in recent years, since Natalie Goldberg’s first two books.
But even that isn’t what makes this book shine. We’re all aware that much of what separates great writers from run-of-the-mill hacks is the ability to take one’s own events and make mincemeat of them on the page. The first hundred pages of this volume are an encapsulated autobiography of King. It’s impressionist, deadpan, as minimal as it can be to give us an idea of where all these books came from (no, he doesn’t really get his ideas in Utica). And while all of King’s writing is marked with a particular kind of honesty that resonates with the average reader, these hundred pages stand out. If it’s possible to be more than completely honest, he’s done it.
Secret Windows is a compilation. Most of it’s been previously published. There are a few things here that bear re-reading, a few unpublished (and perhaps should have remained that way, such as the early stuff from his brother’s homemade newspaper), and one of King’s early attempts at a one-voice tale, a style he mastered in Dolores Claiborne, called “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet.” I can’t remember whether this made it into Nightmares and Dreamscapes or not (can’t find a full listing of N&D‘s contents online) [ed. note 2013: no], but if not, this story alone, about an editor’s slow descent into alcoholic madness, with its catalyst a story by an already-insane writer, is worth the price of admission. It is not an easily-forgotten piece of work.
Taken together, the two make a good pair: a book on how to write and a collection of fiction, nonfiction, and interviews dealing with the craft of writing. The average non-writing Stephen King fan may be left cold, but for the writer (or the writer wannabe who’s never attempted; if you liked Misery better than most King novels, you qualify), they’re gold nuggets in the river.
On Writing: ****
Secret Windows: *** ½