To be sure, On Writing lives up to its subtitle A Memoir of the Craft quite well. King traces his development as a writer and how his success burst upon him after years of hard work. If nothing else, I found this section to be both an encouragement, as it is a reminder that the way to success as an author is by writing, as well as a challenge. Critics of King may quibble, but I found this to be an extremely well-written readable memoir.
The writing section summarized much advice that can be found elsewhere, but in King’s own voice with his own twist. At one point he says you can’t make a bad writer into a competent one, or a good writer into a great one, but you can turn a competent writer into a good one. So, is good all we can (or should) aspire to? If I read him right, his answer to this question is no. It all depends on the talent you bring to the keyboard.
I found useful his summary of narration (what moves the story from point A to point B), description (what creates a sensory reality for the reader) and dialogue (the tool that brings characters to life through their speech) useful. For me, this kind of summary will be helpful in bringing focus to my editing. The book contains some other useful tips as well.
King comes down on the side of those who don’t see the need for plotting in advance. In his view, such an exercise takes the creativity out of the process. I myself find it impossible to finish even a short story without knowing the end before I start writing, but’s that me. King’s method has served him well. I can only hope for one percent of his success.
When discussing backstory, he says “everyone has a history. Most of it is not interesting.” His point is that most writers feel compelled to tell the reader everything, whether or not it moves the story along. In writing his own memoir, it’s clear he followed his own advice, including only those bits that move along the story of the creation of a successful novelist. In that he succeeded.
So while I think On Writing is a worthwhile read, it’s not the be-all, end-all book on writing some have made it out to be. To be fair, King doesn’t claim that either. He’s just giving us his take on what made him as a writer, and some of what he learned along the way.