I owe Stephen King a big, fat apology. For many years, I thought him a horror hack, someone who only writes creepy stuff for the more gullible among us. Of course, doubts crept in over the years. Several movies based on his work, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile (which I saw only about a year and half ago), and Stand by Me were all movies with compelling stories. Some, like The Green Mile, incorporate a fantastic element, but all tell compelling stories about interesting people even without a fantastic element. I was intrigued when I saw that King had written 11.22.63, and I saw that it received good reviews. As you may have read, I gave it a good review, too. So, Stephen King, I’m sorry for typecasting you, which reflects poorly on me and not at all on you. (If you, reader, retain some prejudice against the fantastic in literature, then you won't count Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, or say, Italo Calvino or Garcia Marquez, among your favorite authors. Well, so be it if you insist. Just know that don’t need to go the Fantasy/SF section of the bookstore to find the fantastic.)
So how is this nonfiction book of King’s? Excellent. It’s divided into three parts. The first part is a memoir of his youth and his beginnings as a writer. As someone who, like King, grew up in America in the 50’s and 60’s, I share many of his experiences and cultural references. But King had a tougher start than I did. He was raised by a single mother (dad hit to road when Stephen was about age three), and they never had much money. But Stephen and his brother were bright and inventive. Stephen got into comic books and Tom Swift (“Junior” by Victor Appleton II, like me, or the older ones? He doesn’t say). Like many a writer, illness kept him at home one year (requiring him to repeat a grade) so he read to pass the time. Later Stephen got into horror books and movies. I’m certain he would have watched the ones that I liked to watch on late Saturday nights, like Rodan, the giant Pteranodon that comes out of the mountain and blows down miniature Japanese cities. And I’m sure he’d know the one about the giant Gila monster in the American southwest created by atomic testing. The giant lizard creeps up on teenagers parked in the desert making out, when, just as they getting intimate, the monster strikes. (“That’ll teach ’em!”) Yes, I understand much of the background of Stephen’s cultural upbringing. Now I appreciate some of the sources of his inspiration.
The second section of the book deals with “The Toolbox”: vocabulary, grammar, adverbs (he hates ‘em), and so on. The third part deals with the practicalities of writing and publishing fiction. While not quite as personal or entertaining as the first part, King never loses his sense of humor (which I quite like) or his sense of perspective. King has sold about a gazillion books, but it hasn’t seemed to have gone to his head. He did develop a drug and alcohol addiction, but he made it to the other side. He married his college sweetheart, and they raised a family and now have grandkids. King knows of his good fortune and shares his wisdom freely.
If you have any inclination to read a book about writing that’s also entertaining and personal—the not Strunk and White or F.L. Lucas type of book—this is a superb choice. Educational and edifying with some great tips that most any writer can use: cut the adverbs and cut 10% of your initial draft are my two favorite take-aways.