First rule of reading: don't buy books with embossed lettering on the cover, you can pick them up free in transit lounges where they've been abandoned by weary travellers.

There are a few noble exceptions in the genre of embossed disposables, and authors such as Stephen King turn in often highly creditable work.

King can be irritating: some of his novels are finely crafted and others - as he admits - considerably less so (the downside of being prolific). But generally they possess a page-turning quotient higher than most. Gripping yarns, and much mimicked.

And that has made his autobiographical On Writing a bestseller, probably among those who want to know the secret of his success. On Writing - first published last year and now a 370-page paperback with the author's name and title in embossed lettering - dismisses that notion quickly on page 29: "Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Ideas Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Best-sellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new ... Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up."

And in a fascinating insight into the writing of his first successful novel, Carrie, he does exactly that. While working as janitor he went inside a girls' bathroom, combined this hitherto forbidden world with recent readings on telekinesis, recalled some misfit girls from his time as a teacher and ...

The highly readable On Writing was King's first book after his June '99 accident when he was bowled over by a van while out walking, an accident which almost killed him. During his agonising recovery, all told here in grim detail, he picked up work again on the idea of a book about writing. The final paragraph of that section is salutary for anyone simply wanting to find that Island of the Buried Best-sellers: "Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well."

The first part of the book is taken up with tight, tidy and honest autobiographical sketches (portrait of the artist as an alcoholic drug addict at one harrowing point), but elsewhere there are apposite comments on the nature of language (don't try to find a bigger word just to impress), grammar and vocabulary. King is witty, blunt in an expletives-included manner, drops in amusing examples and anecdotes from other authors, and lays out his work ethic with almost bullying clarity.

"Don't wait for the muse ... your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three."

Those looking for simple, practical help with fiction writing will find it here and perhaps start at the final chapter where he offers unedited then edited versions of a short story. For those who are simply aficionados of King's novels and their film adaptations (Carrie, The Shining, Misery) this will be a rapidly paced, highly engaging and crisply written account of an extraordinarily prolific life which comes with salty humour and rare candour.

And for those who've passed him by because of that first rule of reading, On Writing reminds you of the second rule: ignore all rules.

New English Library


* Graham Reid is a Herald feature-writer.