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On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft Paperback – Special Edition, July 6, 2010
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Short and snappy as it is, Stephen King's On Writing really contains two books: a fondly sardonic autobiography and a tough-love lesson for aspiring novelists. The memoir is terrific stuff, a vivid description of how a writer grew out of a misbehaving kid. You're right there with the young author as he's tormented by poison ivy, gas-passing babysitters, uptight schoolmarms, and a laundry job nastier than Jack London's. It's a ripping yarn that casts a sharp light on his fiction. This was a child who dug Yvette Vickers from Attack of the Giant Leeches, not Sandra Dee. "I wanted monsters that ate whole cities, radioactive corpses that came out of the ocean and ate surfers, and girls in black bras who looked like trailer trash." But massive reading on all literary levels was a craving just as crucial, and soon King was the published author of "I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber." As a young adult raising a family in a trailer, King started a story inspired by his stint as a janitor cleaning a high-school girls locker room. He crumpled it up, but his writer wife retrieved it from the trash, and using her advice about the girl milieu and his own memories of two reviled teenage classmates who died young, he came up with Carrie. King gives us lots of revelations about his life and work. The kidnapper character in Misery, the mind-possessing monsters in The Tommyknockers, and the haunting of the blocked writer in The Shining symbolized his cocaine and booze addiction (overcome thanks to his wife's intervention, which he describes). "There's one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing."
King also evokes his college days and his recovery from the van crash that nearly killed him, but the focus is always on what it all means to the craft. He gives you a whole writer's "tool kit": a reading list, writing assignments, a corrected story, and nuts-and-bolts advice on dollars and cents, plot and character, the basic building block of the paragraph, and literary models. He shows what you can learn from H.P. Lovecraft's arcane vocabulary, Hemingway's leanness, Grisham's authenticity, Richard Dooling's artful obscenity, Jonathan Kellerman's sentence fragments. He explains why Hart's War is a great story marred by a tin ear for dialogue, and how Elmore Leonard's Be Cool could be the antidote.
King isn't just a writer, he's a true teacher. --Tim Appelo --This text refers to the School & Library Binding edition.
From Publishers Weekly
As his diehard fans know, King is a member of a writers-only rock 'n' roll band (Amy Tan is also a member), and this recording starts off with a sampling of their music. It may sound unsettling to some, but King quickly puts listeners at ease with his confident, candid and breezy tone. Here, King tells the story of his childhood and early influences, describes his development as a writer, offers extensive advice on technique (read: write tight and no bullshit) and finally recounts his well-known experience of being hit by a drunk driver while walking on a country road in 1999 and the role that his work has played in his rehabilitation. While some of his guidance is not exactly revolutionary (he recommends The Elements of Style as a must-have reference), other revelations that vindicate authors of popular fiction, like himself, as writers, such as his preference for stressing character and situation over plot, are engrossing. He also offers plenty of commonsense advice on how to organize a workspace and structure one's day. While King's comical childhood anecdotes and sober reflections on his accident may be appreciated while driving to work or burning calories on a treadmill, the book's main exercise does not work as well in the audio format. King's strongest recommendation, after all, is that writers must be readers, and despite his adept performance, aspiring authors might find that they would absorb more by picking up the book. Based on the Scribner hardcover (Forecasts, July 31, 2000).
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the School & Library Binding edition.
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The breadth of this memoir comes as a surprise—what is a memoir of a craft anyway? King divides his memoir into several parts, including:
• C.V. (17-101).
• What Writing Is (103-137).
• On Writing (141-249).
• On Living: A Postscript (253-270).
• And Furthermore, Part I: Door Shut, Door Open (271-284).
• And Furthermore, Part II: A Booklike (285-288).
• Further to Furthermore, Part III (289-291).
His chapters are preceded by three forewords and, in spite of its length, this memoir reads quickly—but not too quickly. Still, the breadth of this work comes from the way that King weaves his life and his craft together—a visitor to the King house might be advised to forbear exploring the closets! What the heck; let’s explore.
King is an author and a household name. He has written numerous (35+) books, many of which have also appeared in film. As an example, his breakout work, Carrie, sold first as a paperback novel (1973) and was released three years later as a horror film.
Interestingly, Tabitha, King’s wife, rescued an early manuscript of Carrie from the trash, as King recalls:
“I had four problems with what I’d written. First, … the story didn’t move me emotionally. Second, ... I didn’t much like the lead character. Carrie White seemed thick and passive, a ready-made victim. … Third, … [I] was not feeling at home with either the surroundings or my all-girl cast of supporting characters. … Fourth, … the story wouldn’t pay unless it was pretty long. … I couldn’t see wasting two weeks, maybe even a month, creating a novella I didn’t like and wouldn’t be able to sell. So I threw it away.” (76-77)
But, confronted with his Ideal Reader (Tabitha) telling him that this manuscript had promise, King went back and gave Carrie his best shot.
This notion of an Ideal Reader is interesting. King writes for his wife, Tabitha, who happens also to be an author, which seems most fortunate because she can articulate her opinions to King in actionable language. King explains:
“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.” (219)
King sees the Ideal Reader as particularly helpful in judging story pace—“the speed at which your narrative unfolds”—and the details to include in your backstory—“all the stuff that happened before your tale began but which has an impact on the front story” (220-223).
Part of the back story in King’s memoir evolves into front story in his postscript where he describes in detail his experience of being run over by a Dodge van in June of 1999, while walking down a country road in rural Maine (253-255). This story of his near-death experience might have been just an interesting aside, except for the fact that King had motivational problems in finishing this memoir back in that summer (265). I suspect that his life story suddenly became a slightly higher priority, having been thrown 14 feet in the air (259) and improbably lived through the experience.
Before I wrap up this review, let me make one more observation. King has an interesting view of plot. He describes plot as too big a hammer (a jackhammer) for normal use by fiction author and he prefers to motivate his characters through stressful situations (164). If you believe that we act out of our identities, then no two characters will respond the same way to a given tricky situation. How a story evolves out of a situation is therefore interesting and potentially surprising because people discover the character in themselves as they are challenged by life’s situations—we are ultimately strangers to ourselves; that is, until we are not. The thrill in the thriller is therefore hard to duplicate with a plot-line where the author already knows where the story will go and how it will get there—it is better to scrape the plot and discover the character the same way that a reader might. Therefore, King looks for strong situations and explores interesting what-if scenarios to challenge his characters and writes intuitively about how they respond (169).
Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is an interesting and helpful book for wannabe and experienced authors both, because he explores both writing and the writing life. Film buffs might also read this book to garner the backstory on his films, many of which are now cult classics. Personally, I read this book mostly because I like to read and love to write—perhaps, you do too.
King believes that book ideas are not plotted, rather they are found much like a lost relic or bone is found in the ground. He sometimes starts writing with no clue of the eventual ending of the story. The book literary makes itself. For example in the book Green Mile King was not sure whether the arrested criminal (who was actually innocent) would die or live in the end. The story or (fossil) literary wrote itself.
If you can have just one book on the craft of writing I recommend this book. It was the techniques in this book which led to the inspiration of my own book, "The Gambler," by Steven Black.