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On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Paperback – International Edition, July 12, 2001
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'Absolutely fascinating' -- Sunday Times 'Not since Dickens has a writer had so many readers by the throat...King's imagination is vast. He knows how to engage the deepest sympathies of his readers...a bizarre and absorbing story, told brilliantly by one of the great storytellers of our time' -- Guardian 'The childhood memoir is a triumphant display of wit, story-telling and guts. His advice to writers is hard-nosed, practical and level-headed in the classic journalistic Orwell-Hemingway tradition' -- Evening Standard 'Energetic, vivid and observant' -- Daily Telegraph 'This is the written equivalent of Delia Smith's How To Cook. And, like British home cooking, the world of popular fiction will be better off for it' -- The Times
About the Author
Stephen King is the bestselling author of more than thirty books of which the most recent are THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON, HEARTS IN ATLANTIS and DREAMCATCHER. He lives with his wife, the novelist Tabitha King, in Bangor, Maine.
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Rounding out at a take-off-your-jacket-and-stay-a-while 320 pages, On Writing was extremely thorough. With light-hearted humor and life lessons, it was entertaining to say the very least. The book regaled King’s personal writing journey. That said, it was my opinion that that was non-essential for educational purposes. (However, the title did include A Memoir Of The Craft; I was fairly warned.)
It wasn't until just before mid-way through that King got to help those who sought to learn, refine, and hone their abilities. (I purchased the book for that purpose!) King defined English basics, covered the first to last manuscript, and navigated publishing! It was all there with tips, tricks, and a healthy dose of wit.
NB: Because this book was lengthy, jump to the section you require. If you’re just curious about King’s history, read “C.V.” and the Forewards. (However, he inserted his writing journey in most chapters succeeding that.) If you’re there for educational purposes only, skip to “What Writing Is.” (I wish someone had told me that.) At $13 USD this book was hefty for penny-pinchers but appropriate for the amount of content.
I heard of this book by accident, and thought I would read it for insights into Mr. King’s thinking about writing, and how writing has fit into his life. I feel he treats us to various points of view that are well worth reading about, even if one is not a fan of his books.
His fans and detractors will cover all the ground necessary in the Amazon reviews. I can say as an outsider to his world, his book gives a feeling for his thoughts as a writer and his views that takes one into his world. One feels like writing, even dedicating one’s life to writing, both during and after reading the book. Not necessarily in his style. He awakens in one an urgency about writing, and how this activity can just fill one’s life with meaning.
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.