ON WRITING: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned writer this memoir was written for you.

In an age when the publishing market changes on a daily basis, it’s easy to get sidetracked by social media networks and blindsided by craft books that promise to enhance everything from your understanding of plot to honing the ever important logline.

A writer can have a meltdown just trying to determine which blogs or books will best serve him. And if, like me, your journey to publication has yet to reach fruition, you may often feel bogged down by the weight of finishing the manuscript—especially when you’ve moved beyond the first few drafts. If either of these states drag you into despair save yourself with a shot of Stephen King’s On Writing.

It’s a no-nonsense book filled with humor, heart, honesty and the best writing advice around. From honoring The Element’s of Style’s rule, “Omit needless words,” to King’s own mantra, “Write a lot and read a lot,” we learn how this prolific writer evolved and still thrives through his love of story.

King’s passion for writing is undeniable and contagious. I’d wager On Writing has sparked more writers to return to the page than any other craft book.

You can enjoy it in print where you can highlight and take notes, or you can listen to King’s narration of the audio version. I’ve done both and will continue to do so because there is nothing better than a good story.

Write On and Write Strong with On Writing.


I have spent every season of the year with Owen Meany. My first encounter was the summer I played Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Playing a fairy is heady work. Owen grounded me. The following fall I started to write plays. My head overflowed with character voices. But since none of them were as distinct as Owen’s voice I read A Prayer for Owen Meany a second time. A few years down the road I gave birth to my third son. Newborns spend a lot of time nursing. I infused our bonding time with literature. Possibly because he was born on Friday the 13th, we began with the work of Stephen King and turned to Owen Meany in the spring. My son loved Owen too. He laughed and kicked his legs whenever I read Owen’s lines.

I dusted off my copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany in January and read it in weekly installments to my 89-year old Aunt. We finished last week. After spending the winter with Owen Meany the spring looks a little less promising. When I asked my Aunt what we should read next she said, “I don’t know. That Owen is a hard act to follow.”

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or
because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was an instrument
of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian
because of Owen Meany.

If there is an opening in literature more haunting or compelling then this, I haven’t read it. These words like Owen Meany, force me to move forward not only in the story, but in my life. He is one of the most inspiring fictional characters around.

I’ve met several people who do not care for this particular novel by John Irving. They scrunch up their noses when I mention the title because they don’t like the narrator Johnny Wheelwright. My fondness for the story made me defensive whenever I heard such tosh twenty years ago. I am no longer defensive.

Johnny is a dishrag next to Owen Meany. He lacks initiative and his personality is so neutral he can’t even get laid. But this is exactly why he is the perfect narrator for the story. Owen’s unconditional and unwavering faith means nothing to the reader without Johnny’s endless confusion about life. Irving’s choice to lay such opposites side-by-side forces the reader, just like Owen’s sacrifice forces Johnny to take a stand.


This is one of the many reason’s I love John Irving. He is not shy about examining the issues most people refrain from talking about like death, religion, abortion and politics. When I picked up the novel this time I feared the story might feel dated because of the backdrop of the Vietnam War. I was mistaken.

The political unrest and arguments against the war in Owen’s and Johnny’s world seem to have more resonance today. Or maybe the relevance only feels stronger because, like Johnny Wheelwright, I have grown and experienced enough in life to take a stand.

For me, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book that keeps on giving. I uncover more about the characters and myself each time I witness the journey of these inseparable friends.

Discover what you believe with A Prayer for Owen Meany.


His name may not be familiar, but chances are you’ve invited Stephen Tobolowsky into your home on more than one occasion. Some nights his visit may have occurred while you were in your pajamas. That is, if you were curled up on the sofa watching television. If you’ve ever watched Thelma & Louise, Groundhog Day, Deadwood or Glee Tobolowksy has entertained you. But because his private life isn’t fodder for magazine covers you still may not be able to picture him. No matter. By the time you finish his memoir the essence of Tobolowsky—man and actor—combined with the life lessons he shares will make it impossible for you to forget him.

That said my relationship with this book was of the love-like variety. My theatre background made me long to fall madly in love, but I found it difficult to move beyond the handholding stage until chapter ten. The early chapters seemed to get lost in translation. The director inside me kept whispering, “This material would be funnier as a Stand Up Routine.” I was also disenchanted with the structure of the chapters. They often felt like a Long Island Iced Tea minus the vodka, tequila, gin and rum. What we got were childhood memories sandwiched between recent job experiences and the chronological unfolding of Tobolowsky’s acting career. These individual tales were interesting, but I hungered for a stronger trunk for the stories to hang on.

What kept me reading was Tobolowskys journey of self-discovery. For amidst, what was for me a chaotic style of storytelling, this character actor continued to unearth priceless insights about acting, relationships and identity.

Fairly or unfairly, many people are tried in life. The mistake people make is that they think the trial is a sign of failure. It’s not. It’s only a doorway that leads to who you really are.

These were the moments that led me to channel Oliver Twist, “Please, sir. I want some more.” They rattled my socks, made me take notes and offer thanks to one of my best friends for recommending the book. Tobolowsky’s wisdom also prompted me to do a bit of research and I was happy to discover his blog. His posts on acting are spot on and worthy of your time just like his memoir that is bound to encourage you to rewatch some intriguing films.

Check into The Dangerous Animals Club.

THE RIVER WITCH by Kimberly Brock

A ballerina, a ten-year old and an alligator walk into a bar…Interested? If not, you will be.

The River Witch captivated me like the ghost stories my friends shared around the campfire. The longer the tale the closer we sat together. We huddled out of fear and because we didn’t want to miss a word.

Opening pages ground readers in character, conflict and either lead us to care about the main character(s) or not. Kimberly Brock leaves no other option than to invest in her dueling narrators, Roslyn Byrne and Damascus Trezevant. Facts pummel the page the way a boxer’s fists attack a speed bag and fuel the reader’s curiosity, for Roslyn’s character defines mystery. And Damascus? She is spunky, determined and moves forward on blind faith—a quality we lose as adults when we need it most.

Few characters are as perfectly matched as Roslyn and Damascus. Two lost souls testing and daring each other to prove themselves worthy of life. These separate, yet interrelated character arcs are equally intriguing. But while the mystery and evolution of Roslyn is the main focus of the novel, I have to say Damascus is the character that drove me to turn page after page. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Why?” Why do children’s voices grab our attention? Why do child characters often reach further into our hearts then adults?

These questions nudged me to reexamine my fascination with Tillie from Up from the Blue by Susan Henderson and Gemma from Meg Tilly’s Gemma. Here is my realization. Children draw us in because a part of every adult still needs to be healed, and the character trait the adult needs to strengthen in order to mend, lies within the child they are drawn to.

We are vehicles of change and Brock’s characters encourage us to step away from fear and into the hope that true change offers us.

“I never done nothing like this,” Ivy said, breathless. “Just took off without nobody.
Something about you, Roslyn, when I’m with you I think I can do all this stuff.” 

The River Witch is a complex and magical tale of broken souls struggling to stay above the tide of loss and the inevitable, yet unexpected force of love that heals them.

Experience the spellbinding power of The River Witch.

WHEN DARKNESS LOVES US by Elizabeth Engstrom

Black Leather was my introduction to Elizabeth Engstrom. This erotic thriller had such punch I immediately snatched up all of her books. My excitement doubled when I discovered a reprinting of her first book. 

When Darkness Loves Us contains two novellas: When Darkness Loves Us and Beauty Is…. I devoured the book in 2 days—not because novellas are quicker reads, but because I was riveted. Engstrom’s debut proved what I suspected all along, she is a natural writing master. Her characters are bold. They make choices that shove them into corners and force them to risk more. This risk-taking is why I’m a fan, both as a reader and as an aspiring writer.

Reading Engstrom reminds me to push out of my comfort zone as I write. When I read for pleasure she takes me to worlds I never imagine, then rips away all sense of security. For instance, the novellas in When Darkness Loves Us are signature Engstrom—edgy and dark, but within these disturbing tales she somehow manages to lead the reader to believe there is hope for a happy ending. Then the endings twist and the happiness of the characters is questionable.

My initial reaction to the twists was disappointment—but not for long. The endings are true for each of the character’s situations and fully believable. This is the mark of a fierce risk-taker. And I applaud Engstrom for her commitment to telling the story that needs to be told, rather than writing a version that would please the masses. Elizabeth Engstrom may not be for everyone, but if you crave truth with an edge and twisted surprises she may become your new favorite.

Turn out the lights for When Darkness Loves Us.

(Cautionary note: The copy editing in this reprint is poor, but it doesn’t destroy the read.)

SIX YEARS by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben entered my life in 2009. We’d seen each other across bookstores, but we kept our distance. My reluctance to introduce myself stemmed from fear—the fear of lust. A bald man gifted in the hook and twist game means danger for anyone with a large TBR pile.

My last ounce of resistance melted away when his name crossed the lips of editor Lisa Rector at the Surrey International Writers Conference. I was in Rector’s Eleventh Hour Checklist workshop. She talked a lot about avoiding safety as a writer.

“Don’t play the predictable card,” she said. “When you read Harlan Coben you always know what you’re going to get, but you never know how it will unfold. Take risks. Do the unexpected for the character and for you.”

Nothing sells an author faster than word of mouth. As soon as the conference was over I picked up two of his books. Rector was right. Coben delivered the goods and I purchased several more books—all of them stand-alone thrillers because, once again, I was afraid of falling in lust with the Myron Bolitar series.

Three years have passed since I dallied with Harlan Coben. I was going to place Six Years on my wish list because I would so like to get through my TBR pile, but the premise of this stand-alone snared my curiosity. I pre-ordered and waited. Then my excitement disintegrated into confusion. Other than The Woods I couldn’t remember any of the titles of the previous books I read. For the past ten years my husband has been telling me, “We’re getting old.” I’ve always shrugged him off, but I started to wonder. Was my memory crumbling? I hustled over to the bookshelf and read the titles and the book flaps, but the only story that rushed back in its entirety was Play Dead.

What was this about? There are books on my shelves I haven’t read in thirty years and I still recall the twists and turns. So why, other than Play Dead were Coben’s novels forgettable for me?

When Six Years arrived my baffling revelation caused me to proceed with caution. Engaging a childish dare, I refused to read more than one chapter the first few nights. Maybe this Coben guy will reel me in and maybe he won’t. As my nightly reading expanded beyond the one chapter limit, I remembered why I previously devoured five Coben books in rapid succession. The main character Jake Fisher resonates as everyman. This everyman quality is one of the reasons Coben’s novels are so popular. His characters are people we recognize and secretly hope we will emulate if we are ever placed in a similar situation.

I loved Jake’s humor and point of view. But I still found it difficult to slip under his skin. About a third of the way through I understood why. I crave character driven novels and Six Years is all about plot. But Coben knows how to squeeze a plot, it’s another reason his books are bestsellers. Complications mount in each chapter to keep the tension and stakes high, and make it impossible for a reader to walk away.

Then around page two hundred I gained a new appreciation for Lisa Rector’s comment. “…you never know how it will unfold. Take risks. Do the unexpected for the character and you.”

After another near-death experience Jake seeks refuge in a “no-tell motel” and has a light-hearted exchange with the desk manager. The scene was so impromptu I laughed out loud. The dialogue was less than a page in length, but the connection between the characters was so genuine the last remnants of caution on my part disappeared. Jake’s struggle became my own. I read the remainder of the novel in one sitting.

I’m still not certain why I don’t remember the details of four of Coben’s earlier books. Maybe they didn’t have a love interest—romance is a huge hook for me and romance is a factor in Play Dead and Six Years. Or it’s possible that for whatever reason I read those books with less awareness. I may never unravel this mystery.

What I am certain of is Coben’s deft use of characters to reveal information, create complications and provide red herrings. They are three-dimensional, lean and although his books are plot driven, Coben’s everyman characters are the reason we turn the page.

Explore the unexpected twists of Six Years


Reading The Promise of Stardust is like indulging in Parisian chocolates. The substance is so rich in flavor you must take time to savor every morsel. Stardust is one of the most romantic and beautiful books I’ve read in a long time. I cried through the last twenty pages and for half an hour after. Sibley’s writing touches the reader’s soul because she isn’t afraid to open the hearts of the characters. Love pours from each page and carries the reader away.

My experience with The Promise of Stardust reminds me of when I saw Beaches in theatres. I went with a dear friend. We laughed and cried so hard at the end we took our tearful selves out of the theatre without a word and cried some more in the restroom. About halfway home my friend broke our silence with, “So, what do you think?” Without hesitation I said, “Some movies shouldn’t be analyzed just enjoyed.”

I believe this is true for Priscille Sibley’s debut. What Matt and Elle Beaulieu go through is so powerful and personal the reader’s response is personal too. So personal it is difficult to express the story’s poignancy. As a reader I am without words.

As a writer I am in awe of the seamless way Sibley uses the elements of craft. Placing a pregnant woman, who was a former astronaut, in a vegetative state raises the stakes right from the start. Then once Matt decides to save their child by keeping Elle on life support, Sibley pits not only the media and activists, but his entire family against him. The obstacles that follow increase the tension and play counterpoint to Matt and Elle’s love story that unfolds throughout the novel. But the Beaulieu’s love story is not void of rough edges, and is one of many reasons readers will connect with Sibley’s novel. Matt and Elle are flawed, make mistakes and often fail at communication, just like us.

The Promise of Stardust is so plausible and the characters are so real the reader can’t avoid speculating how they would react if they were placed in the same circumstances. Priscille Sibley has offered up a novel that will tug at your heart and engage your mind long after Matt and Elle’s journey ends.

Reach for love. Reach for The Promise of Stardust.

THE SEA by John Banville

The Sea (2005 Man Booker Prize Winner) is a story built on memory and the immediacy of the present. The past and present coexist like different colored wools woven on a loom. The specificity of Banville’s observations is unmatched. The details, so vivid, evoke emotions and recollections from the reader’s own childhood, which somehow feed immediately back to protagonist Max Morden and the reader is snared.

As his childhood and adult life collide, Max shows us that in the midst of the light and joy of our lives, our ability to comprehend the weight of our experiences is palpable; all we need do is open our awareness. Our transformational potential is mind-bending, and may be the reason—in my humble opinion—we delegate it to our subconscious. But The Sea is more than a story of human potential. It deals with love and loss, truth and fabrication. I dare say, Max Morden’s journey to the sea is a tale to be visited again and again, for each encounter will yield new insights for the reader.

The richness of the imagery and the elegant flow of the prose will coax you to read out loud. If you do, the story will unfold in a blink. I advise a whisper, just enough articulation to appreciate the brilliance of the music on the page. Let the words resonate ever so slightly and they will plunge deep into your heart and leave a tattoo of love.

Banville’s mastery of words and effortless storytelling echoes Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham. Yet he is himself—unique. We are fortunate to have him in our midst.

Delve into the magical world of The Sea.

THE RIGHT TO WRITE by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron became my ally in 1997. We correspond every day. Not as pen pals, she doesn’t know I exist. We meet on the page on opposite sides of the country as we write through our lives.

In 1997 I hit an emotional block in my work as an actress. I often choked in auditions and on stage. The audience couldn’t tell, but I knew. One of my cast mates at the time suggested The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. A few days later I heard an interview with singer k.d. lang. She shared how The Artist’s Way guided her out of a creative block. I bought the book.

Julia Cameron’s words resonated with me like a long lost friend. I read The Artist’s Way and The Vein of Gold and completed every exercise in each book. Did my emotional block in acting dissolve? Yes—in a round about way. Whenever Julia asked what I would like to be doing in three, five or ten years, my answer was always writing, never performing. Once I invested in my words instead of others, I was able to break free from the self-imposed block I had as an actress and my emotional landscape on stage once more grew potent.

On a creative high from the first two books, I snatched up The Right to Write. But after a handful of chapters I felt I was repeating myself and shelved the book. I did however keep writing. Between then and October 2012 I wrote six plays, three novels, a handful of short stories, and collected 35 rejection letters. In the spring of 2011, I attended a writer’s conference where agents said my writing held no voice. Determine to fix the problem I plowed ahead with my frustration in tow until the “choke” of 1997 resurfaced. That’s when I dusted off The Right to Write.

One of Julia Cameron’s gifts is the gentle, playful way she shows us how to lift off our burdens and unlock the bars that separate us from our inherent ability to express ourselves. Books on Craft—the how to books—are essential. The nuts and bolts of any craft must be exercised and mastered. But unless those craft skills are infused with the heart and soul of who we are the end product will lack luster.

The exercises in The Right to Write coupled with daily Morning Pages have energized my writing and brought a new level of commitment to my process. Since last October I have finished the draft of my WIP, completed a third of the next and written several short stories. Although the quantity of writing I’ve generated amazes me, the satisfaction I feel is a result of the weight of the words on the page. A shift has occurred and I couldn’t be more delighted. I am certain to encounter more rejections and rewrites on my way to publication and that’s okay. Julia Cameron has my back.

Writing is all about attractions, words you can’t resist using to describe things too
interesting to pass up.

Unleash your creativity. Embrace The Right to Write.


Although I do my best to read across bookshelves, my early life can be divided into genre chunks: the romance years, the thriller phase, at least a decade of self-improvement, months where I lived vicariously through memoirs and biographies and, of course, mysteries. I am the ideal mystery reader. My suspension of disbelief is activated on the first line and I’m fully engaged until the end—gullible, oh, so gullible.

I marvel at the mystery writer’s ability to plant red herrings and build suspense until the reader is so wrapped up in the chaos of clues they can’t trust anyone other than the hero. To write an unsolvable mystery seems an impossible task for me. But each time I’ve read a Sara J. Henry novel I’ve been tempted to accept the challenge. I covet her style.

The leanness of her writing keeps the reader and the protagonist, Troy Chance’s attention on the action. By sticking to the facts Henry gives the reader freedom to discover their own emotional connection to the events and characters within the story. Henry’s faith in her readers deepens our faith in her as a storyteller—a winning combination.

Henry’s debut novel Learning to Swim, which won the Anthony Award and Agatha Award for Best First Novel and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, also features protagonist Troy Chance. Reading Learning to Swim is not essential for your enjoyment of A Cold and Lonely Place thanks to the effortless way Henry drops bits of information about Troy’s earlier escapades.

I wasn’t going to ask about searching Tobin’s e-mail account, possibly because I’d
gotten myself into so much trouble last summer downloading someone else’s e-mail.

But my hunch is by the time you finish this second novel you’ll snatch up the first because there is nothing like a well-spun mystery, and Troy Chance is a fascinating heroine. Her no-nonsense, no frills attitude draws us in while her self-awareness seals our desire to be her best friend. Her evolution becomes our own. Troy inspires us to strengthen the best parts of ourselves through the deft way she navigates dicey situations. A Cold and Lonely Place is filled with them. And because Troy is never hundred percent certain about anyone, neither is the reader. Even when all the characters are getting along, the way Henry weaves the tapestry of the story together there is a constant undercurrent of mistrust and foreboding. Nothing is predictable.

Sara J. Henry is able to keep the mystery threads alive until the very end because the only details she doles out are the ones we need to know. She shows writers how easy it is for a character to carry a story without barfing up every scrap of turmoil in their lives. A Cold and Lonely Place and Learning to Swim resonate with us because the characters, although colored by their past, live actively in the present.

Plunge into the present of A Cold and Lonely Place.

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