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4 Must-Read Books for Aspiring Writers

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If there's one thing writers love talking (and complaining) about, it's writing. Lots of authors have put out books about their writing processes -- some better than others. Here are four of my favorites. (And please use the comments to suggest more books on writing that deserve to be featured!)

1. Telling Lies for Fun & Profit

Telling Lies for Fun & Profit is easy to read, as it's actually a collection of magazine pieces -- each chapter is designed to grab a magazine reader, and this style actually makes it easy to put down in between chapters. As a whole, the book is more about the business and specifics of working as a writer than about the writing itself -- if you're looking for specifics on plotting and structure, go elsewhere. But if you want to read helpful, fun stories about how Block made his living writing fiction -- and how you can, too -- have a look, over at Amazon.

2. The War of Art

The War of ArtThe War of Art (subtitled: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles) by Steven Pressfield is a clever twist on the classic "Art of War" by Sun Tzu. But this time, the enemy is "Resistance" -- an inner demon that seeks to divert and destroy the writer (or businessperson, or whatever) from his or her goal. Pressfield draws on his own experience "going pro" (he wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance after many unsuccessful novels and screenplays) to make a compelling statement to aspiring writers: treat writing like a job. Get up in the morning and do it; the Muse will come, if you stick it out. But more than just telling you to do it, he dissects a series of arguments and issues that get in the way. By two-thirds of the way trhough the book, I was ready to leap from my chair and go write something -- it's that compelling.

The last part of The War of Art goes slightly off the rails (in my humble opinion), as Pressfield describes his belief in angels who are actively interceding to help with his writing process (but only after being properly beseeched via prayer). But whether you believe in angels or not, the bulk of the book is genuinely useful in guiding a beginning writer from amateur to pro -- and it's organized in very short, bite-sized chapters. Check it out at Amazon.

3. On Writing

On WritingOn Writing by Stephen King is a modern classic that tells King's story of becoming a writer, and gives details of his current process. I'm always curious about the specifics of a writer's daily life (what time does he wake up? Does he work at home or out in the world? And so on...) and King gives up all this information -- he describes his daily schedule, daily word counts, and what reference books he actually uses (okay, I'll just tell you here: Strunk and White). King's book is interesting both as autobiography (it was written around the time of his life-threatening encounter with a van) and as guidance for writers. He gives plenty of details and exercises on writing, with a major focus on dialogue -- one of his great strengths.

On Writing is a quick read, but there's material in the book for later study, should you be so inclined. If you're curious about Stephen King's early years typing in the laundry room of his trailer, this is the book to read. As usual, it's available at Amazon.

4. The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

The Believer Book of Writers Talking to WritersThe Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers is a compilation of interviews from The Believer, an excellent literary magazine. A few of the twenty-three interviews are previously unpublished, but the bulk are standard Believer fare -- smart, beautifully typeset discussions between creative people. I enjoyed this because it's so casual -- in general, it's just a lot of talking, and often the people talking are way smart. Warning for haters of The Believer/McSweeney's: you might find the discussion between Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace a little crazy-making, but then again, what did you expect?

The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers is available...wait for it...from Amazon.

Now, I know there are more great books on writing out there in the wild. What are your favorites?

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10 Terrific Facts About Stephen King
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Scott Eisen/Getty Images for Warner Bros.

As if being one of the world's most successful and prolific writers wasn't already reason enough to celebrate, Stephen King is ringing in his birthday as the toast of Hollywood. As It continues to break box office records, we're digging into the horror master's past. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Stephen King, who turns 70 years old today.

1. STEPHEN KING AND HIS WIFE, TABITHA, OWN A RADIO STATION.

Stephen and Tabitha King own Zone Radio, a company that serves to head their three radio stations in Maine. One of them, WKIT, is a classic rock station that goes by the tagline "Stephen King's Rock Station."

2. HE'S A HARDCORE RED SOX FAN.

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Not only did he write a story about the Boston Red Sox—The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (who was a former Red Sox pitcher)—he also had a cameo in the Jimmy Fallon/Drew Barrymore movie Fever Pitch, which is about a crazed Sox fan. He plays himself and throws out the first pitch at a game.

In 2004, King and Stewart O'Nan, another novelist, chronicled their reactions to the season that finally brought the World Series title back to Beantown. It's appropriately titled Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season.

3. HE WAS HIT BY A CAR, THEN BOUGHT THE CAR THAT HIT HIM.

You probably remember that King was hit by a van not far from his summer home in Maine in 1999. The incident left King with a collapsed lung, multiple fractures to his hip and leg, and a gash to the head. Afterward, King and his lawyer bought the van for $1500 with King announcing that, "Yes, we've got the van, and I'm going to take a sledgehammer and beat it!"

4. AS A KID, HIS FRIEND WAS STRUCK AND KILLED BY A TRAIN.

King's brain seems to be able to create chilling stories at such an amazing clip, yet he's seen his fair share of horror in real life. In addition to the aforementioned car accident, when King was just a kid his friend was struck and killed by a train (a plot line that made it into his story "The Body," which was adapted into Stand By Me). While it would be easy to assume that this incident informed much of King's writing, the author claims to have no memory of the event:

"According to Mom, I had gone off to play at a neighbor’s house—a house that was near a railroad line. About an hour after I left I came back (she said), as white as a ghost. I would not speak for the rest of the day; I would not tell her why I’d not waited to be picked up or phoned that I wanted to come home; I would not tell her why my chum’s mom hadn’t walked me back but had allowed me to come alone.

"It turned out that the kid I had been playing with had been run over by a freight train while playing on or crossing the tracks (years later, my mother told me they had picked up the pieces in a wicker basket). My mom never knew if I had been near him when it happened, if it had occurred before I even arrived, or if I had wandered away after it happened. Perhaps she had her own ideas on the subject. But as I’ve said, I have no memory of the incident at all; only of having been told about it some years after the fact."

5. HE WROTE A MUSICAL WITH JOHN MELLENCAMP.

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King, John Mellencamp, and T Bone Burnett collaborated on a musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, which made its debut in 2012. The story is based on a house that Mellencamp bought in Indiana that came complete with a ghost story. Legend has it that three siblings were messing around in the woods and one of the brothers accidentally got shot. The surviving brother and sister jumped in the car to go get help, and in their panic, swerved off the road right into a tree and were killed instantly. Of course, the three now haunt the woods by Mellencamp's house.

6. HE PLAYED IN A BAND WITH OTHER SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS.

King played rhythm guitar for a band made up of successful writers called The Rock Bottom Remainders. From 1992 to 2012, the band "toured" about once a year. In addition to King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening and Ridley Pearson were just some of its other members.

7. HE'S A NATIVE MAINER.

A photo of Stephen King's home in Bangor, Maine.
By Julia Ess - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

King writes about Maine a lot because he knows and loves The Pine Tree State: he was born there, grew up there, and still lives there (in Bangor). Castle Rock, Derry, and Jerusalem's Lot—the fictional towns he has written about in his books—are just products of King's imagination, but he can tell you exactly where in the state they would be if they were real.

8. HE HAS BATTLED DRUG AND ALCOHOL PROBLEMS.

Throughout much of the 1980s, King struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. In discussing this time, he admitted that, "There's one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don't say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page."

It came to a head when his family members staged an intervention and confronted him with drug paraphernalia they had collected from his trash can. It was the eye-opener King needed; he got help and has been sober ever since.

9. THERE WAS A RUMOR THAT HE WROTE A LOST TIE-IN NOVEL.

King was an avid Lost fan and sometimes wrote about the show in his Entertainment Weekly column, "The Pop of King." The admiration was mutual. Lost's writers mentioned that King was a major influence in their work. There was a lot of speculation that he was the man behind Bad Twin, a Lost tie-in mystery, but he debunked that rumor.

10. HE IS SURROUNDED BY WRITERS.

A photo of Stephen King's son, author Joe Hill
Joe Hill
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Stephen isn't the only writer in the King family: His wife, Tabitha King, has published several novels. Joe, their oldest son, followed in his dad's footsteps and is a bestselling horror writer (he writes under the pen name Joe Hill). Youngest child Owen has written a collection of short stories and one novella and he and his dad co-wrote Sleeping Beauties, which will be released later this month (Owen also married a writer). Naomi, the only King daughter, is a minister and gay activist.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About J.D. Salinger
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For the past few decades, if any artist has been celebrated for a slim body of work and subsequently disappeared from public view, they’ve invited comparison to Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger. The author (1919-2010) published only one novel in his lifetime, 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye—but what a novel it was. A bildungsroman (coming of age) story about an aimless young man named Holden Caulfield on a mission to find himself after being expelled from a private school, The Catcher in the Rye ushered in a new era of philosophical literature, becoming a staple of classrooms across the country.

A new film about Salinger, Danny Strong's Rebel in the Rye, is once again stirring interest in the reclusive artist. If you’re a little light on Salinger trivia, check out some facts about his war experiences, his disappointing fling with Hollywood, and one curious choice of beverage.

1. HE WORKED ON THE CATCHER IN THE RYE WHILE FIGHTING IN WORLD WAR II.

Salinger was a restless student, attending New York University, Ursinus College, and Columbia University in succession. While taking night classes at the latter, he met Whit Burnett, a professor who also edited Story magazine. Sensing Salinger’s talent for language, Burnett encouraged him to pursue his fiction. When World War II broke out, Salinger was drafted into the Army. During his service from 1942 to 1944, he worked on chapters for what would later become The Catcher in the Rye, keeping pages on his person even when marching into battle.

2. HE HAD A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.

Following his service, Salinger experienced what would later be labeled post-traumatic stress disorder: He was hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown in Nuremburg in 1945 after seeing some very bloody battles on D-Day and in Luxembourg. Writing to Ernest Hemingway, whom he had met while the latter was a war correspondent for Collier’s, he said his despondent state had been constant and he sought out help “before it got out of hand.”

3. HE REFUSED TO BE REWRITTEN.

Settling back in New York after the war, Salinger continued to write, contributing short stories to The New Yorker and other outlets before finishing The Catcher in the Rye. In literary circles, his name was already becoming known for insisting that editors not change a single word of his writing. When publisher Harcourt Brace agreed to publish The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger broke away from the deal after they insisted on rewrites. The untouched book was eventually released by Little, Brown and Company.

4. THE NEW YORKER DECLINED TO PRINT A CATCHER IN THE RYE EXCERPT.

A supply of Catcher in the Rye copies by author J.D. Salinger
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Despite having published stories in The New Yorker previously, Salinger was dismayed to discover that the magazine wasn’t very supportive of his novel debut. Getting an advance copy of the book in the hopes they would run an excerpt, editors said the book's characters were “unbelievable” and declined to run any of it.

5. HE DID GIVE ONE INTERVIEW ... TO A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT.

Early on, it became apparent that Salinger wasn’t going to embrace whatever celebrity The Catcher in the Rye brought to his doorstep. He insisted that Little, Brown not run an author’s photo on the book’s dust jacket and turned down any opportunities to publicize it—with one exception. After moving to New Hampshire, Salinger agreed to give an interview to a local high school paper, The Claremont Daily Eagle. Salinger was later dismayed to find out an editor wound up putting it on the front page of the local paper. Annoyed and feeling betrayed, he put up a six-foot, six-inch tall fence around his property, further walling himself off from prying eyes.

6. HE DID WIND UP SELLING A MOVIE IDEA.

Although his most celebrated work has been kept offscreen, Salinger did have a brief courtship with Hollywood. In 1948, producer Darryl Zanuck purchased the rights to one of his short stories, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” Released as My Foolish Heart in 1949, it earned actress Susan Hayward an Oscar nomination (plus a second one for Best Original Song). Salinger reportedly hated it.

7. HE SUED HIS BIOGRAPHER.

Choosing a difficult subject to profile, author Ian Hamilton insisted on pursuing a biography of Salinger in the 1980s. Salinger was so peeved he sued Hamilton to prevent him from using excerpts of unpublished letters. A Supreme Court ruling gave him a victory, barring Hamilton from using the passages. Hamilton later wrote a book, 1988's In Search of J.D. Salinger, an account of his own legal dealings with Salinger.

8. HE PROBABLY DRANK HIS OWN PEE.

By Time Inc., illustration by Robert Vickrey. Time Magazine Archive - National Portrait Gallery Collection, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Salinger’s reclusive habits made him easy prey for a litany of rumors, but some of his more intriguing habits were disclosed by his daughter, Margaret, in a memoir that described her father as speaking in tongues and occasionally sipping his own urine. That practice, called urophagia, is said to have health benefits, although no reputable studies have been able to demonstrate as much.

9. HE ALWAYS LOATHED THE IDEA OF A CATCHER IN THE RYE MOVIE.

With its persistent interior monologues, The Catcher in the Rye might be almost unfilmable—but that hasn’t stopped directors as revered as Billy Wilder and Steven Spielberg from trying. Throughout his life, Salinger famously rebuffed any attempt to purchase the rights to make a film from his book, but did leave open a small possibility that it could possibly happen after he died. “It pleasures me to no end, though,” he once wrote, “to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction.” (The Salinger estate has yet to disclose whether they would seek to prevent an adaptation.)

10. A CARTOONIST WON A RESIDENCY AT HIS HOUSE.

In late 2016, the Cornish Center for Cartoon Studies Residency Fellowship accepted applications for cartoonists who wished to live in a one-bedroom apartment above the garage of Salinger’s former residence in Cornish, New Hampshire. The fellowship was granted so the winner could have a place to focus and produce “exceptional work.” The CCS repeated the offer this year, with a guest due to move in on October 16. Harry Bliss, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, is the current owner of the property.

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