Non-Fiction, On Writing

Timely Advice from Stephen King

I’ve started Writer-School, and I’m so excited!    This notice arrived in this morning’s email:

yay

We will be expected to read (a lot), write (a lot), and to engage with each other’s writing. Plus a lot of other stuff that I can’t remember right now.   Those who know me well will be smacking their foreheads because I am theoretically on holiday but do not know how to stop.  Another way of thinking of it is that stopping (work) is the perfect opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to.  And it’s a MOOC, so no drama.  So, Yay!

The best part of all is that this short course deals with both non-fiction and fiction.  I’m comfortable with the former, but the latter has been on hold for so long that I have started to wonder, what if I have forgotten how to write fiction?  Gasp!

Sifting through old ideas, notes and synopses, it looks like I used to be able to communicate appropriately, but what if my writing style is now irreversibly pretentious-sounding academic-speak?  Aaargh!

But the Gods of Fiction are definitely with me today.  With a stroke of great fortune, I have stumbled upon Stephen King’s advice for aspiring writers [1]:

1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story.”

2. Don’t use passive voice. “The passive voice is safe.”

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.  Isn’t it redundant?”

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” 

5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all. “

6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”

7. Read, read, read. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

9. Turn off the TV. “You must be prepared to do some serious turning inward toward the life of the imagination, and that means, I’m afraid, that Geraldo, Keigh Obermann, and Jay Leno must go.”

10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”  [Gasp!]

11. There are two secrets to success. “When I’m asked for ‘the secret of my success’ (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married. It’s a good answer because it makes the question go away, and because there is an element of truth in it. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible. And I believe the converse is also true: that my writing and the pleasure I take in it has contributed to the stability of my health and my home life.”

12. Write one word at a time. “In the end, it’s always that simple.”

13. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room… If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades unless it looks out at a blank wall.”

14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what the writer is doing may seem. You can’t aim a book like a cruise missile, in other words… because vocabulary is not the same thing as feeling, and plot is light years from the truth as it is understood by the mind and the heart.”

15. Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.”

16. Take a break. “If you’ve never done it before, you’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience. It’s yours, you’ll recognize it as yours… and yet it will also be like reading the work of someone else, a soul-twin, perhaps.”

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “… cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your ecgocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “If you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that … research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it. You may be entranced with what you’re learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.”

19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing… You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”  [Okay, but I want to.]

20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends… Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

‘Cheers’, Mr King.


[1] A more comprehensive version of this list can be viewed at: Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules For Writers by , published at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog on March 22, 2013.

[2] And here is a link to the Kindle version of King’s book (because I just love the immediate gratification I get with my Kindle):

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