Sunday, July 14, 2013

On Writing: Why I Don't Listen to Stephen King

Normally, I don’t like to give people advice about writing. I prefer to offer advice on how to get your writing published, how to deal with the publishing world, how to be a success. I leave the writing instruction manual to other less qualified people – by which I mean famous writers.

These are the people who get big bucks to tell other people how to write. Their publishers figure, “Hey, the guy’s famous. People will want to hear how he got there.” That much is true; people do want to hear how Stephen King, for example, became a writer. But do famous writers really know anything about writing?

After reading Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I have to conclude that famous writers don’t know jack.  That’s because they are writing intuitively. They have a gift, and the substance of that gift cannot be transferred. They can only say, “This is how I write.”

The section of his book in which Stephen King chronicled his career as a writer (starting in grade school) was wonderful. It was funny, and scary, and very down-to-earth - just like his novels. Unfortunately, he spends most of his book telling us not how he wrote his novels, but how we should write ours. No doubt, if you follow his advice, you will probably end up sounding a lot like Stephen King. 

The question is, do you want to?
Stephen King's Rule #1: Don’t use passive voice

Active voice is great if you want to produce a driving passage, filled with energy and momentum. But what if you want to convey something else – mystery, suspense? Here is an example of passive voice:
The body was hanging in the hall. It had been hung there some time in the night, when we were sleeping. As we made our way down to breakfast, we all stepped around it. Nobody looked up. 
We all knew who it was.
Would this passage have worked as well using active voice: “Somebody had hung it in the night"? Absolutely not. The focus here is on the body. Using passive voice increases the tension and forces us to wonder, "Who hung it there?"

Stephen King's Rule #2: Don’t use adverbs

The overuse of adverbs (anything ending in -ly) can be clumsy. However, the adverb, like any other part of speech, fulfills a purpose. Sometimes you need to describe how someone is performing an action, without a lengthy descriptive phrase.
Gently, oh so gently, they lifted my body out of the river. They placed it on the bank and arranged my tattered clothing to cover what remained of my flesh. Then they stood around me, in perfect silence, their hats in their hands.
If only they had shown me such respect when I was alive.
That passage could have begun without the “gently.” But the impact of the (dead) narrator’s voice would have been compromised, and the force of the final line would have been diminished.

Stephen King's Rule #3: Don’t use a long word when you can use a short one

English, a gloriously complex language, is a mashup of Germanic and Latin roots (among other things). The Germanic lexicon is agglomerative: get up, get down. Latin roots are inflected: ascend, descend. Academic writing favors Latin roots, while colloquial speech prefers the Germanic. If you want to sound like Hemingway, or Stephen King, stick to the Germanic roots. But, if you are after a more scholarly effect, go for the Latin.
As the waiter stared at the coin in his hand, a slow flush spread across his cheeks. 
The time traveler leaned back in his chair, adopting a stern demeanor. “My good man,” he said, “I trust the generosity of my emolument will not tempt you into drink." 
The waiter threw the dime on the floor. “Next time you can get your own damn burger and fries!”
I'll admit I’ve cheated. In dialogue anything is permissible. But, placed well, those five-dollar words can accomplish much more than their one-syllable equivalents. Here is the last phrase of Camus’ The Stranger, taken from two different translations:
… and that they greet me with cries of hate. 
… and that they greet me with howls of execration.
Which version do you think you will remember?

The real rules of writing

There is only one rule for writers. So pay attention. I will not repeat it.

You can do anything, provided that you can pull it off.
That second clause is the key. If you can pull it off, whatever it is, you will have written a masterpiece. If you can’t, you will have produced a piece of trash. Being able to do something successfully is what is important, not whether you follow the rules.


  1. I enjoyed this blog very much. I think we all should write in the style that makes us comfortable. I love writing for children because my goal is to entertain and amuse them, while they're learning important values.

  2. Love your blog. I was especially interested in this:

    That’s because they are writing intuitively. They have a gift, and the substance of that gift cannot be transferred. They can only say, “This is how I write.”

    And wondering if the same principle could be applied to editors as well? I was thinking that while the mechanics of grammar, vocabulary and punctuation are important to an editor's work, a really good editor is also using intuition and instinct to guide his or her response to an author's work.


  3. Editors have to adhere to the punctuation conventions of their publishing house. So, there is not much leeway on that level. But, as to word choice, phrasing, and the larger picture, editors can use their intuition. A good editor - and these are very rare - seeks to draw out what is best in an author. A mediocre one - and these are very common - follows the rules.

  4. "You can do anything, provided that you can pull it off."

    Frickin' genius.

  5. I think you are absolutely right about so called rules.

  6. You rock! I am an author, editor, and God knows what else. Sometimes, as you say, you must use an adverb.

    I will share this post for sure!

    Blaze McRob

  7. Hey,
    smart move. But these rules are not from King himself. They are rather his repition of the least common denominator, if you will, for a set of rules about writing. Originally they originate from "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White.

  8. Plus, another way of looking at this kind of stuff would be:
    You have to KNOW the rules in order to BREAK ´em.

  9. You seemed to have side-stepped what King says about being able to use the above IN MODERATION.

  10. Side-stepping did not occur by me. I believe all of King's rules can be broken IN EXCESS. S.J. Perelman did this to great effect. The point is, can you pull it off?

    1. I think what Chris means is that Stephen King says you can break these 'rules', using the alternative in moderation. In my opinion, I agree with King. If you use long words throughout, it gets tiresome for the reader. If you use constant adverbs, it loses its punch. King simply means to use these techniques in moderation, not just throw them out of the window and avoid using them completely.

    2. Do you honestly believe an unknown S.J. Perelman could sell enough books to make a living today?

  11. Same with JK Rowling. She recently tried to write under a different named and failed miserably. We all have opinions about writing and what works for some doesn't work for others. I strive for the Van Gogh effect. Write something that will last, not for fame or doing whatever the current society trend will make you think you are "successful." Write something that will last. My first book did just that. It sold not a lot...but now 7 years later, Angels in Sadr City was the basis for the final battle scene in American Sniper and sales remain just as steady this month as they have for the past 7 years. So maybe just trying to focus on mastering the craft should be where we put our concentration instead of focusing on how successful we can or think we should be.

  12. If you followed every rule in his book, you would still never come to sound like Stephen King. The distinguishing factors come down to voice and an individual's perception of honesty.

  13. I still believe the rules are worth following. Follow them until you know in your heart what will happen when you don't. But follow them as a form, like the rules of making a sonnet. Then when you know the form, you will know whether to fit your work inside it.

    Afterward, you can explore beyond it, secure that we will recognize not the rakish jaunt of a child but masterful, knowing debauchery.

  14. First, I think King is a literary golden god and I sleep with his book On Writing--however I think you are right. As a new writer, I tried to break the rules and failed horribly--because I didn't know the rules well enough to break them with style. Know the rules so well that you can break them imperceptibly.

  15. Ted Williams was a damn fine hitter, probably the best ever, but he couldn't coach another person to save his life. The ability to do something really doesn't mean they can teach you to do something. So take any advice with a grain of salt because you might not be getting the advice you need. That being said, I do recommend Brenda Ueland's If You Want To Write. It's really positive, and is much more concerned with you finding your voice as a writer instead of becoming a carbon copy of Stephen King.

  16. Good post, thank you. People want messiahs for everything. Writers want their own Virgil to guide them through the hellish fires of composing narratives. But King is right when he says the only such gurus are the books written by capable writers. Read those, over and over, and it's possible by osmosis to learn a lot.

  17. "These are the people who get big bucks to tell other people how to write."

    These are the people who get big bucks to write. Period. I don't think the craft of writing can be taught. People who write well rarely write to be published. They write because they love writing; they have to write because for them it is akin to breathing.

  18. Close... You almost got to the one and only rule for creating something others are willing to experience (and often pay for), but a "Rule" shouldn't include a disclaimer as part of that rule ;-)

    Here is the "One Rule" to create anything that another person will want to experience:

    Be Interesting!

    This "One Rule" works for books (both fiction and non), movies, comics, games, YouTube videos, music, teaching, lectures, Super Bowl commercials, Facebook comments, Twitter posts, anything.

    We share things we find interesting with others and ignore the rest.

    All the best - Steve DW

  19. I love that you used "The Stranger" as an example. Albert Camus was an excellent writer, and he probably would've influenced modern literature so much more if he hadn't died so early.


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