Stephen King’s Rules for Writing

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Like many writers who’ve been honing their craft for years, author Stephen King has some rules for writing. In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, he gives his 20 rules for success and explains why an opening line might be the most important thing you ever write.

But that’s another post for another day.

His love of writing shines through in this list. He talks about how writing should make you happy and come from within, how you should write for yourself instead of a theoretical audience somewhere.

For those interested, I’ve included his 20 rules below:

1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that arenot the story.”

2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.”

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.”

6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

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. “TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”

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.”

11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physical healthy, and I stayed married.”

12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”

13. Eliminate distraction. “There’s should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”

14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”

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.”

16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”

19. You become a writer simply by reading and 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.”

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 as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

Some Rules on Writing

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In 1947, author Robert A. Heinlein published “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.” In it, he made clear his now-famous 5 rules of writing.
  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
As my husband would say, these are all of them SIMPLE RULES but none are EASY. There’s a difference. In theory, anyone CAN do these things but that doesn’t mean they are easy to do well, consistently, and with passion. And that’s the kicker, isn’t it? These all require more than passion. Passion will kick-start a project but only perseverance and dedication can see you through a novel manuscript or the fifth re-write of your short story. So keep going.Keep writing, keep editing, and keep trying to sell your work!

Don’t Take it So Personally

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My writing group is publishing a short story collection and I’m excited to have one of my pieces in it. Unfortunately, not everyone else is. Something about the style of my post-zombie-apocalypse short story just struck a few of our beta readers badly. One even said she hated it. Hated it! It scared her off from reading the rest of the collection.
That, if I am being truthful, hurt a little bit. That was some serious language being used. But you know what? I like the piece. Others like the piece. One reader said she loved it and that the final lines gave her cold shivers. So I’m not alone in my loyalty to the piece.
Here’s the thing: people who liked it gave me great and productive notes that I took into account as I re-wrote and re-re-wrote the story BUT people who didn’t like it couldn’t seem to provide notes on how to improve it. They just hated it and gave me a grammatical line note somewhere and shrugged me off as a lost cause.
Remember: there’s a difference between someone being critical of your work and someone critiquing your work. One is helpful, the other is not. Listen to critiques. Let criticism pass you by.
Clearly, on my case, this was a matter of stylistic preference. My story is divisive among readers. That’s fine. I wasn’t looking to please everyone; I was telling a story. I made it the best I could with help from others but some people don’t and never will like it.
I can live with that.

Mandatory Reading

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Genre fiction holds plenty of challenges for writers. If you’re interested in Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Historical Fiction, or any other niche of fiction writing, then you may come across a different set of challenges than Literary Fiction or Non-Fiction writers might. There tend to be conventions held in these genres – things like types of magic, races common to fantasy world, demons or monster types, popular plot arcs, or tropes to avoid – that can heavily influence the reader’s opinion of your work.

Overall, I have one piece of advice that I would give to any writer but especially to a genre fiction writer:

Read books in your genre. Read more of them. No, more. Grab a stack of them and then read those, too.

As a working writer, I do understand that reading takes time, which is something a lot of us seem to sorely lack these days. I know my rate of book-devouring has slowed remarkably since I started copy writing for work and writing a manuscript on the side. I’m sympathetic, I swear!

Despite all the grudging work that reading after a long day’s work can feel like, I do my best to keep up with both older and more recent popular books in my genre, Urban Fantasy. So I’m reading three concurrently right now, getting a feel for authors with different approaches to the genre. I find that even if I don’t enjoy a particular book, per se (or even if I think it’s not particularly well-written), there’s always something to be learned from every read.

So I am afraid, dear reader, that there is no skipping on the homework. If you want to write, you have to read, too.