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.”

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Shaky Hands Can Still Type

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We all have our vices. Writers aren’t known as drunks, madmen, and emotionally unstable nocturnal beasts creeping around the edge of society for nothing. Drinking, drugs, and dying young are some of the many curses that the artist suffers. But delving into the dark depths of the mind can be unsettling and we must find ways to cope with it.

Lately, I’ve chosen coffee and sweet snacks. I’ve been able to kick the sweets (and am on my way to losing some much-un-needed weight) but the coffee is my crutch. More so than even red wine (which I drink many nights when I am writing), that black brew calls out to me with a siren song that I cannot ignore.

If I’m not drinking wine for creative work, I’m drinking coffee to straight up take care of business. It’s not the best but it can’t be all bad: I’m not dead yet and I’m almost 30. That’s pretty good for an artist.

Remind Your Brain Who’s Boss

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Why do we always get our best ideas in the shower? While driving? Just before falling asleep at night?

It’s one of nature’s cruel jokes, I think, but it’s undeniable fact that the brain is more creative when loosened up a bit. Neuroscientists tell us that the three keys to a flow of creative ideas (even if we don’t consider ourselves a “creative” person): increased dopamine levels, distraction, and being in a relaxed state. It’s no wonder, then, that my natural habitat during creative writing usually involves a dark room, a snuggie (don’t you judge me), and a glass of wine. 

Brains are happiest and most likely to give us the good stuff when they’re happy, too. That means dopamine is being released, much like it would be when we’re exercising, having sex, listening to music, or taking a shower. Neurologist Alice Faherty even argues that some people are built to be more creative than others, depending on “activity levels of the dopamine pathways of the limbic system.” So remember: a happy brain makes a happy writer. 

Freeing up the subconscious from its usual tasks of problem-solving and stopping us from walking into walls gives it the opportunity to dig deep and find creative seeds it’s been burying all day. Something as simple as getting into the shower after a day at the office can trigger a big change in the way our brains work. With this “incubation period” for ideas in full swing, seeds of ideas can start to take root in the conscious mind instead of all of the usual worries of the day.

When our brains are jamming on alpha waves (when the brain is, or is in a state close to sleeping) we get a chance to focus internally instead of on the people and world around us. It’s not just sleep that can bring this state of deep relaxation on; soothing, familiar, repetitive tasks help us achieve this sort of mental quiet when we’re better in touch with our intuition. With the phone off and the responsibilities of the day just out of reach, we are able to better cultivate the creative ideas that have been looming just below the surface.

So. The keys to helping those creative juices flow are doing something that makes us feel good (dopamine), being distracted from the everyday (distraction/incubation), and being relaxed while doing something familiar or nothing at all (alpha waves). Whether that yields the next Great American Novel or not is no sure thing but let’s be honest here – at the worst, you’ll have just had a relaxing afternoon.

Now that’s for creative writing, might I remind you. When I’m editing or just slamming out articles, I work best in public, loaded with coffee, and jamming to some mindless music. I better crank up the EDM in my headphones since I’ve got about half of a fantasy novel left to edit and make line notes on. Bring it home, Zedd!

Articles Read, Referenced, and Otherwise Enjoyed for this Piece:

http://lifehacker.com/5987858/the-science-behind-creative-ideas

http://blog.bufferapp.com/why-we-have-our-best-ideas-in-the-shower-the-science-of-creativity

http://www.finerminds.com/mind-power/brain-waves/