Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Stephen King's Top 10 Writing Rules for Writers

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In my Writing Basics series, I have talked a lot about improving as a writer by focusing on certain aspects of your writing. While the series will definitely continue, I wanted to spend one post focusing on concise writing "rules." And who better to get those writing rules from than Stephen King, one of the most prolific and astounding fantasy/scifi writers out there?

The follow list of TOP 10 writing rules from Stephen King's how-to/memoir On Writing has been adapted from this Barnes and Nobles blog post and this article from Open Culture. I rifled through their TOP 20 and chose the ten that I related to the most/thought I most needed (I also reordered them based on what I thought was most important/relevant/interesting). I hope you find these ten bits of King's writing genius as helpful as I did.

Top 10 Writing Rules for Writers
All quotations come from On Writing by Stephen King. 
I do not own these quotations, nor do I lay claim to them in any way.
P.S. The rules are presented with King's  commentary from the book,
which I follow with my own thoughts on King's commentary. 

Rule #1. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. 
Stephen King: “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need [On Writing] 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.” 
Majesta: While the workshop opportunities that come with pursuing an MFA can be advantageous, your writing most improves when dedicate the time to reading other writers and practicing your craft. Reading with a writer's eye can also be helpful.
Rule #2. Read, read, read.
SK: “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” 
M: This is part of the reason I make efforts to cram in as much reading time as I possibly can. Yes, there are days when I don't dedicate as much time to my writing as I should, but that is not because I read during that time instead. In fact, reading texts from several different genres is sharpening my focus and awareness on my own writing.
Rule #3.  Stick to your own style.
SK: “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what the writer is doing may seem . . . People who decide to make a fortune writing like John Grisham or Tom Clancy produce nothing but pale imitations, by and large, 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.” 
M: There is a saying about mimicry in art and how great artists steal from the work of other artists. While you can learn a lot from the great fiction writers, it is important to develop and maintain your own unique writing style.
Rule #4. You have three months.
SK: “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” 
M: This rule stood out for me because it is, again, a reminder about disciplining yourself. Following through with a project can be very difficult if you don't set deadlines for yourself and stick to them.
Rule #5. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story.
SK: “If you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That’s where 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 . . . but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.” 
M: As a fantasy writer, this one is the hardest for me to remember. With fantasy, you have to flex your worldbuilding muscles to the max; and a lot of the time, it is almost too tempting to cram in all of the cool features of your created fantasy world ("But the reader should know about the various phylogenetic stages of killbastard!" Really? Should the reader know this?) This rule reminds you to check yourself -- and your research.
Rule #6. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. 
SK: “Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests 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 egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)” 
M: Read this post from She's Novel entitled "8 Things to Cut When You Kill Your Darlings." I found it on Pinterest, and it breaks down the concept of "killing your darlings," or paring down your piece by eliminating unnecessary details. Which reminds me: you should FOLLOW ME on Pinterest!
Rule #7. Don’t use passive voice. 
SK: “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” 
M: It can take you a bit to get the hang of identifying and remedying passive voice in your writing. I will have a post on passive voice soon.
Rule #8. Avoid adverbs. 
SK: “The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence, but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there. What about context? . . . Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, then isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?” 
M: This rule and the way King describes it reminds me of the way George R. R. Martin goes through each of his novels, eliminating unnecessary words line by line. If you are working towards a word count and reach it, the idea of removing redundancy from your novel can be overwhelming. This rule is important to remember if you want to strengthen your writing.
Rule #9. The magic is in you. 
SK: “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.” 
M: Fear is the great death; it is the reason I have not finished so many projects in the past. I overthink my plot, I worry about the depth of my characters, I worry that my writing isn't strong enough. And then, when I have done all of that overthinking and worrying, I put my manuscript away because I am ashamed of what I have written -- No one would like it anyway, right? Well, that is my loss, because the only way to improve a piece is to revise it, and the manuscript needs to be complete to be revised (otherwise, what is the point?). I'm not big on "pep talks," but this rule spoke to me. As did the next rule.
Rule #10. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. 
SK: “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out.” 
M: Taken in consideration with Rules #5, #6, and #9 , this rule reminds me to just get the story out. Why should I worry about what a reader will think when I am only 10,000 words in? I need to let the story speak to me, and I need to write it down. After that, I can revise and perfect it for my future audience.
BONUS: Rule #11. Writing is about getting happy. 
SK: “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” 
M: There is nothing I can add to this already awesome statement.
You can click here to order your own copy of Stephen King's On Writing

What do you think about these writing rules?


Phoenix Greenhaven said...

I like this. I found it very informative.

Majesta Miles said...

Do you enjoy King's writing? I find that we most often appreciate writing advice from authors we enjoy reading.