Challenging The King On Writing
Far be it from me to question a writer as popular and successful as Stephen King. A better reason for me to do it there could not possibly be.
Recently the above linked article appeared in the writing cooperative extolling the virtue’s of Mr. King’s On Writing, and suggesting it as an excellent source of advice for the aspiring writer. The author is effusive in his praise and says of all the writing advice he has yet encountered “By far, the best writing advice I’ve found is Stephen King’s book On Writing.” In the book “King shares stories that shaped his writing career while offering practical advice for writers and other creative professionals.” He then goes on to list what he took away as his “top thirteen lessons” learned from that book. I have a slightly different take.
It must be said I have not read On Writing, nor do I intend to. That might make any other writer pause and question if what he or she was about to do was a good idea. Fortunately, I am not any other writer.
1. Use failure as fuel.
“By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” -Stephen King
“King put a nail in his wall..to hang rejection slips…a reminder that he was closer to his breakthrough.”
According to King we have two choices when we fail, resignation or perseverance and most people choose resignation. Because of this the strong and thus the “better” writers survive while the “weak” quit, give up their writing dreams, and move on to bigger and better things as retail service employees or silicon valley CEOs. Thus failure acts as a force of “natural selection” for writers “thinning out the herd” so the next great author(s) like Michael Chrichton or Dean Koonz will be able to show exactly how talented they are without all the pretenders and wanna-be’s crowding out their important work. If that did not happen who would be left to enchant us with tales of dinosaurs brought back to life and whatever it is that Dean Koonz writes about.
I don’t blame King for the terrible analogy to Darwin’s theory (it was actually only a hypothesis in his time as little evidence existed of it’s correctness until he went about collecting it. This is how a hypothesis or series of hypotheses coalesce(s) into a theory or theories. And that’s one to grow on brought to you by the good people at the National Science Foundation.) of evolution by natural selection, as many others have (mis)used and abused it in far worse ways. That said, the binary choice King presents as a response to failure is ridiculously oversimplified and in my view the question itself is false and self imposed. We are the only measure of our success and/or failure as writers, not some book publisher or editor or frankly even any reader. If you wan’t to succeed as a writer make the act of writing itself your only measure. When you do it you succeed. It is only when you do not write that you fail. Perhaps you need to “succeed” at writing in order to live. My idealized version of writing as an end in and of itself sounds great, but doesn’t put bread on the table or get little Johnny that pair of black slacks he needs for his first day at Catholic School. Firstly, if you are counting on writing to live, you are crazy. However, I like crazy and my advice still holds, you only fail if you choose to fail, or if you starve, or little Johnny has to go to school without pants.
2. Remove everything that is not part of the story.
“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.” -John Gould’s advice to Stephen King
Says the man who gave us the >150K word The Stand, and the >500K word IT, and the infinity -1 word Dark Tower series. Unlike Mr. King I will illustrate his advice with a real world example and move on.
3. “Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.”
“Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it.” -Stephen King
I’m frequently tempted to show my half-baked stories to friends. Especially when I’m excited about something, it’s hard to resist sharing it with the world. But then I remember King’s wise advice: “Write with the door closed.”
Write however you feel like writing and share with whomever you want whenever you want. That said I do suggest you closely follow the related rule. Masturbate with the door closed. Fornicate with the door open.
4. Don’t dress up your vocabulary.
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.” -Stephen King
Worrying about your vocabulary is about as helpful to the writing process as worrying about your paragraph structure (excuse me, your maps of intent. see #6 below for more on this stupid thing King says). Smart people with excellent vocabularies are terrible writers and stupid people with weak vocabulary are also terrible writers. In fact, 99.9% of people are terrible writers, including myself, and more than likely, you. Get over it. You vocabulary did not make you a terrible writer, your horrific childhood, shitty education, absent mother and father, and abusive Uncle Steve made you a terrible writer, and probably a terrible person too. Sucks. Get over it.
5. Avoid adverbs.
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.” -Stephen King
Unbelievably, totally, ridiculously, amazingly, dumb. Seriously. Terribly stupid.
6. Paragraphs are maps of intent.
“You can tell without even reading if the book you’ve chosen is apt to be easy or hard, right? Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs — including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long — and lots of white space…Paragraphs are almost as important for how they look as for what they say; they are maps of intent.” -Stephen King
If your intention is to come off like a writing elitist then use terms like “maps of intent” and say things like the above, otherwise just call them paragraphs. Also, don’t worry about their structure, it is not “almost as important” as what they say.” In fact I’d go so far as to say it is not even close to as important as that. Then again mine usually don’t say very much. I prefer to speak through the white space. It’s my globe of perspective or something like that.
7. Truthful writing often upsets people.
“If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” -Stephen King
Hmmm. Agree. Sure hope Stephen never sees this.
8. There is a timeless connection between reading and writing.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” -Stephen King
Yes there is. It’s called not reading but still writing.
What I Have Learned and Lost and Gained By Not Reading a Single Book in Two Years
How Not Reading (Books) Changes You as a Writer and as a Person
9. The best stories are unearthed — not created.
“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.” -Stephen King
And sculpting is unearthing the already existing statue beneath, and painting is removing the white space of the canvas to reveal the completed work underneath, cooking is discovering the taste of the final dish by combining each part into a whole, and composing is canceling out existing soundwaves in the air and replacing them with others such that they impact the ear drum and are transmitted to the brain in a different way, and talking shit is something I am really good at. Possibly the least helpful advice, and definitely the most cliched and overused analogy in all of creative analogizing.
10. After the first draft, crystallize the point of your story.
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest…[I]t seems to me that every book — at least every one worth reading — is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft — one of them, anyway — is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story. It hardly ever fails.” -Stephen King
Holy shit Professor Einstein, every book is about something. Damn, why didn’t I think of that. I guess that’s why he’s the megagazillionaire and I’m driving my mom’s Honda Fit and eating out at Arby’s three times a week.
11. 2nd draft = 1st draft — 10%
“You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft — 10%.” -Editor, writing to Stephen King
Formula: Writer + equation = bad idea. Leave the formulas and equations to the mathematicians and scientists. You don’t see research scientists trying to pretend like they know how to write do you?
12. Identify your ideal reader.
“I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader; that at various points during the composition of a story, the writer is thinking, ‘I wonder what he/she will think when he/she reads this part?’” -Stephen King
Easy. Me. Next.
13. Strive to write every day.
“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That’s 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book.” -Stephen King
Do I sound like a striver to you?
If you haven’t read On Writing yet, I strongly urge you to do so. I have not, and almost certainly never will. It’s well worth the time I’ve heard some people say. Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed this digestible summary.