Stephen King’s Rules for Writing

Stephen King meets The Simpsons. What’s not to love?

I first read “On Writing” several years ago, when I was about 22 or 23. Before I read that book, writing was only a vague goal for me. It was something you only did if you were already good at it. If you were just starting out, your writing would best be confined to journal entries scratched out in the dark. And it was never to be shown to anyone else. (After all, what if you shared you work, and it was terrible? Wouldn’t that just be the most horrible thing imaginable?)

But of course, I was young. And soon to learn that rejection and reflection are just part of a writer’s daily life. You know how  Leonardo DiCaprio had never won an Oscar, but has been nominated 5 times? Well, according to some, it’s an honor just to be nominated. That’s how I feel each time someone reads my work. It may not be published yet, but it’s an honor just to be read. And what I read in this book made such an impact on me that I immediately began work on my first novel, Seraphim. “On Writing” a must for young writers, whether you like horror or not. I still take it out and read it from time to time, and it’s always time well spent.

Here’s to all the sleepless nights and carpal tunnel.

Here are some of my favorite rules:

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 are not the story. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out.”

2. The magic is in you. “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.”

3. Read, read, read. “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.”

4. Dig. “When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. 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. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all the gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.”

5. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “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 ecgocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)”

6. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. “You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”

7. Writing is about getting happy. “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.”

Want to read more? Check out the inspiration for this blog post here. Also, buy your copy of “On Writing” wherever books are sold (literally, wherever.)

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