13 October 2014

"Rules" and Comments

by Fran Rizer 

In 2010, a bargain-loving friend of mine found Stephen King's memoir/writing guide On Writing in a clearance bin at a dollar store. She bought every one of them and sent them all to me.  The problem was  that there were over twenty-five copies.  I sent one to almost every writer I knew personally.

Recently I introduced a young sci fi writer to the realm of Stephen King--not the movie or television version, but the world found in his written words.  As my friend read It, I wished I had one more copy of On Writing to share with him what King said about writing and the story about the baby sitter. I bought one for him, but I was also fortunate enough to locate a list of King's "rules" on writing.

I grew up a rebel child who hated "rules," so I'll call these suggestions. You've probably seen most of them before along with those that overlap Elmore Leonard's, but I found these gentle reminders worthwhile. I couldn't resist the color red for my comments though I graded papers in purple when I taught school. (Some of you may recall that I did, however, write "Dear John, go to hell" letters in red.)

Today, I share twenty suggestions from Stephen King.

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.”  My next two books are a thriller in January and a horror in June, 2015.  I think I'm writing for myself these days and I have no idea what story is going to insist on being told next.

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.” And for heaven's sake, learn what the passive voice is.  I've dealt with too many young writers who think linking verbs are passive voice.  No comment on the timid lovers.

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.” I add "most of the time" to this or maybe "usually" is a better choice.

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”  See number three.

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.” I always told students they needed to learn the rules as well as when to break them.  Sometimes those grammar rules are necessary.

6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”  Here I differ with Mr. King.  Years ago, when I attended a large writers' group, we encountered several truly horrendous writers who positively knew they were fantastic and tried to justify why they shouldn't follow any suggestions.  It's not surprising that those folks still aren't published.

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Amen!

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.”  I'm struggling with this right now.

9. Turn off the TV. “TV really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”  Why do we need television when we have shows in our minds?

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.”  This is no problem for me since the Callie books averaged six weeks for the first drafts, but I don't see how King does it with some books over a thousand pages.  How about you?  How long does it take to get that first draft written or do you have some that "wrote themselves" in a short time and some that take forever?  

11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married.”  Too late for me to accomplish either of those.

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.”  I would add that commercial success is accomplished one reader at a time.

13. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.” There should also be no family members who constantly interrupt writing with insignificant questions and comments having nothing to do with the story (unless they are grandchildren).

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.”  "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," but does flattery have any place in creative writing?

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.  I like King's reference to the writer's toolbox.  The goal is to fill that toolbox with all possible skills and ideas and then develop the craft of knowing what to use where.

16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.” And sometimes, going back and reading it after a layoff enables a writer to think, "Dang!  That's pretty good!"  (Okay, I know Elmore said no exclamation marks, but I love them so long as there aren't more than two per page. I began this by mentioning my dislike of rules from a young age.  What really p-o's me is when participants aren't given the rules until they are reprimanded for breaking them.) Back to the subject:  Sometimes after that six-week rest of a manuscript, a writer goes back, reads it, and says, "Oh, s- -t.  I can't believe I wrote that."

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.)” Writing is also an excellent way to kill some people who are not 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.”  I try to avoid this in writing and hate big info dump/back stories when I'm reading.  I don't like to read fiction that is obviously an effort to teach me a skill or history. (Janice Law provides an excellent example of writing historical novels that don't shove lessons down the reader's throat.)

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.”  I once knew a poet who refused to read other poets' works because he didn't want his "talent to be influenced by others."  He gave me a sincerely blank look when I mentioned "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," and the last time I saw him, he was coming out of a local pawn shop.  

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.”  How about you?  I personally get a lot of happiness and pleasure from "falling into the page," but greater commercial success would take me closer to a happy ending.

See a fuller exposition of King’s writing wisdom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.

Your task for today is to let me know if you have a favorite among these twenty or if you have a suggestion you'd add to the list or if you flat out disagree with one of King's suggestions.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.


  1. I'm not a huge Stephen King fan, but I think his book on writing is the very best. Unpretentious, useful, and interesting. Well written, too!

  2. I'm not a huge Stephen King fan, but I think his book on writing is the very best. Unpretentious, useful, and interesting. Well written, too!

  3. Janice, I agree with you on King's book on writing. It is especially useful when working with very young writers because the personal anecdotes keep them reading and most of them internalize some of the advice. Thanks for commenting.

  4. I discovered many writers this side of the pond later in life including Stephen King, but I like Rule #19 the best. Time is not 'found' to read and write - Time is MADE (emphasized intentionally).

    Either both are important enough for a person to do or they become just bric-a-brac on the shelves (conversation pieces) which just sit there.

    I also like #8. I had to stop being concerned about people liking or not liking what I wrote to open up my mental blood vessels.

    Thank you, Fran, for this!

  5. There are a few writing books that I simply love, including Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, The First Five Pages, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, but King's On Writing is by far the best, and probably always will be.

    As you said, King's rules and Leonard's rules overlap in places, as they should--but King's are more helpful.

  6. Bradley, those are two of my favorite suggestions, too. I believe reading was the only writing instruction many of us older writers had because there were no writing courses per se when I attended college. We had English classes which were a little about writing, but mainly reading. So far as writing to please myself, that's what my next two books are all about. Thanks for commenting.

  7. John, thanks for commenting on other helpful books. I've never read SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS, but I will definitely seek that out. I'm on the fifth time through the book I'm working on now, and every time, I find something I should have caught on the last go-round.

  8. Favorite suggestions (with which I agree 100%) Read, read, read; kill your darlings; take a break (I walk a lot; slowly - note that I do use adverbs - but a lot); and write, write, write.

    The one that made me crack up? #6. I, too have met those people whose writing is truly horrendous and who KNOW that it is only evil oppressive editors that are keeping them from fame and fortune.

    Kill your darlings. And a few who aren't. Great job, Fran!

  9. Loved his book from long ago so I relish reading these reminders. Thanks for sharing!

  10. 6. I agree with you that it’s not fear, but hubris that makes for bad writing. I had one guy tell me his (bad, bad) writing was “his style, so get used to it.” Sorry, not I.

    9. Not watching television isn’t a problem… I don’t have a TV! However, Susan Slater, Vicki Kennedy, and others have raved about some of the programs on the telly.

    10. I’m a slooooow writer… or rewriter. I edit forever and let the story rest several times. One early story I can’t seem to get right. (sigh)

    Fran, I liked his ‘rules’ and enjoyed the commentary you included.

  11. I refer to these in the Crafting a Novel course I teach at Sheridan College. And I'm with Bradley - no. 19 is the rule my students need to learn the most. No time is perfect for writing. Writing takes time. If you are going to be a writer, you are going to have to give up something.

  12. Eve, I'm glad you've met those folks mentioned in number six, too. After I posted this, I thought that comment might sound mean, but sometimes the truth isn't pretty. I imagine this guy is still cursing editors and if he's in another writer's group, heaven help the other members.

  13. Catherine, glad you appreciated the reminders. Writing this blog actually made me pull out my copy and read it again.

  14. Leigh, thanks for reminding me that many bad writers like number six blame everything on "style." I've also have a literary writer who constantly chides me for "wasting time writing genre material." There are a lot of literary writers whom I read and admire, but this particular fellow's writings put me to sleep.
    By the way, you never struck me as "slow."

  15. Melodie, the beautiful thing about number nineteen is that when one reaches my age, plenty of time to read and write comes with retirement. (Of course, I still make time to shop, lunch, and have dinner and dancing with my favorite critic.)

  16. For the most part, these are great "rules". I cannot agree, however, with his aversion to adverbs. I run across them all the time. Some of my favorite writers use them. If they are not to be used, why do we have them in the language? (The note about Velma, our corporate secretary, contains two adverbs. Shame!)

  17. Herschel, I agree that there are times and places where adverbs are needed, and recently, I've stopped deleting as many of mine as I did previously. So far as Velma is concerned, she's like my character Callie. They do whatever they please whenever they please. Thanks for commenting.

  18. The three month rule would probably work for me if I were actually able to cloister myself away during that time. However, running a household in the day and sometimes working at night, after helping a kid with homework in the afternoon, tends to spread that three months out for me. LOL


  19. I agree, Dixon - I'd love to get 3 months to just work, but laundry, cooking (small town, few restaurants), and people (from husband, grandchildren, friends, and neighbors) give me only a short window each day where I can actually concentrate on nothing but writing.

  20. Dixon and Eve, even though retired, I have days that day-to-day life expectations cut drastically into writing time. I also have days when I just don't feel like going back to what I was working on which is one reason I've been working on two novels at the same time. I have a friend who has designated a certain part of each Saturday as writing time which he spends in the local BAM since he has a busy household. Don't you think King was blessed to be successful enough early enough to devote a major portion of his time to reading/writing?

  21. On Writing is a favorite of mine!


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