Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writers

stephenking

Image by the USO, via Flickr Commons

In one of my favorite Stephen King interviews, for The Atlantic, he talks at length about the vital importance of a good opening line. “There are all sorts of theories,” he says, “it’s a tricky thing.” “But there’s one thing” he’s sure about: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.” King’s discussion of opening lines is compelling because of his dual focus as an avid reader and a prodigious writer of fiction---he doesn’t lose sight of either perspective:

We’ve talked so much about the reader, but you can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both.

This is excellent advice. As you orient your reader, so you orient yourself, pointing your work in the direction it needs to go. Now King admits that he doesn’t think much about the opening line as he writes, in a first draft, at least. That perfectly crafted and inviting opening sentence is something that emerges in revision, which can be where the bulk of a writer’s work happens.




Revision in the second draft, “one of them, anyway,” may “necessitate some big changes” says King in his 2000 memoir slash writing guide On Writing. And yet, it is an essential process, and one that “hardly ever fails.” Below, we bring you King’s top twenty rules from On Writing. About half of these relate directly to revision. The other half cover the intangibles---attitude, discipline, work habits. A number of these suggestions reliably pop up in every writer’s guide. But quite a few of them were born of Stephen King’s many decades of trial and error and---writes the Barnes & Noble book blog---“over 350 million copies” sold, “like them or loathe them."

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."

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.”

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

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March 2014.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Flannery O’Connor Renders Her Verdict on Ayn Rand’s Fiction: It’s As “Low As You Can Get”

For all the grotesque humor of her stories and novels, Flannery O’Connor took the writing of fiction as seriously as it is possible to do. Even at the age of 18, she saw the task as a divine calling, writing in her journal, “I feel that God has made my life empty in this respect so that I may fill it some wonderful way.” Intense self-doubt also made her fear that she would fail in her mission, a too-familiar feeling for every creative writer: “I may grovel the rest of my life in a stew of effort, of misguided hope.”

In acquiring the needed confidence to push through fear, O’Connor also acquired a theory of fiction—a serious and demanding one that left no room for frivolous entertainments or propaganda. “I know well enough that very few people who are interested in writing are interested in writing well,” she told a student audience in her lecture “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” (collected in Mystery and Manners).

Writing well, for O’Connor, meant pursuing “the habit of art,” a phrase she took from French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. While she admits that Art is “a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand,” her definition is simple enough, if vague: “something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself.” When she gets into the meat of these ideas, we see why she could be so harsh a critic of fellow writers in her many letters to friends and acquaintances.

In one particularly harsh assessment in a May, 1960 letter to playwright Maryat Lee, O’Connor wrote, “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

The reference to Spillane is interesting. Rand corresponded with the crime novelist and admired his work, seeming “greatly pleased,” William Thomas writes at the Randian Atlas Society, by his “sense of life,” if not “enamored of his skill in conveying it.” Surely Rand’s hyper-individualistic, purely materialist “sense of life” repelled O’Connor, but her objections to Rand's fiction would have certainly—if not primarily—extended to the writing itself.

In her lecture, O’Connor elaborates on her definition of the art of fiction by telling her audience what it is not:

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.

Rand’s fiction presents readers with speechifying heroes who serve as one-dimensional exponents of Objectivism, and cardboard villains acting as straw caricatures of the democratic or socialist philosophies she loathed. Books like Atlas Shrugged embody all the marks of amateurism, according to O’Connor, of writers who “are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.”

For O’Connor, the habit of art requires keen observation of complex human behavior, compassion for human failings, a genuine openness to paradox and the unknown, and a preference for idiosyncratic specificity over grand abstractions and stereotypes—qualities Rand simply did not possess. Perhaps most importantly, however, as O'Connor told her student audience in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” the writer’s “moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.” One imagines O’Connor felt that Rand's moral sense could only produce profoundly impoverished drama.

Read more of O'Connor's letters, full of her informal literary criticism, in the collection The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O'Connor.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Margaret Atwood Offers a New Online Class on Creative Writing

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FYI: Back in July, Colin Marshall highlighted an online writing course being developed by Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin. As a quick follow up, it's worth mentioning that Atwood's creative writing course has now gone live. It's offered through Masterclass, features 23 video lessons, and costs $90. You can read Colin's original preview of the course here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

V.S. Naipaul Creates a List of 7 Rules for Beginning Writers

Photo by Faizul Latif Chowdhury, via Wikimedia Commons

As even his harshest critics admitted, V.S. Naipaul knew how to write. The death earlier this month of the author of A House for Mr Biswas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival got readers thinking again about the nature of his art. A Trinidad-born Indian who went to England on a government scholarship to Oxford, he eventually achieved a literary mastery of the English language that few of his peers in England — or anyone else there, for that matter — could hope to match.

Like any celebrated creator, Naipaul has long had his imitators. But instead of trying to replicate what they read in his books, they would do better to replicate how he made himself a writer. "It took a lot of work to do it," Naipaul once told an interviewer. "In the beginning I had to forget everything I had written by the age of 22. I abandoned everything and began to write like a child at school. Almost writing ‘the cat sat on the mat.’” Amitava Kumar quotes that line in an essay on his own development as a writer, influenced not just by Naipaul's memories of starting out but Naipaul's seven rules.

"There was a pen-and-ink portrait of Naipaul on the wall," writes Kumar about his first day working at the Indian newspaper Tehelka. "High above someone’s computer was a sheet of paper that said 'V. S. Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners.'" Tehelka reporters had asked the famed writer "if he could give them some basic suggestions for improving their language. Naipaul had come up with some rules. He had fussed over their formulation, corrected them, and then faxed back the corrections." Kumar decided to follow the rules and found they were "a wonderful antidote to my practice of using academic jargon, and they made me conscious of my own writing habits. I was discovering language as if it were a new country."

Naipaul's list of rules for beginning writers runs as follows:

Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.

Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of color, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

If you've read other writers' tips, especially those we've featured before here on Open Culture, some of Naipaul's rules may sound familiar. "Never use a long word where a short one will do," says George Orwell. "The more abstract a truth which one wishes to teach, the more one must first entice the senses," says Nietzsche. "The adverb is not your friend," says Stephen King. Naipaul's rules may strike you as overly restrictive, but bear in mind that he composed them for newspapermen looking to make improvements in their prose, and recommended following them for six months as a kind of course of treatment to rid themselves of "bad language habits."

The seasoned writer, however, can work according to rules of his own. Naipaul once explained this in no uncertain terms to Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta. "It happens that English — the history of the language — was my subject at Oxford," he wrote in a letter reprimanding the house for its overzealous copy editing, laboriously adherent to French-style "court rules," of one of his manuscripts. "The glory of English is that it is without these court rules: it is a language made by the people who write it. My name goes on my book. I am responsible for the way the words are put together. It is one reason why I became a writer."

via Lithub

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

V.S. Naipaul Writes an Enraged Letter to His Publisher After a Copy-Editor Revises His Book, A Turn in the South

Photo by Faizul Latif Chowdhury, via Wikimedia Commons

There are many ways for travel writers to get their subject badly wrong. Perhaps the worst is solely relying on uninformed observation rather than seeking the wisdom and experience of knowledgeable locals. To his credit, celebrated Nobel prize-winning novelist V.S. Naipaul—who passed away on August 11th at age 85—met, mingled, and spoke freely with individuals from every walk of life (including Eudora Welty) in the process of writing A Turn in the South, a travelogue of his sojourn through the much-mythologized and maligned Southern states of the U.S.

Naipaul’s voice alone might have overwhelmed the work with the extremely harsh, some have said bigoted, judgments he became known for in novels like A Bend in the RiverGuerillas, and The Enigma of Arrival. Instead, he won praise from reviewers like Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, who wrote that Naipaul “brings new understanding of the subject to his reader.” Woodward also noted that Naipaul “confesses to ‘writing anxieties’ about undertaking this book on people unknown to him.”




Though he consulted and quoted local voices in his survey of the South, it is ultimately Naipaul’s voice that organizes the work, and his precise, erudite prose the reader hears. It was a voice he took great pride in, as he should. For his many faults, Naipaul was a masterful literary stylist. One wonders, then, why a copy editor at Knopf would feel it necessary to make extensive revisions to the manuscript of A Turn in the South before its publication.

Copy-editing is an essential function, writes Letters of Note, without which many books would go to print “peppered with redundant hyphens, needless repetition, misplaced semicolons,” etc. But it is also a task that should interfere as little as possible with the matters of diction, style, and syntax that characterize an authorial voice. Like a conscientious backpacker, a good copy editor should endeavor to leave almost no trace unless the text is full of serious problems.

Clearly, as Naipaul’s irritated letter below shows, something went wrong. Upon receiving the copy-edited text, he writes, he was obliged to restore the original from memory. Naipaul assures Knopf’s editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta that he understands the English language and its history very well, and knows that, unlike French, it has no “court rules,” and can be bent any number of ways without breaking. He implies it is the job of every “serious or dedicated” writer in English to use the language as they see fit, and the job of an editor to mostly get out of the way.

No doubt this relationship can prove complicated and frustrating for both parties. Still, though we only get Naipaul’s side of the story, it’s hard not to take it when he points out he had written 20 books by that time, all of them acclaimed for the quality of their writing. "My name goes on my book," he declares. (So does the name "Knopf," Mehta might have replied.) "I am responsible for the way the words are put together." Read the letter in full below. And see Literary Hub for Naipaul’s Ten Rules of Writing if you’re interested in his prescriptions for clear English prose—advice he had earned license to take or leave in his own work.

 

10 May 1988

Dear Sonny,

The copy-edited text of A Turn in the South came yesterday; it is such an appalling piece of work that I feel I have to write about it. This kind of copy-editing gets in the way of creative reading. I spend so much time restoring the text I wrote (and as a result know rather well). I thought it might have been known in the office that after 34 years and 20 books I knew certain things about writing and didn’t want a copy-editor’s help with punctuation or the thing called repetition; and certainly didn’t want help with ways of getting round repetition. It is utterly absurd to have someone pointing out to me repetitions in the use of “and” or “like” or “that” or “she”. I didn’t want anyone undoing my semi-colons; with all their different ways of linking.

It happens that English - the history of the language - was my subject at Oxford. It happens that I know very well that these so-called “rules” have nothing to do with the language and are really rules about French usage. The glory of English is that it is without these court rules: it is a language made by the people who write it. My name goes on my book. I am responsible for the way the words are put together. It is one reason why I became a writer.

Every writer has his own voice. (Every serious or dedicated writer.) This is achieved by the way he punctuates; the rhythm of his phrases; the way the writing reflects the processes of the writer’s thought: all the nervousness, all the links, all the curious associations. An assiduous copy-editor can undo this very quickly, can make A write like B and Ms C.

And what a waste of spirit it is for the writer, who is in effect re-doing bits of his manuscript all the time instead of giving it a truly creative, revising read. Consider how it has made me sit down this morning, not to my work, but to write this enraged letter.

Yours 

Vidia

via Letters of Note

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Kurt Vonnegut Offers 8 Tips on How to Write Good Short Stories (and Amusingly Graphs the Shapes Those Stories Can Take)

You can't talk about American literature in the second half of the 20th century without talking about Kurt Vonnegut. And since so many well-known writers today imbibed his influence at one point or another, you'd have to mention him when talking about 21st-century literature as well. Despite so fully inhabiting his time, not least by wickedly lampooning it, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions also had a few tendencies that put him ahead of his time. He worked wonders with the short story, a form in whose heyday he began his writing career, but he also had a knack for what would become the most social media-friendly of all forms, the list.

In the video above, those abilities converge to produce Vonnegut's eight bullet points for good short-story writing:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

In the short lecture above Vonnegut gets more technical, sketching out the shapes that stories, short or long, can take. On his chalkboard he draws two axes, the horizontal representing time and the vertical representing the protagonist's happiness. In one possible story the protagonist begins slightly happier than average, gets into trouble (a downward plunge in the story's curve), and then gets out of it again (returning the curve to a higher point of happiness than where it began). "People love that story," Vonnegut says. "They never get sick of it." Another story starts on an "average day" with an "average person not expecting anything to happen." Then that average person "finds something wonderful" (with a concurrent upward curve), then loses it (back down), then finds it again (back up).




The third and most complicated curve represents "the most popular story in Western civilization." It begins down toward the bottom of the happiness axis, with a motherless young girl whose father has "remarried a vile-tempered ugly women with two nasty daughters." But a fairy godmother visits and bestows a variety of gifts upon the girl, each one causing a stepwise rise in her happiness curve. That night she attends a ball where she dances with a prince, bringing the curve to its peak before it plunges back to the bottom at the stroke of midnight, when the fairy godmother's magical gifts expire. In order to bring the curve back up, the prince must use the glass slipper she accidentally left behind at the ball to — oh, you've heard this one before?

Vonnegut first explored the idea of story shapes in his master's thesis, rejected by the University of Chicago "because it was so simple and looked like too much fun." Clearly that didn't stop him from continuing to think about and experiment with those shapes all throughout his career. He would also keep clarifying his other ideas about writing and literature by explaining them in a variety of settings. He assigned term papers that can still teach you how to read like a writer, he appeared on television dispensing advice to aspirants to the craft, and he even published articles on how to write with style (in publications like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' journal at that). Nobody could, or should try to, write just like Kurt Vonnegut, but all of us who write at all could do well to give our craft the kind of thought he did.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Margaret Atwood to Teach an Online Class on Creative Writing

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

The problem of dystopian fiction is this: quite often the worst future creative writers can imagine is exactly the kind of present that has already been inflicted on others—by colonialism, dictatorship, genocidal war, slavery, theocracy, abject poverty, environmental degradation, etc. Millions all over the world have suffered under these conditions, but many readers fail to recognize dystopian novels as depicting existing evils because they happen, or have happened, to people far away in space and time. Of course, Margaret Atwood understands this principle. The nightmares she has written about in novels like The Handmaid’s Tale have all already come to pass, she tells us.

In the promo video above for her Masterclass on Creative Writing starting this fall (it's now open), Atwood says, “when I wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time. The reason I made that rule is that I didn’t want anybody saying, ‘You certainly have an evil imagination, you made up all these bad things.’” And yet, she says, “I didn’t make them up.” In a Swiftian way, she implies, we did—“we” being humanity writ large, or, perhaps more accurately, the destructive, greedy, power-mad individuals who wreak havoc on the lives of those they deem inferiors or rightful property.




“As a writer,” she says above, “your goal is to keep your reader believing, even though both of you know it’s fiction.” Atwood’s trick to achieving this is a devious one in what we might call sci-fi or dark fantasy (though she spurns these designations): she writes not only what she knows to be true, in some sense, but also what we know to be true, though we would rather it not be, as in Virginia Woolf’s characterization of fiction as “as spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.”

Atwood says that writers turn away from the blank page because they fear something. She has made it her business, instead, to turn toward fear, to see dark visions like those of her MaddAddam Trilogy, an extrapolation of horrors already happening, in some form, somewhere in the world (and soon to be a fun-filled TV series). What she feared in 1984, the year she began writing The Handmaid’s Tale, seems just as chillingly prescient to many readers—and viewers of the TV adaptation—thirty-four years later, a testament to Atwood’s speculative realism, and to the awful, stubborn resistance reality puts up to improvement.

As she put it in an essay about the novel’s origins, “Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already.” The same, perhaps, might be said of novelists. Do you have some truths to tell in fictional form? Maybe Atwood is the perfect guide to help you write them. Her class starts this fall, sign up here.

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