Stephen King’s Twenty Rules of Writing
Before we get into this week’s blog, I’d like to acknowledge that people all across the United States (and the world) are transforming their grief into action following the death of George Floyd. For those who are interested, I’ve curated a short list of articles, websites, and podcasts that can help you sifted through the flood of information that is coming out right now.
Anti-racism Resources from Australia and Beyond
75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
Writing class with Alexandra Franzen: How to Inspire People to Listen, Care, Take Action, and Change the World (honour system donation)
1619 Podcast by The New York Times
I understand that I will never understand.
However, I stand.
There’s no smooth way to transition into this week’s blog and vlog, I can only hope that my 1000 word post and 10 minute video provide a brief moment of relief during these tense, angry, and grievous times.
If you’ve been following along these past few week’s then you already know that I am doing a series all about writing rules. I started off this series with Octavia Butler’s nine rules of writing, followed by Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules of writing, and last week I unpacked Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of fiction writing.
I do want to preface this post by saying that there aren’t any real rules for writing other than the ones you decided on for yourself. I’m making this series as a means of inspiration and education so that you can take the advice that appeals to you, and leaving the rest.
This week I am covering Stephen King’s TWENTY rules of writing. Don’t worry, I’ve split this blog into two posts, and today’s I am covering the first ten rules.
I’ve been beginning each of these posts with a brief author bio, but I’m pretty sure you know who Stephen King is, so let’s jump straight into the rules.
The following blog outlines the first ten rules of SK’s twenty rules of writing (geared specifically towards fiction writing), followed by my own interpretation of each rule.
Rule #1: First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience
This rule echoes a point I made in last week’s post: write the story you want to read.
King argues that your first draft should be written for yourself.
What he means by that is not only are you writing the story you want to write, but that you also allow the story to take you wherever it wants to go.
Don’t put on your editors hat until you start your second draft, this is where you can take out all the stuff that doesn’t need to be there.
Rule #2: Don’t use passive voice
Passive voice is when you turn the object of an action into the subject of a sentence.
For example, saying “Mandy hugged Clara” is active while “Clara was hugged by Mandy” is passive. Can you see the difference? Mandy’s action – giving a hug – is diminished when using passive voice.
Rule #3: Avoid adverbs
King has become famous for this rule, yet he openly acknowledges that of course he too uses adverbs.
You’ll note that the rule is avoid adverbs, not ignore them.
Adverbs can be a sign of lazy writing, but if you do the work up front you often won’t need to added these additional descriptors.
Think about it, if two characters are fighting and one leaves the room in a huff, you show the reader that the character’s are angry through their dialogue and actions, that way you DON’T have to relay on statements like, “he slammed the door, forcefully” because the reader already knows that the character is angry.
Rule #4 Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said”
Again, note that this rule is to avoid adverbs following “he said” and “she said.” Sometimes it is okay to say “he said, softly” or “she said, loudly”, but most of the time, a simple he or she said is all that is necessary.
Rule #5. Don’t obsess over perfect grammar
As a writer, I believe that you do need to know the tools of your trade, but I can also appreciate that if you didn’t learn grammar in school, or if you were taught incorrectly, or simply weren’t paying attention, then learning these rules as an adult can be startling difficult.
It is important to learn the rules of grammar so that you can properly edit your own work and so that when you do break the rules, you do so intentionally.
That being said, your primary motivation for writing should always be to tell a good story.
Bad grammar may put a reader off a book, but nobody ever finished a book and said, “Wow, that author knows what a semicolon is and how to use it!”
Rule #6. The magic is in you
This rule speaks specifically to the fear of writing, King believe that most bad writing is rooted in fear and he advises aspiring writer to be bold and fearfulness in their storytelling.
You’ll notice that this rule echoes Natalie Goldberg’s rule of Loosen up.
Writing is a vulnerable act, but it would suck to get to the end of your life and to think that you never got to bring forth all of the treasures deep inside you because you were afraid.
Rule #7. Read, read, read
Interestingly, this did not appear on either Vonnegut’s or Goldberg’s list, but reading is essential to writing regardless of genre or form.
Unlike film or theatre, there are no secret stings being pulled behind the covers of a novel.
Everything you need to know about how to write a novel is right there on the page. If you want to see the strings, all you got to do is slow down and look for them.
Rule #8. Don’t worry about making other people happy
We’re all leading busy lives and few people can make writing their full-time gig. So, sometimes, you have to say no to opportunities, invitations, or events because you need to make time for your writing.
This will upset people, but that’s okay.
If you’ve made the decision that you’re going to write a book, then you need to honour that commitment and follow through until completion.
Sometimes, you have to say, “no, thank you” to a momentary pleasure in order to say “yes!” to a lifelong dream.
Rule #9. Turn off the TV
Okay, I rarely watch TV, but because of the recent lockdown I started watching some TV (and movies) as a way to spend time with loved ones.
And I’ll tell you what, I haven’t been missing out on much.
Binge watching Netflix is a time suck and it will not support your dream of becoming a writer.
If you want to write for film and TV then that’s another story, but if you want to be a novelist then the time spent watching TV would be better spent either reading or writing.
Rule #10. You have three months
King believes that it should take three months to write the first draft of a novel.
This rule is a bit prescriptive, and yes, King has written a lot of novels (70+), experienced a wild level of success, and won many awards, but that’s because he figured out a process that works for him.
What we can take away from this rule is the idea of deadlines.
Creating a self-imposed deadline for your first draft is a great way to keep yourself on track and to create a sense of accountability, especially if you buddy up with another writing pal.
Which of these writing rules speak to you? What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? Leave a comment below and let me know! Next week, I will be unpacking rules 11-20 of Stephen King’s twenty rules of writing, so be sure to join my email list so you don’t miss out!
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