Steven King’s Twenty Rules for Writing Part Two

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, then Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of fiction writing, and two weeks ago I unpacked Steven King’s Twenty Rules of Writing Part One. 

Stephen King
I 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 leave the rest.

This week I’m continuing on with Stephen King’s TWENTY rules of writing by covering rules eleven to twenty.

 

 

 

Rule #11. There are two secrets to success

King attributes his success to staying physically healthy and staying married. While a literal reading of this statement won’t be applicable to everyone, the truth behind it is. Writing is not the most important thing in your life, people are, so you need to nourish those relationships. Writing is a solitary activity, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in solitude, tapping away at your keyboard until you finally kneel over. Take care of your relationships and your body, not so that you can write, but so that you can have a happy life.

top-secret-2054429_1280
The two secrets for a successful writing career: stay healthy and take care of your relationships.

Rule #12. Write one word at a time

This echoes Anne Lamont’s famous anecdote shared in her book, Bird by Bird. There are many ways to write a book, but ultimately when you boil it down to the barest of bones, novels are written word by word.

King urges aspiring writers to stay present, to focus on the scene at hand, and not to become distracted by thinking ahead.

Rule # 13. Eliminate distraction

This rule is timeless. While the form may change over time, I think we can all agree that distractions are one of the biggest killers to creativity, in fact, I’ve written a whole post about this that you can read here.

You’re not stupid. Switch off the internet, switch off your phone, close the curtains, close the door, and commit yourself to the story in front of you.

blogger-336371_1280
It takes 11 minutes to regain your focus following an interruption.

Rule #14. Stick to your own style. 

Reading allows you to become familiar with the writing style of other authors, and while mimicking your favourite writer is a good place to start, eventually, aspiring writers need to develop their own voice and style.

The world already has a Stephen King, J.K Rowling, Lee Child, Toni Morrison, and Octavia Butler, but what it doesn’t have is you (and your voice).

Rule # 15. Dig.

Stephen King describes himself as a discovery writer: the story reveals itself to him as he is writing it. King believes that stories are ‘found things’, like fossils in the ground. He believes that the story already exist and that it is his job as the writer to slowly dig it up using the tools in his writerly tool belt. For him, writing is a practise of excavation where the story is uncovered through the act of writing it. 

sand-pit-1345728_1280
King believes that stories are ‘found things’; we must dig our stories up like fossils from the ground.

Rule # 16. Take a break.

Given that he’s published 70+ books, I’m not sure how good King is at taking his own advice, but nonetheless he does recommend that writers take breaks from their work so that they can see their story with fresh eyes.

There are a number of way to look at this rule: you can put a manuscript aside for a few months so that you are able to then edit it with an objective eye (King’s tactic), you can choose not to write on weekends, or you can incorporate mini-breaks into your writing sessions so that you avoid fatigue, eye strain, and the general discomfort that comes with sitting in a computer chair for long periods of time.

Rule # 17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings.

This rule is pretty self-explanatory, but if there is a sentence, or a scene in your novel that is not revealing character, or moving the plot forward, or is otherwise dull, then it has got to go.

Rule #18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. 

So many authors break this rule. If you’ve done extensive research for your novel, do not make your reader pay for this through lengthy info dumps or excessive description. Include the details that are interesting and that bring a scene to life, but remember that research is the backbone of the story – it’s not the story itself.

books-3454392_1280
Reading is the quickest and easiest way to improve your writing.

Rule # 19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing. 

Writing workshops, classes, clubs, conferences, and craft books are valuable and you can learn A LOT (especially when starting out), but ultimately, the most valuable lessons you’ll learn are the ones you arrive at by yourself.

Reading and writing are the foundations of your craft.

Read well, by which I mean, think about what you are reading, look for the strings, dissect the work and consider what is working and what is not.

When editing your  work, be sure to question your decisions. Does this scene really need to be here? Are my character’s believable? Is the dialogue interesting? Have I used too many adverbs?

Rule #20. Writing is about getting happy. 

This is perhaps the best rule, we need to remember that writing is fun, or at least it’s supposed to be.

I can’t wrap this rule up any better than the King himself …

“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.”
— Stephen King


GRAB A FREE COPY OF SEVEN WAYS TO STAY MOTIVATED AS A WRITER

SEVEN RULES OF WRITING JPEG
While you’re here, be sure to join my email newsletter and gain instant access to your FREE downloadable copy of the Seven Ways to Stay Motivated as a Writer. Plus, you’ll receive my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog/vlog, updates and other exclusive content that I ONLY share via email.

 

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing

Recently, I was checking the analytics on my YouTube Channel and noticed that a short video I posted over a year ago called Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing was the most watched video on my channel.

So, I took the hint and decided to create a five-week long series uncovering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors. Firstly, I covered Octavia Butler’s nine rules of writing, then Natalie Goldberg’s seven rules of writing, and this week I’m focussing on Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules.

Kurt_Vonnegut_1972Kurt Vonnegut is an American writer who’s novel, Slaughterhouse Five, you probably read in high-school, and if you didn’t, I recommend you slide that puppy to the top of your TBR pile!

Vonnegut’s writing career spanned 50+ years. He published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of nonfiction, with further collections published after his death.

If you haven’t read any of Vonnegut’s work, then here’s a quick quote that captures the his spirit well:

“Novel writing doesn’t breed serenity. It is lying, you know, and the novelist has to spend a lot of time during the course of his writing worrying about whether he is going to get away with his lies. If he fails to, his novel isn’t going to work.”

Now, 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.

In the following blog, I list Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing (geared specifically towards fiction writing), followed by my own interpretation of each rule.

Rule #1: Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

This rule takes on a totally different meaning in the age of technology. People are busy, our attention spans are shorter, we’re highly distracted, and we have easy access to entertainment. Contemporary novelists aren’t competing among themselves, they’re competing with Netflix, Stand, YouTube, Social Media, and so on.

Few people will stick with a book that isn’t demanding their attention, that they don’t feel compelled to read.

Few people are willing to invest their time in a work that doesn’t give them something back.

Rule #2: Give the reader at least one character they can root for.

I’ve read a lot of novels over the last few years, both literary and genre, whose casts are comprised of despicable characters; however, there was always one character who I despised a little bit less than everyone else or whose flaws were more endearing than off putting.

Everyone likes a fuck-up with a heart of gold. 

I absolutely believe that there are readers out there who are sophisticated enough to stay with a book whose characters are complex, contradicting, and unlikeable; I can think of several authors who’ve made best-selling careers out of this formula, and yet, even in these challenging works there is at least one character for whom the reader can root for.

Every character must want something
Every character must want something, even if it is a glass of water.

Rule #3: Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

One classic craft rule is, ‘figure out what your character wants and then take it away from them.’ This one simple tactic forms the basis of tension, character motivation, and narrative-drive.

If you know what your characters want, you also know the general trajectory of the plot, the core conflict, potential obstacles, and who your protagonist is.

Rule #4: Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. 

This circles back to rule number one: don’t waste people’s time. You cannot afford to have any dead sentences in your story; every line must be doing something. A novel that keeps us awake until 2 a.m. does so because each sentence pulls us along into the next.

If a story is constantly turning, a reader will stick with it.

If the writer gives in to his poetic genius by publishing purple prose, then the reader will set down the book and turn on Netflix.

woman-2730919_1280
Every scene must do something, either reveal character or move the story forward.

Rule #5: Start as close to the end as possible.

This is a different take on ‘start in the middle’, but it bears the same philosophy: the only person who needs 150 pages of backstory is the author.

My favourite anecdote about this comes from Jay Kristoff, author of the Nevernight trilogy. While revising book one, Kristoff deleted 80,000 words from the start of the novel. Why? Because it was all backstory!

Now, you can weave that backstory into the main plot or you can allow that backstory to inform the narrative, but you do not need to hold the reader’s hand through pages of ‘set-up’ material.

We don’t care where a character has come from, we care where they are, and where they’re going.

food-2940555_1280
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.

Rule #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.

This is probably the hardest rule, or at least it is for me.

If you love your characters, or at least like them, then you’re rooting for them to succeed. You want them to achieve their goals and to live long, happy, pain-free lives.

Unfortunately, that’s not very interesting to read. And victories without losses, aren’t that compelling.

We want to see the character overcome obstacles, pull up by their bootstraps, be clever, and survive emotional and physical setbacks; we want them to earn their victories.

Rule #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.

You decide who that person is; however, I hope that person is yourself.

Whether you decide to go indie or traditional, publishing is hard and you cannot control your readership. What you can control is your story. It would suck to spend five years writing a story that you think will sell and then have it tank. It would be even worse to write a book you aren’t that into, have it succeeded, and then feel compelled to continue in that series, genre, or style.

The best way to be happy as a writer is to write what you want to write, anything else will feel like a waste of time, money, or passion.

Rule #8: Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell 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.

This rule is perhaps a little controversial, though I have to say, I needed this advice while writing Every Time He Dies. There is a careful balance between withholding information as a form of suspense and withholding so much that your reader either becomes confused or bored, but what Vonnegut is getting at is that you can create narrative drive by dripping out information.

You need more than a good secret to keep a reader reading.

It is far more interesting to be given the information, to see what the core conflict is, and then to follow the character as they go about resolving it.


GRAB A FREE COPY OF SEVEN WAYS TO STAY MOTIVATED AS A WRITER

SEVEN RULES OF WRITING JPEG
While you’re here, be sure to join my email newsletter and gain instant access to your FREE downloadable copy of the Seven Ways to Stay Motivated as a Writer. Plus, you’ll receive my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog/vlog, updates and other exclusive content that I ONLY share via email.