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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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


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Natalie Goldberg’s Seven 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 for the next four weeks I am going to be covering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors. Last week, I discussed Octavia Butler and her Nine Rules of Writing and this week I’m unpacking Natalie Goldberg’s Seven Rules of Writing which appeared in her craft book Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.

Before we dive into today’s video, I want to acknowledge that for many of us, writing may not be the biggest priority right now. We’re all dealing with a slew of other concerns as we’ve had to adjust to working from home, changes in our financial situations, and the general restrictions we’ve been adhering to as part of the pandemic.

In many places, these restrictions are starting to lift and while it may be some time until things get back to normal, I wanted to put this series together as a way to inspire and support you during this time.

Natalie Goldberg is an American author of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, but she is most Natalie Goldbergfamous of her books that explore writing as Zen practise.

While many craft based book focus on the nuts and bolts of writing – character, dialogue, plot, theme – Goldberg’s book focus on the emotional rewards of writing, as well as how to develop a writing practise. Goldberg’s methodology is skewed towards journal writing, but the advice presented in her books can easily be applied to all forms, whether it be fiction, poetry, or memoir.

The following quote sums up Goldberg’s writing philosophy perfectly:

“I don’t think everyone wants to create the great American novel, but we all have a dream of telling our stories-of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”

Now, I do want to preface this blog by saying that there aren’t any real rules for writing other than the ones you decided 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.

So, let’s get to it.

Rule #1: Keep your hand moving

This is perhaps Goldberg’s most famous rule. Keep your hand moving is a challenge to your will power and determination. It is also the best way to separate the editor from the creator. By keeping your hand moving, you are less likely to stop, ruminate over what you wrote, and give into the false temptation of perfectionism. It is easy to waste an hour of writing time fiddling with a paragraph or a single sentence.

There is a time for revising, and an hour spent polishing a paragraph is an hour well spent when you are in the revising stage of your novel. However, you do not need to be wearing your editing hat if you are creating a first draft, if you are new to writing, or if you are simply trying to make writing a habit.

Writing wins when you keeping your hand moving.

Rule #2: Lose Control

We self-censor our work all the time. Why? Because writing is a vulnerable act. If you are writing memoir, this is doubly so because you are sharing personal details and stories from your own lived experience.

Writing fiction is its own sticky net. Sometimes people mistakenly think that our work is memoir in fancy dress and that our characters are mouth-pieces for our own thoughts and beliefs. Sometimes, writing fiction is shameful because we fear that what we have written isn’t very good.

There are so many ways that we judge our work and censor ourselves during creating practise.

We cringe at the idea of our grandmother reading the sex scene in chapter seven, or that our friends will assume that’s what we’re in too!

When you are writing a first draft, or when you are writing for practise (exercises, journaling), it’s important that you loosen up. No one is going to read your work and judge you unless you let them.

Let the words be ripped out of you, raw, and covered in gore.

If you want to write something that feels alive, then you need to write honestly, without censorship.

Losing control in your writing can be a good thing.
Losing control in your writing can be a good thing.

Rule #3: Be specific

This rule relates to writing craft on the line level. It is the details that transform words on a page into images in the reader’s mind. So, when you’re writing, it’s important that you pay attention to the nouns, verbs, colours, and texture, that create your descriptions.

Not every sentence has to be filled with original prose and breath taking beauty – some sentences are just there to move the story forward – but if you’re practising the art of ‘keeping your hand moving’ and notice that one sentence seem a bit … vanilla … push yourself to be more specific in the next sentence.

Focussing on sensory details or embedding imaginative metaphors and similes are just some of the ways you can become more specific in your descriptions.

Rule #4: Don’t think

If you’re keeping your hand moving, then there really isn’t that much time to think anyway, but Goldberg makes a strong argument for following your “first thought” when writing.

For Goldberg, this rule, specifically, is tied to her Zen practise: by following her first thought, she supports rules two and three, because she is forced to stay in the present moment. By staying present, she is better able to avoid self-censorship, keep her inner editor at bay, and to really let loose with her writing.

Personally, I believe that “don’t think” is a good practise for writers like myself who need to get down a crappy first draft before they can move forward.

The ideas that appear in a first draft won’t be the best, but by getting down the bones of the story we can begin the slow process of building that skeleton up into a completed book.

Don't think about what to write
If you think too long about what to write next, you’ll freeze and write nothing!

Rule #5: Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar

This is another way to stay present with the work in the moment. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are duties that belong to the editor and your editor does not need to be in the room while you are drafting or journaling or brainstorming.

The editor operates out of the left side of brain. She is analytical, literal, and thinks linearly. Exploratory writing needs the qualities of the right side, creative, imaginative, non-linear.

Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are important, but they are not the building blocks you need to concern yourself with if you are drafting or simply trying to developing a writing habit.

Rule #6: You are free to write the worst junk in the world

You don’t have to publish it, but you’re free to write it.

The more you write, the bigger your body of work will become. The more you write, the better your writing will become.

But, of course, not everything you write will be good, even if your writing as a whole improves. Stephen King has written 70+ books and The Tommyknockers is definitely not of the same calibre as The Shinning, The Stand, It, 11/22/63 … you get the picture.

Write bad stuff, write good stuff, just write. 

Be bold and brave in your writing
Go for the jugular. Be brave and bold in your writing!

Rule #7: Go for the jugular

If something uncomfortable, controversial, painful, wild, or surprising pops up while you’re writing, don’t stop! Keep your hand moving, continue with the thought and write it all out. As Hemingway said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

Remember, you don’t have to publish what you’ve written and you can always edit your work later, but it’s important that you give yourself permission for the writing to be messy, undulating, and alive.

You may end your writing session, look back on your work and see nothing but chaos, but as long as there is a beating heart nestled within that story, then you have done your job and it’s up to your inner-editor to plug that heart into the body of your story.


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Octavia Butler’s Nine Rules for 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 for the next five week’s I am going to be covering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors: Octavia Butler, Natalie Goldberg, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King: who’s rules I have broken up into two parts.

In today’s blog, I am breaking down Octavia Butler’s Nine Rules for Writing. If you’re not super familiar with Octavia Butler or her work, here’s the highlights.

Octavia ButlerOctavia Butler was an African American Science Fiction writer whose 1979 novel, Kindred, cemented her position in the literary cannon. She was one of the first female authors, and one of the first African American authors, to break into the predominately white, male-dominated world of science fiction. She is most well known for her Parable Series, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talent. Unfortunately, Butler passed before she was able to finish the final novel in the trilogy, Parable of the Trickster.

Prior to becoming a full-time author, Butler worked a string of menial jobs where she would get up at 2 am and write until she had to go to work. Once she became a full-time author, she’d divide her days between writing and reading. Luckily for us, Butler kept a journal where she documented her life and feelings, yes, but also her writing process. Her journals and research notebook were donated to The Huntington Library two years after Butler’s death in 2006.

One of my favourite entries written before Butler became a full-time published author reads: “I shall be a bestselling writer. I will find the way to do this. So be it! See to it.”

As African-American woman in the 1970s, Butler had to overcome many obstacles in order to achieve that dream. It took create determination, discipline, and of course, good storytelling.

Butler’s nine rules for writers were published in an essay titled Furor Scibendi. As Butler describes in her own words, “Writing for publication may be both the easiest and the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Learning the rules — if they can be called rules — is the easy part.”

In this video, I will list Butler’s nine rule of writing followed by my own interpretation of each rule.


Rule #1: Read

As you can imagine, Butler was an avid reader. She pushed herself to read from a wide variety of materials including fiction and non-fiction.

She read bad books and good books, and books she wished to emulate. She even educated herself on the art, craft and business of writing by reading text in each of these fields.

If you want to be a writer, then you must first be a reader.

You do not have to like reading, but you should do it anyway.

If you are time poor or have a short attention, then audiobooks are your friend! You can listen to them when commuting, exercising, or while you complete mindless tasks like cooking or cleaning.

Rule#2: Take classes and go to writers’ workshops 

We all learnt how to read and write in primary school, but writing is called a craft for a reason. You may know how to kick a football or how to upload a video on YouTube, but that doesn’t make you a sports superstar or a tech genius.

Signing up for writing class and workshops is the best way to develop your skill as a writer as you will receive feedback on both the quality of your writing on a sentence level as well as what is working in your story and what is not.

It is vital that you get feedback from people outside of your family and friends.

You can still question the feedback given to you by strangers, but the critiques delivered in writing workshops are often more trustworthy because they aren’t tainted by obligation or affection.

Writing Wokrshops
Writing workshops are a great way to get feedback on your work and to develop your craft.

Rule #3: Write

Butler recommends that you write every day for as long as possible, and for a long time I agreed with this prescriptive advice.

But the truth is, there is no one way to write.

Some people work best when their hands are touching their story every single day and others work better by ‘binge writing.’

You have to write to be a writer, what that process looks like is totally up to you. 

If you’re an established writer, then chances are you know what works best for you. And at a guess, I’d say your two biggest hurdles would be 1) your own personal resistance and 2) the need to protect your writing time from other outside sources.

If you’re new or newish to writing, then I suggest you experiment with a wide variety of routines and methods. Mess around with different times of day, different genres, writing styles, different locations; write with an outline, write without an outline, write listening to music and in total silence. Figure out what you need in order to get order on the page and then make sure you get it.

Personally, and Butler agrees with me here, I recommend that you keep a journal.

Writing in a journal is a great way to reflect on your creative practise, to interrogate your work, to become an observer of your own life, thoughts, and feeling, and to respond to what you see happening in the world around you.

It’s a place for you to figure out what you really think, which is an invaluable thing to know if you want to write about politics, social justice issues, human relationships, desire, depression – whatever.

Rule #4: Revise your writing until it’s as good as you can make it

Okay, guys, your first draft is not your last draft.

You must revise your writing.

Fortunately, all that time spent reading, writing, and attending classes, and workshops will help you do this. Look for plot holes and consistency with your characters and point of view; proofread for typos; revise your work until it is as good as you can make it.

Now, Butler does not talk about beta readers in her rules, but I recommend that you reach out to other readers and writers whose opinions you trust and ask them to critique your work.

Once you’ve read through their feedback and applied whatever changes you agree with, give your manuscript a final once over, and if you are traditionally publishing, make sure your manuscript follows the publisher’s formatting guidelines.

Revising your manuscript
Your first draft is not your last draft. You must edit your writing.

Rule #5: Submit your work for publication 

If you want to traditionally publish your work, then Butler urges you to research the various markets that interest you.

Become familiar with the books or magazines of publishers that you want to sell your work too. Once you’ve decided on a publisher, the only thing left to do is submit.

Yes, submitting your work can be scary, but it’s important that you be brave and hit the send button anyway.

If your story is rejected, that’s okay, find another publisher and send it out again.

Continue this process until you get a ‘yes!’

Reject is a part of life as a writer, so it’s important that you a) get used to it and b) develop ways to cope with it.

Now, Butler doesn’t address self-publishing, specifically because she published her rules at a time when self-publishing was crazy expensive, not very common, and frankly, looked down on.

Fortunately, things have changed and Indie publishing is a totally viable and potentially lucrative option for many authors. Much like traditionally publishing, if you want to go the indie route then you must do your research.

Rule #6: Forget inspiration

Inspiration is fickle, habit is more dependable.

Developing a discipline around writing by committing to a certain number of hours, sessions, or words a week is what will carry you over the finish line long after inspiration has fallen out of the race.

You may not have made writing a habit yet, but there are so many tricks you can use to create habits that stick. One of my favourite writers on this topic is Gretchen Rubin.

Inspired to write
You have all the inspiration you need to write the novel of your heart. Inspiration is great, but habit is more dependable.

Rule #7: Forget talent

Talent is no good to you if you don’t first have the habit of writing. If you are a naturally talented writer great, but if you’re not don’t sweat it. Writing can be taught (insert obvious disclaimer). Good writing comes from learning the craft, practising with intent, and editing your work until it sings.

As Butler says, “Never let pride or laziness prevent you from learning, improving your work, and changing its direction when necessary.”

Rule #8: Don’t worry about imagination

One of the most common questions an author gets is, “where do you get your ideas?”

And of course, the answer is everywhere.

Books, writing, learning, and living a reflective life will keeps the flames of your creativity stoked. You have all the imagination you need to create stories that make people feel something, to see the world in a different way, to be entertained and educated.

Remember that writing is fun; play with your story, the words that you use, the storylines you create.

Nothing is too silly and if it is, you can always edit it later.

Rule #9: Persist

This is perhaps the most important rule as this character trait underlines every aspect of being a writer.

You must persist.

You must continue to develop your craft, ask hard questions of your work, read when you don’t feel like reading, write when you don’t feel like writing, ignore reject letters and continue on submitting anyway.

The only difference between an aspiring writer and a published one is persistence.


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