Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

King’s Rules

I’m going to be honest here: I’m getting close to full of reading ‘writing rules’ on blogs, forums, articles and such. It’s not that I feel like I’m so superior, so skilled, so AWESOME that I don’t need the advice; it’s just that I think I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve found what works for me, and I’m pretty happy with it. I’m always looking for ways to improve, but I find now I’m more interested in reading about someone’s process rather than their rules, if you see the difference.
But then I saw a link to this article: Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers. Well, it’s Stephen King, so I’ve got to check it out. I’m a fan, after all, and whether you like what he does or not, you’ve got to respect the man. He’s got one hell of a track record. When someone as prolific as King, who’s sold as many books as King, puts out ‘rules,’ you read ’em, even if you’ve had it up to here with ‘rules.’ Even when you’ve come to believe the fundamental rule of writing comes down to “Do whatever works,” you read.
So, I surfed on over to the article, not ready to swallow it, lock, stock and barrel, but interested in seeing what the man had to say…and I was disappointed. I expected an article written by King. At the very least, I expected an interview in which he dispensed his advice. Instead, the writer pulled tidbits out of King’s On Writing and presented them as rules. Twenty of them, supported (mostly) by quotes from the book. Now, King can be as overbearing as anyone who has found success with a particular method, but if you go back and read On Writing, you’ll find relatively little that’s put down as hard and fast rules. In this article, some of King’s ‘rules’ look pretty ridiculous. Quotes out of context always do.
Here’s an example from the article:

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.”

Wow. As a 6- to 8-month guy, that’s a little depressing. But, wait! I dug out my copy of “On Writing” and started reading. Here’s what King actually said: “Still, I believe the first draft of a book–even a long one–should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and–for me, at least–the story begins to take on an odd, foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.”
Pretty different in the full context, isn’t it? Note how King uses the em dashes to emphasize what happens when it takes longer than three months to write a draft. It takes this out of the realm of “rule” and turns it into “advice.” The writer of the article happily turns advice into rules. Like #11:

 11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physical[sic] healthy, and I stayed married.”

There’s all kinds of things wrong with that as a ‘rule’–unmarried people can’t write? Sick people can’t write? Huh? But this came from the paragraphs immediately following what was turned into rule 10. King mentioned how he’s asked the question (what’s the secret to your success?). The answer given “makes the question go away”, but has an element of truth to it. An element of truth is hardly a rule.
The article is full of things like this, which is too bad. Presented this way, King comes off looking just as dogmatic as any professor of writing who tries to force you to outline (in this case, however, King ‘forces’ you to wing it), or to conform to this structure or that. And, yes, King has his moments. The reality of On Writing, however, is that King encourages readers to write. He dispenses advice based on his experience, and mostly doesn’t present them as ironclad rules. The text is full of disclaimers like the “for me” above, and his ‘rules’ ultimately come down to three things: 

1. You must read a lot, and write a lot.
2. Writing is hard work–don’t wait for the muse. 
3. Tell the truth. 

That’s really it in a nutshell right there. 
So, what’s the point of all this? I suppose it’s this: we need to stop worrying about what everyone else says and figure it out for ourselves. Find the way that works for you. It might be King’s way. Or my way. More likely, it will have elements of other people’s methods mixed in proportions that are all your own. Then, when you figure it out, tell us all so we can try to figure it out for ourselves.
I may have used this before, but I’ll leave you with this bit of ‘writing advice’ from the geniuses of Monty Python. Have a great weekend, all.

6 Responses

  1. What I loved about On Writing was the conversational tone. And I generally avoid posting about writing "rules" on my blog because I firmly believe the process is, and should be, different for everyone. I could never get through a first draft in three months. But so what if it takes me a year. I write long novels, and I enjoy discovering the story as I go. That's what works for me.

  2. I think your judgement about writing "rules" is correct. It's all subjective and varies from person to person. Not only that, but the process can even vary from project to project. (I'm usually an 8-9 month person, too. When I write fast and force it, that's just more scenes and writing I have to throw out when I revise because I've changed the plot, the character arcs, the settings, etc.)

  3. I'm with you about the "rules" thing. Writing, like reading, is an individual thing. You have to find what works for you. I write my first draft really fast–that's why I like the NaNo experience. But then I have to spend a lot of time on the edits.

  4. On Writing is great for novice writers, although much of what King wrote about has also been covered by Writing Excuses podcast to a finer degree. I actually found the memoir section of On Writing more enjoyable than the writing section.

  5. Yeah… I'm not much of a rule follower. Especially when it comes to writing. There are a few things I believe:
    1. If you're not a writer, it's very difficult to be a writer.
    2. Writing is hard work. If you want to be a writer, you have to do it.
    3. There are no rules. You have to figure out your own way how to do it in a way that works for you. And that might change over time.

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