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Stephen King reveals the 20 rules for aspiring writers

Stephen King is truly a literary giant whose reputation precedes him. Even if you’re not much of a reader and haven’t delved into his words, it’d be a difficult task indeed to find someone who hasn’t watched one of the hundreds of film and television adaptions of his literary output. His most successful film-adapted novels include The Green Mile, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Cujo and countless others. 

Since his first published book, 1973’s Carrie, King’s talent for articulate storytelling has been rivalled only by his imagination. His extraordinarily restless creative urge has led to an astonishing 64 published fictional novels and over 200 short stories. While clearly having faith in his own imagination, King’s transparent and succinct style has resulted from a lack of faith in the imagination of some of his readers. 

In the 1960s, before his days as a successful author, King took on various jobs to keep his family afloat, like washing motel sheets at a laundry for $60 a week and teaching high school. In 2014, he told The Atlantic: “Success is keeping the students’ attention to start with, and then getting them to see that most of the rules are fairly simple. I always started by telling them not to be too concerned with stuff like weird verbs (swim, swum, swam) and just remember to make subject and verb agree. It’s like we say in AA—KISS. Keep it simple, stupid.”

In 1980, as he was just beginning work on It, King addressed his faith – or lack thereof – in other people’s imagination: “It’s not enough to have imagination. You have to be able to tap into it,” he said. “I taught school and you could see the kids losing their imagination right in front of your eyes. I don’t know whether it’s peer pressure or some sort of governor they have. But imagination shrinks and shrinks and shrinks. I’ve never met anyone without a sense of humour, but I’ve sure met people without any imagination at all. My books are successful because I’ve never assumed the job is half-done for me because the reader had a great imagination. I try to be logical when I’m telling a story.”

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As one of the most successful fiction authors of all time, King has the authority to impart his wisdom to aspiring writers. Fortunately, King recognises his duty to help teach those brave enough to enter the difficult career of creative writing. 

In 2000, King wrote the non-fiction book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In the memoir, he describes his experiences as a writer and gives some invaluable tips for those looking to fill, or even outgrow, his shoes over the coming decades as he looks to pass the baton. In the book, King outlines 20 simple rules for writers to adhere to if they want to give themselves the best chance of success in fiction. 

Stephen King’s 20 rules for writers:

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.”

“They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind…

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me… but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

Someone out there is now accusing me of being tiresome and anal-retentive. I deny it. I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that.. and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s — GASP!! — too late.”

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.”

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