Stephen King’s Advice for Writers

Stephen King’s Advice for Writers

His advice has been well publicized, but I thought it worth repeating:

 

  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.” (e.g., “he said happily” and “she said angrily”, etc.)
  4. 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.”
  5. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”
  6. Read, read, read. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
  7. 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.”
  8. Turn off the TV. “TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”
  9. 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.”

Is a novel outline only for wimps?

Outline or not to outline has been a preverbal dilemma for ages. Well, perhaps not for ages, but for a very long time. Even experienced writers have their preferences; some swear by it. It is said that John Irving, takes at least a year to outline his novels before he even starts to write the story. Kimberla Lawson-Roby outlines but only after she is well into the writing. Stephen King wings it—the story’s vision in his head.  He believes outlining makes the story feel artificial. Although it is indeed a personal preference, I will attempt to explain the pros and cons of both.

Outlining obviously allows you to organize your thoughts. You can plainly see where you are going. If the plot is veering off a cliff, you’d at least like to know early on. Half way through the novel you don’t have to wonder if John died of Parkinson’s or cancer; if you thoroughly organize you will know. Organizing allows you to see the progression of the story. Depending on how detailed the outline is you can see if your progression is at an even pace. Is it moving too fast? Is it completely stagnant for three or four chapters? Often in our head we get caught up in the writing. We like the sound of our thoughts, the elegant, lofty word choices. In our mind it all sounds so nice. But with an outline you can see if every one of those 20 scenes in one chapter is actually moving the story along. Remember, when writing, every word should be purposeful, deliberate and not just a way to flex our literary muscles. Save that for your personal journal.Wile-P-Coyote

With my second novel, Thursday’s Child, which I am currently editing, I purchased banner paper, hung it on a wall and outlined the entire book that way. It allowed me to see different scenes and jump from chapter to chapter in a glance. Many times I looked at one scene and literally switch it with another to make the story move a little more smoothly. It was easier to see what did and didn’t work and the places where conflict was building or where scenes were falling flat.

The outline itself is work, which, I believe is one of the reasons that many authors shy away from creating one. It takes planning and thought, brainstorming and correction. But to have a tangible plan takes at least that aspect out of the work beforehand and lets you concentrate on writing the story, delving into the creative part of the process which is what most of us enjoy the most anyway.  An outline is like having a map for your trip so that you can see the route you are taking and make adjustments before you write it out. It can definitely save on the rewriting.

When I wrote my first novel I did not outline—initially. I allowed the winds of inspiration to take me where they willed. After the first draft, I pulled out index cards and commence to doing a chapter by chapter outline, because the story was getting away from me. This is especially helpful if you have several sub-plots.

Winging it. There’s an entire patch of purist who would not dream of tampering with inspiration by confining their masterpiece to an outline. The vision for the work is in their head. And I get it. There is a certain rush you get from simply going at it, allowing the characters and story to take on a life of their own.  Not know if Weston should die or be kept alive, allowing the story to dictate his outcome. Writers who attempt this should do so because they feel that their writing would seem less authentic if confined to an outline and not because they’re too lazy to take the time to create a plan.

Writing without an outline takes extreme focus and drive because when you get to those moments where you run out of story and are saying, now what you have to push past it until you know what.focus2

Whatever your preference you don’t have to be totally committed to doing it one way. An outline doesn’t have to be scene by scene or even chapter by chapter. It can be a simple, lose guide that gives you broad direction and room to create. And you can always outline all or just some of it. Remember; you can switch up, even if you are half way through your writing. I won’t tell if you won’t.

 

Can we really write for everyone?

Can we really write for everyone?

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Ann-Marie Slaughter recently wrote an article in The Atlantic which was more of a confirmation than it was a revelation of what women have known for years and that is that women can’t really have it all (at least not at one time). The notion that we can bring home the bacon, fry it up, serve it, and take care of that man of ours and do all of this equally is about as likely as fairies with pixy dust coming to magically clean my house when I’m having an off day (although this would be nice). What they did find is that women can have it all, but not all at the same time. You choose. Oh, whether you admit to it or not—you do choose with your actions.

The funny part is, if you want to call it funny as that we created the illusion that we were doing it all and by golly happy about it. But indeed we were struggling and stressing and pulling our hair out and coping and all the while thinking this is the American Nightmare. O.K., we can breathe now that it’s out there.

In all that you do there must be focus and intent. This fact is also true in our writing. It’s a gushy, fantastic sentiment to believe as we are writing our novel the entire world will love it. Oh, the smile that sneaks across our face with this thought in mind. But the truth is some of our closest friends won’t even like it. Oh, yes. It’s true. But that’s O.K.

Stephen King talks about the ideal reader. The ideal reader is the one reader who is a representation of all readers like her. Maybe she is 25ish, recent college grad working her first professional job, dates when she has a chance; she knows all things Bey and lives by her iPhone. Her apartment is sparse and filled with functional pieces only.

Or perhaps she is African American, growing family, works the treadmill more often than not, cherishes the time spent with her book club pals. She and the hubby love cruises and drives up north to watch the leaves change colors during the fall. No matter what she is like your ideal reader will be the face you see as you write. When you edit especially, you will do it with her in mind.

It is the one of the reasons for Stephen King’s success. And Tyler Perry’s as well. Everyone’s not into it. But there is that person, who represents that group and when you get it right with them they will let you know and reward you by being a loyal follower.

Tyler Perry's Madea's Witness Protection

Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Witness Protection

When Perry’s first movie debuted, it was met with so much criticism it was probably good that he didn’t pick up a review. They blasted for his “chitterlings circuit” concepts and plots. And even when his sit-com debuted many predicted it wouldn’t work; it was pedestrian, simple, demeaning and not funny. But years prior, Perry had the fortunate opportunity of getting instant feedback from his audience as he performed his stage plays. His work brought relatable stories to many. And they told him so with the applause and by filling auditoriums and laughing their butts off as he parading the stage as Madea. He wrote for them. He appealed to them. And they loved him for it. He tapped into an audience dying to be fed; an audience which had been overlooked by mainstream filmmakers. Ahh…there it is…his niche, his calling, his ideal audience.

Perry knows many will never go to see one of his plays, watch one of his movies or T.V. shows. In fact, they will continue to blast him for having the audacity to show up for work every day. But that’s fine too.

And many may scoff at what you write. But find that audience, that reader and know that they are waiting on you to write what can only be written by you.  Yes there will be critics, but those who love it will be your faithful followers.

Now, this isn’t to say that you do away with your originality or the voice which makes your writing exclusively you–not at all. That voice will drive you. But that reader will give you focus.

Kip Langello wrote an interesting article about this in September 2013 edition of Writer’s Digest. And he says: “When a writer achieves this focus…the reader buys into the story…the reader will not merely read the novel, she will enter it—and she won’t emerge until it’s over.”

That says it all.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you.