Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers

I wasn’t always a Stephen King fan. A long time ago I decided anyone who was routinely on the New York Times Best Seller list couldn’t be a very good author. This was, of course, before I ever read any of his books. When I did finally sit down and read one of his novels I realized how wrong I had been. My bookcase is now stuffed with dog-eared copies of Mr. King’s books and I have come to think of him as one of the all-time greats. His book, On Writing, is a must read for any aspiring writer.

The other day I ran across this list—not for the first time—of rules Mr. King put together for writers. It’s an awesome list so I’m posting it here, to share with you, and to make sure I always know where to find it. Enjoy!

  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.
  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.

Firefly Writing Lessons

Lesson #2: Every character is unique and important 

Firefly uses an ensemble cast, which means there is more than one character for you to follow and pay attention to. This can be something of a challenge for a writer, having to see through so many eyes and speak in so many voices. While the focus of the story might be on only one individual protagonist—Malcolm Reynolds in this instance—everyone on board Serenity is just as important and equally deserving of screen time.

If all of the characters in an ensemble cast are too similar storylines get confusing. If they all dress the same, act the same, and speak in a similar voice, it can be difficult to figure out what is going on and who’s story you’re trying to follow. In the end, you just don’t care, and that is death to any tale.

All of the characters on Firefly have distinctive traits and characteristics that set them apart from the others; male, female, clothing, hair style, ethnic background, sexual orientation, mood, religious beliefs, and so on. While some of the characters may share one or two traits, they have myriad others that set them apart. They all have their own backstories, their own beliefs, their own problems and their own goals. Some of these inevitably don’t line up, which leads to conflict and, ultimately, a much better story.

The other thing Mr. Whedon and his writing staff do so well is to present us with characters we can identify with no matter who we are or where we come from. We can see something of ourselves in at least one of these characters, if not all. We genuinely care about them and want them to succeed. If you took any character from Firefly and put them in their own show, I would watch that show. They’re all unique, interesting, well-rounded people and I love each and every one of them; even Jayne.

Who is your favorite Firefly character, and what is it about that person that speaks to you keeps you coming back for more?

Firefly Writing Lessons

Introduction

It is my personal belief that Joss Whedon is a master story-teller. I love his movies, his TV shows, his comics, and his screenplays. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer came along in 1992 I thought it was the weirdest and most wonderful movie I’d ever seen (and still Paul Reubens’ best performance). I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV series. I loved Angel and Dollhouse, and am enamored with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Cabin in the Woods blew me away, and the two Avengers movies Mr. Whedon directed are among the best movies Marvel has done to date. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is shear genius and I’ve watched it at least twenty times. But, even now, after all these years, I feel like Mr. Whedon’s crowning achievement is the TV series, Firefly.

In my somewhat substantial movie library I have a well-worn DVD collection of the entire Firefly series. Recently, while under lockdown, I dug out the DVDs and watched them again, along with the movie, Serenity, which finishes off the story rather nicely.

While I was watching, it began to occur to me just how much I’ve learned about writing by watching this series in particular. As a writer I can’t help but pick apart plots and dissect storylines, both in books and movies. I’m always trying to see behind the curtain and figure out what the writer is up to. What tricks are they using and what devices do they employ in an effort to evoke an emotional response from the audience?

After re-watching Firefly and Serenity I sat down and compiled a list of, probably not all, but at least the main story elements I picked up along the way, so I thought I would share, beginning with this one:

Lesson #1: Nothing ever goes smooth. 

Nothing ever goes according to plan. Mal says it more than once. “How come it never goes smooth?” No matter how carefully the crew of Serenity plans, or what kind of precautions they take, things always go wrong. In every instance you can almost hear the writer asking, “what obstacle can I throw in their way this time?” It’s what some have called the “one damn thing after another” plotline. Our heroes overcome one hurtle just to have another one get in their way, until finally, after a great deal of pain and suffering, they manage to clear them all and cross the finish line, just in the nick of time.

What’s your favorite “it never goes smooth” moment from Firefly, or any other story you may have read or seen on film? There’s probably a million of them out there and I’d love to hear which ones caught your attention.

Review: Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Gardens of the Moon is an extraordinary read and a remarkable debut novel for author, Steven Erikson. This book is rich in detail, fast-paced, and bursting at the seams with memorable characters. I particularly liked Mr. Erikson’s naming conventions used to effectively distinguish notable figures like Whiskeyjack, Tattersail, Crokus, along with many others. This book has everything you could want from an epic fantasy adventure; wars, intrigue, gods, monsters, demons, mages, thieves, assassins, and sword wielding heroes. My head is still spinning. It will probably take me weeks to fully digest the story I just finished reading.

Review: Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Fools, the first installment in the Red Queen’s War, was a delightful read. The story centers around Prince Jalan, a cowardly young prince who, despite his intentions to spend his pampered existence doing little but drinking, gambling, and womanizing, finds himself thrust unexpectedly into the role of the hero. When Jalan crosses paths with a huge Norseman named Snorri ver Snagason, the lives of both men are irrevocably changed. The two unlikely companions set out on something of a comedic road trip, a raucous romp across the Broken Empire that turns many of the tropes of the traditional quest adventure on their head. There is plenty of magic and adventure along the way, but interspersed with a healthy dose of irreverent humor. Definitely worth checking out.

What would you say are your biggest influences?

Probably the first fantasy book I encountered was The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien which was read to my class by a very astute English teacher in my first year of middle school. After that I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy which, to date, I have read at least twenty times. Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories were another big influence as were the Elric stories by Michael Moorcock.

In high school I began to branch out reading a wide variety of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I soon discovered authors like Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Stephen R. Donaldson, and countless others. After high school I added contemporary fiction and non-fiction books to my list and also started reading books on writing craft and history. It seems like every book I read leads me to a dozen more. It was a very sad day when I realized that I will likely expire long before I get to all the books I want to read.

These days I read a little bit of everything, and try to mix things up so that I don’t get bored with any one genre. I really love George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and wish he would finish the series—I’m sure I’m not alone in this. A couple other authors I recently discovered are Joe Abercrombie, who pretty much defines the Grimdark genre, and Brian Staveley, who is a really gifted writer of epic fantasy. I just finished reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and thought it was an amazing book. I can’t wait to read the next one.

I would say I’m influenced in one way or another by just about every author I read, but Tolkien, Howard, and Martin are probably make the biggest impact on my style of writing.

Introduction to the Draakonor Chronicles

Recently, I was featured as the Reddit Fantasy Author of the Day. It was a fun event and gave me a rare opportunity to interact with fellow lovers of fantasy fiction. By the time it was over I had answered quite a few questions and thought it might be fun to share some of those here.

For anyone who hasn’t read the books yet, here is a brief introduction to the Draakonor Chronicles:

A Way with Magic is book one in a nine-part epic fantasy series called the Draakonor Chronicles. I have one other book, a novella called The Fabled Beast of Elddon, a prequel of sorts that takes place several years before the events of the Draakonor Chronicles.

The overall story arc for the Draakonor Chronicles is centered around the search for a series of magic shards that, when combined, make one powerful gemstone called the Draakonor. The shards have unique powers which can be exploited for good or ill and our heroes are not the only ones searching for them. Each book is a quest to find the next one and, as you might expect, leads the characters into dark and dangerous situations.

The plot for the Draakonor Chronicles was heavily influenced by a long running role playing game I participated in, and the stories include a myriad of races and monsters, including dragons, orcs, goblins, trolls, ogres, elves, and dwarves, to name a few, along with others of my own devising. To make sense of all this I created a mythology wherein, a long time ago, a powerful wizard opened a doorway into a neighboring reality called the Dreamland, unleashing all the creatures found in myths and legends. After centuries of war the people of Ninavar and the Dreamland have, for the most part, learned to live together. That is until a dark elf sorceress, for reasons that will become clear over time, decides to start a war and plunge both worlds into chaos once more.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting some of the questions I received, and their corresponding answers. As always feel free to chime in if there is anything else you’re curious about.

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I just finished reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and I must say I am thoroughly enamored with this impressive debut novel. I can see why it took 15 years to complete (and before anyone sends me a contradictory account, I pulled that number from an article on Tor.com—I blame them if it is incorrect). A book as rich and textured as this one doesn’t happen overnight and I appreciate Mr. Rothfuss’s time and attention to detail.

The Name of the Wind is the story of Kvothe, a near legendary hero who, by my reckoning, is part wizard, part musician, part scholar, part warrior and, at present, full-time innkeeper. It is told in both past and present with Kvothe himself narrating much of it. The tale spans a number of years. However, this is only the beginning of the story and there is much more to come (which I look forward to with great anticipation).

This is a fantasy story with little in the way of magical beasts or mythological monsters, although the few that wander into the story are handled deftly and in very unique ways. There is music to the language and, in fact, music plays an important role in the story, as does science and reasoning, and a wide range of human emotions. It is a tale of struggle and survival, of friendship and love. There was very little in the way of enchanted swords and epic battles, but a good deal of riveting story telling with some finely wrought characters at the center of it all. Good stuff. I highly recommend it.

Naming: Origin of Dreamland

Dreamland is not a particularly original name, but it is a name that evokes all kinds of emotions. I took the name from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, one of many I read in high school. The poem is filled with shifting landscapes and dark, brooding images, and seemed to fit well with the overall story arc I was envisioning for the Draakonor Chronicles. When I was building Ninavar I imagined a medieval world much like our own, but one bordered by other worlds, the most prominent of which would be a magical realm filled with all of the non-human races, the creatures of myth and legend that haunt our dreams and stir our imaginations. And what would happen if the veil separating those two places was breached and the two worlds came together in sudden, violent contact? Well, you’ll just have to read the story to find out.

Naming: Origin of Ninavar

The world in which many of the events of the Draakonor Chronicles take place is called Ninavar. Ninavar is a variation on the name, Nineveh. And, for those who may not have heard of it, Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city of Upper Mesopotamia. I’m not sure where or when I first heard the name, but it got stuck in my subconscious and stayed there until I needed it. As with most of the people and place names in my stories, I found something that already existed and tweaked it just enough to make it semi-unique. I love words, and coming up with new and interesting ones is part of the fun of writing epic fantasy. Ninavar just sort of rolled off my tongue. It had that same kind of flavor to it as Narnia or Newhon—probably because it’s an “N” word. Ninavar just sounded like a fun place, a place filled with monsters and magic, and a good place to have adventures.