I have previously not been too kind to Stephen King. I enjoy and admire his books. I have a soft spot for cinematic adaptations of his work (usually projects not under King’s direct creative control - add a splash of Cronenberg, Carpenter and Kubrick, I say). The contribution that King has made to popular culture – well, culture full stop - would be difficult to dispute.
My historical bone of contention has been with his so-called ’20 Rules For Writers’. I’m not one for such lists. There are many out there on the internet and in various books. One per writer, you might argue. Who knows, perhaps I will write one myself one day? Stephen King’s list, however, has attained an almost mythic quality in the writing community. Over the years and spread with lubricated ease through the internet, the list has achieved the status of an edict or diktat. Initially I received it as such: as something that should be followed or resisted.
I will examine the list itself in a future post. I still think that it has problems but the biggest problem for me, I now realise, was the way I initially approached it. Despite both the confidence of the pronouncements that make up the list and the fashion with which others spread the guidance as something that had to be followed, I do not feel that was King’s intention. He has indicated as much in his other works on writing and in interviews. Basic common sense would tell everyone - me, King, everyone – that there are too many writers out there making a sensational living without observing King’s rules; some flagrantly so.
One source that really drove this realisation home to me was the supposed origin of the initial list – Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’. Here I found no pithy lists or proclamations. The advice was nuanced, messy and autobiographical – largely delivered in a chronological, stream-of-consciousness. The King of the ’20 Rules’ was absent here and I started to wonder if that was what hundreds of reproductions of the advice had made him. It had been Chinese-whispered by a thousand magazine articles and a million blog entries into something coercive and judgemental.
In ‘On Writing’ King presents himself – particularly in the highly enjoyable early sections – as a practitioner of trial and error, working out what works best for him personally as a writer. There are successes and there are failures, all of which he details with humility and honesty. Interestingly, King draws attention to other writers in his life - including his wife Tammy - who do not rely upon his rules for their success. He also admits to regularly breaking them himself in his own writing.
Moving beyond the boiled-down, internet-friendly Do's and Don’ts that I initially encountered, there is a reminder that the list is designed principally for people who aspire to be writers - rather than those who have (like King) already found the best way to work for them. Even for those just starting out, it indicates that the list might simply be a good place to start.
Inspired by King, and his particularly effective opening chapters in ‘On Writing’, I will endeavour over the coming months to detail what works for me as a writer and how, through a continuing process of trial and error, I have reached such conclusions.