Okay, let’s get a few things straight right from the top:
- This is going to be a very long post, but I’m not going to apologize for it because: 1—I need to brag about how I know Mr. King; 2—I promise it’ll be content-rich; 3—You’re going to learn Voice merely by osmosis, beyond what he’s teaching overtly; and 4—You’ll be glad you invested the time. So grab your favorite beverage and settle in…
- Though I work the inspirational side of the fiction writing fence and he the horror, we at one time happened to share the services of the same audio reader, the legendary Frank Muller, who remains, even post mortem, the unquestioned creme de la creme of that field.
- We first met by phone when Stephen called one day to discuss how we might aid Frank’s family after he suffered a motorcycle accident that would eventually take his life. Then Stephen and I met personally in 2004 when we visited Frank in rehab, where he lingered for several years.
- Stephen and I share a rabid love of baseball (he the Boston Red Sox, I the Chicago Cubs).
- I have been accused of trying to scare readers out of Hell.
- Stephen has been accused of trying to scare the hell out of readers.
- We read each other’s work and respect each other and still keep in touch via email.
- Writer’s Digest considered us strange enough bedfellows to feature us in a cover story.
- I will insert myself into Stephen’s blog only occasionally to adjust for the fact that the piece is nearly 30 years old, yet remains poignantly applicable.
- I expect it to stimulate spirited conversation, however be advised that my team and I will excise any off-topic comments. This is not the place to discuss Stephen’s use of naughty words, or his political, cultural, or religious views. Let’s stick to the subject of fiction writing.
I asked if I could share with you sections of his iconic piece from the 1986 issue of The Writer magazine, wherein he promised to tell budding fiction writers everything they needed to know about writing successfully in ten minutes. Much of it has been floating around the Internet ever since, and you may have seen it.
He kindly said, “Feel free to use as much of it as you’d like.”
And so, with thanks for that generous offer, here is all of it with a few notes:
I wasn’t suspended. I was forced to make a number of apologies—they were warranted, but they still tasted like dog-dirt in my mouth—and spent a week in detention hall. And the guidance counselor arranged what he no doubt thought of as a more constructive channel for my talents.
This was a job—contingent upon the editor’s approval—writing sports for the Lisbon Enterprise, a twelve-page weekly, the sort with which any small-town resident will be familiar. This editor was the man who taught me everything I know about writing in ten minutes. His name was John Gould—not the famed New England humorist or the novelist who wrote The Greenleaf Fires, but a relative of both, I believe.
He told me he needed a sports writer and we could “try each other out” if I wanted.
I told him I knew more about advanced algebra than I did sports.
Gould nodded and said, “You’ll learn.”
I said I would at least try to learn. Gould gave me a huge roll of yellow paper and promised me a wage of 1/2¢ per word. The first two pieces I wrote had to do with a high school basketball game in which a member of my school team broke the Lisbon High scoring record. One of these pieces was straight reportage. The second was a feature article.
I brought them to Gould the day after the game, so he’d have them for the paper, which came out Fridays. He read the straight piece, made two minor corrections, and spiked it.
[Note: King’s original copy showed Mr. Gould’s edit marks.]
Last night, in the well-loved gymnasium of Lisbon High School, partisans and Jay Hills fans alike were stunned by an athletic performance unequaled in school history: Bob Ransom, known as “Bullet” Bob for both his size and accuracy, scored thirty-seven points. He did it with grace and speed … and he did it with an odd courtesy as well, committing only two personal fouls in his knight-like quest for a record which has eluded Lisbon thinclads since 1953….
[With Mr. Gould’s edits applied.]
Last night, in the Lisbon High School gymnasium, partisans and Jay Hills fans alike were stunned by an athletic performance unequaled in school history: Bob Ransom scored thirty-seven points. He did it with grace and speed … and he did it with an odd courtesy as well, committing only two personal fouls in his quest for a record which has eluded Lisbon’s basketball team since 1953….
When Gould finished marking up my copy in the manner I have indicated above, he looked up and must have seen something on my face. I think he must have thought it was horror, but it was not: it was revelation.
“I only took out the bad parts, you know,” he said. “Most of it’s pretty good.”
“I know,” I said, meaning both things: yes, most of it was good, and yes, he had only taken out the bad parts. “I won’t do it again.”
“If that’s true,” he said, “you’ll never have to work again. You can do this for a living.” Then he threw back his head and laughed.
And he was right; I am doing this for a living, and as long as I can keep on, I don’t expect ever to have to work again.
I am going to tell you these things again because often people will only listen—really listen—to someone who makes a lot of money doing the thing he’s talking about. This is sad but true. And I told you the story above not to make myself sound like a character out of a Horatio Alger novel but to make a point: I saw, I listened, and I learned.
So here it is, with all the bark stripped off. It’ll take ten minutes to read, and you can apply it right away—if you listen.
1. Be talented
Now some of you are really hollering. Some of you are calling me one crass money-fixated creep. And some of you are calling me bad names. Are you calling Harold Robbins talented? someone in one of the Great English Departments of America is screeching. V.C. Andrews? Theodore Dreiser? Or what about you, you dyslexic moron?
Nonsense. Worse than nonsense, off the subject. We’re not talking about good or bad here. I’m interested in telling you , not in critical judgments of who’s good or bad. As a rule the critical judgments come after the check’s been spent, anyway. I have my own opinions, but most times I keep them to myself.
When is that? I don’t know. It’s different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, nor after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it’s time you tried painting or computer programming.
Further, almost every aspiring writer knows when he is getting warmer—you start getting little jotted notes on your rejection slips, or personal letters . . . maybe a commiserating phone call.
2. Be neat
3. Be self-critical
4. Remove every extraneous word
5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time.
6. Know the markets
7. Write to entertain
8. Ask yourself frequently, “Am I having fun?”
9. How to evaluate criticism
10. Observe all rules for proper submission
11. An agent? Forget it. For now.
Agents get 10% of monies earned by their clients. [Today 15% is standard.] 10% of nothing is nothing. Agents also have to pay the rent. Beginning writers do not contribute to that or any other necessity of life.
12. If it’s bad, kill it
That’s everything you need to know. And if you listened, you can write everything and anything you want. Now I believe I will wish you a pleasant day and sign off.
My ten minutes are up.
Isn’t it interesting how much of this writing advice holds up after nearly 30 years? What is your favorite of Stephen’s tips?