Everything You Need To Know About Writing Successfully In Ten Minutes

This is the title of a famous essay on writing by Stephen King. The essay largely takes the form of a list: the dos and do nots of creative writing. I’m not a fan of such lists. Some writers – even professional writers, with many years of experience – swear by them. Like anyone interested in writing, I have read many of these lists. Some are moderately helpful. Some are absurd.

King is undeniably a successful writer, although it is fair to say that his heyday was the 70s and 80s. He has a great deal to say about fiction and is much quoted on the subject of writing. My background is in Literary Theory, so I have a difficult time believing in the fixed, concrete nature of such an approach. It feels very much of a remnant of a bygone age. A postmodernist / poststructuralist approach to King’s writing rules and regulations, immediately undermines his absolute belief in a particular set of rules, since the dominating literary philosophy of the postmodern period prioritises the playfulness of creative approaches, the breaking of rules and the resistance of authority structures. We are doing things in fiction, film and art that ‘creatives’ before us would never have done, for fear of it breaking some kind of unbreakable convention. King’s essay is very much in that model.

There are, even in the essay, hints that King is uncomfortable with such an approach. King claims, as part of his rules regarding How to Evaluate Criticism:
“Show your piece to a number of people - ten, let us say. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Smile and nod a lot. Then review what was said very carefully. If your critics are all telling you the same thing about some facet of your story - a plot twist that doesn't work, a character who rings false, stilted narrative, or half a dozen other possibles - change that facet. It doesn't matter if you really liked that twist of that character; if a lot of people are telling you something is wrong with your piece, it is. If seven or eight of them are hitting on that same thing, I'd still suggest changing it. But if everyone - or even most everyone - is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.”

I have some respect for this facet of King’s insight, but within it are the seeds of the essay’s failure. We could take King’s list and those of many other writers and we would find many different pieces of advice, some even contradictory. This was, of course, always going to be the case. Why write a new list unless there is something different to add. Since, according to King’s own advice, “if everyone - or even most everyone - is criticizing something different, you can safely disregard what all of them say.” This means that we have to ignore King’s own advice: very postmodern.

Regardless of this – or perhaps because of it (King becomes a more interesting prospect when examined in this way) I would like to look at a number of King’s rules in subsequent blog entries. They are widely quoted and regarded as creative writing gospel: I would like to look at aspects I believe to be helpful to writers and those approaches that have clear deficiencies – despite the ardent fashion in which King and many other writers adhere to them.


Jonathan Green said...

Great post, Rob.

One of King's pieces of advice that I struggle with is the old, 'Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.'

Really? Then, according to King, I've already failed as a writer.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Several people have recommended this work by Stephen King to me, but like you, I am not such a fan of these lists.

My English-Literature-degree-bearing Dad has recently recommended I read Aristotle's poetics, to get a good foundation on story telling.

Have you read this one?


Am going to post about that rule, Jon. Great minds think alike!


Hi Will. I actually have Aristotle’s Poetics on my shelf. I have read it with interest as a writer and I have used it as part of my English teaching, particularly at A-Level – when teaching Shakespeare. Several of Shakespeare’s most famous characters have hamartia or a tragic flaw (e.g. Macbeth). Hamartia is more complex than just a flaw and Aristotle explores the concept, among many others, in some depth. I would definitely recommend it to you in so much as it is a useful writing tool – especially if you are interested in writing plays and screenplays. Aristotle’s observations are no more fixed than Stephen King’s, however, and have been long debated. As one of the first ever pieces of literary criticism / theory, I think that it deserves attention. : )