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.