11 Things Stephen King taught me about writing – whether he wanted to or not.

Stephen king was born on this day in 1947. He has sold hundreds of millions of books and is famous the world over for a his novels, movies and short stories. Oh and he did an American Express commercial once. 

He is in one of the greatest writers of our time, and whenever one of the best people in your field offers you advice (he’s in bold), you should listen to it.

Here are some things I pulled from a recent interview he did. 

1. My first editor, Bill Thompson, who edited Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Night Shift — in his report on Carrie, he said, “this writer has a projector in his head.”

DA: I love that comment. Many times when my critique partners or beta readers are going over one of my stories, they say it reads like a movie. That can be a complement or a dig, but I always take it as a compliment. Movies tend to move fast and don’t have wasted scenes or words. To know that somebody else – somebody famous – writes that way, it’s pretty cool.

  
2. I grew up and movies molded me… I see things visually. 

Me, too. I like to say that if 1 million people read a book, it’s a blockbuster bestseller. If only 1 million people go see a movie, it’s a flop. So there’s nothing wrong with thinking along the lines of a movie because between TV, movies and Internet videos, people are much more exposed to visual mediums than written. Might as well write for them along those lines. 

  
3. That was reinforced in college, where I took a lot of poetry courses, and people would come down on this idea about the image before everything, let the image talk, don’t tell me that this person is sad, don’t tell me this, don’t tell me that, show me something. 

If you ever write a story and put it before a critique group, this is one of the first comments you will get. Show, don’t tell. 

For me, I constantly find myself asking other authors, “what does that look like?” Your husband smirked at you. Okay, put yourself in your kitchen and say the comment that causes him to turn around and do something that causes to you to conclude he smirked. Physically, what did he do? Describe that. By the time you are finished, you will have 20 words to describe something that took a quarter of a second to do. But after you figure out what the heck it looks like, it will be much shorter. And when you start doing it that way, your characters come alive and your story suddenly has more depth than you ever realized. 

  
4. Episodic TV and miniseries, those things have a novelistic arc. I gravitate toward that immediately, so for me, shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or The Walking Dead — all of those things are superior to movies because they have more texture, more depth.

Don’t be afraid to learn from other storytelling forms besides novels. Don’t be a book snob. 

As King mentions, TV, miniseries, movies, short stories – everything can teach you ways to tell a story. I find myself watching the openings of movies and figuring out how quickly they got to the point or set the hook. At the recent Ghostbusters remake, I didn’t think they did a good job of starting it. But I was comparing it to the original in my head. Well, the original was on TV, so I watched it. Within three minutes the viewer had a pretty good idea of what to expect from that movie and what kind of challenges the heroes were going to face. Three minutes. I keep asking myself, can I do that in my novel in three minutes?

  
5. I don’t think of myself as a genre writer… As far as I’m concerned, genre was created by bookstores so that people who were casual readers could say, “Well, I want to read romances.” “Well, right over there, that’s where romances are.” 

Not only that, but many great stories have elements of different genres in them. For example, the original Star Wars has romance in it. It has suspense. It has mystery. Of course, it has action – but it also has a love story. 

We tend to forget that, but those layers are part of what makes it so interesting and why it has claimed so many fans.

  
6. I read across all genres.

If great stories contain elements of different genres, then it makes sense to read different genres so that you can learn to appreciate those elements and put them in your own stories, making yours deeper and richer – and making you a better writer. 

  
7. One more thing about genre: King says, “The thing about genre is, so many people are like little kids who say, ‘I can’t eat this food because it’s touching this other thing.’”

Ha. That’s just awesome. 

  
8. I can only work four hours a day. Writers are totally different all the time. Anthony Trollope used to get up at four o’clock and write until seven, because he had a job at a post office. And John Irving says he writes all day, but I don’t understand how anybody can do that… for me, you reach a point of diminishing returns.

My take? Know your limits. It’s not a competition. Don’t worry how much I write, worry how much you write. Quality is better than quantity anyway. Worry about that. 

  
9. But it was never done to make money. It was done because all those ideas were there. They were all screaming to get out at the same time and they all seemed good.

Write the stories that are in you, the ones that are dying to get out. There’s a reason you can’t stop thinking about them. Trust your gut and go with it. Even if they were to flop, you’ll be much more satisfied as a person for having gotten them out and exposing them to the world. And yes, you have more than one good story in you, so get that first one born so you can get on the second and third – and more. 

  
10. If everybody is saying the same thing about your work that’s negative, then there’s something there that’s wrong. You’re doing the wrong thing and you’d be crazy to say, “I’m right, and all these other people are wrong.”

I do that. I’m trying not to, though. Arrogance isn’t strength of belief, its inability to admit flaws and see the truth. 

  
11. When I came on the scene, I was seen as a genre writer and as a pulp writer. I never squealed about it. I never complained or wrote angry letters. I just kept my head down, kept doing my work. When it comes to literary criticism, it’s best to keep quiet and just do your work.

So listen to critics – but not to the point of letting it become a distraction. 

Let their input be something you consider and try to learn from, not something that derails you. 

They’re criticing. 

You’re writing.  Creating. 

So go create. 


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22 thoughts on “11 Things Stephen King taught me about writing – whether he wanted to or not.

  1. “It’s best to keep quiet and just do your work.”

    This is a great piece of advice, especially to end on. Also, I admit to hating the phrase ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ with a passion. It gets hurled around with barely any meaning behind it. I’ve noticed a lot of people spout it when they simply didn’t understand what they wrote or have nothing else to say, but figure they should be critical. Just frustrates me when I get that comment and no explanation behind it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I can’t disagree with that. Often I have new writers who are trying to create a scene and it just lacks depth. They don’t know what they did wrong and me just spouting platitudes doesn’t help, so I like to go in depth and give examples. It took me a while to figure out what people meant when they were saying it to me, so I’m sympathetic, but you’re right – there are lots of people who just say it and may not have a clue.

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      • I think there’s also personal definitions or levels for showing and telling. I’ve written scenes where one person will say it was a perfect balance and another will utter the phrase like gospel. Though, my use of Present Tense ends up being a factor here too. Many people mistake this for telling instead of showing for some reason.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ha. True.

          I’ve done that. I was doing a critique for a New York Times best-selling author’s novel and made a comment about showing more and telling a little less, and she basically shot back and said we must have different definitions of that!

          That said, we did. My tastes and hers were a little different. That’s always going to be the case. But we had a very productive relationship because she knew I would be honest with her and I knew she would defend her position if she felt she was right

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          • Honesty and understanding is very important for the author/editor relationship. Plenty of times I’ve written something that my editor didn’t like and we had to discuss if there was a better way.

            I wonder if genre is another factor with showing and not telling. A horror writer might define the terms differently than a romance one because of their focuses.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. “Show, Don’t Tell” is another of my, oh, I-don’t-know-whats. Bugbears I guess. I sometimes listen to that writerly advice, but I’m {still, always} trying to learn when to discard that and when to keep it. You’re told to be conversational (depending on genre), but then you’re not supposed to ‘tell’ the reader anything. Another advice piece I read recently is don’t begin with dialogue. Says who? I disagree with that one. I guess, for me, because the veil between the auditory and the visual is often so thin, I have trouble using my writerly voice in a way that feels like I’m showing. That said, it seems a situation far easier to see in someone else’s writing than in your own. In the end, Dan, thanks for posting your reflections on King’s advice. All of it’s good stuff and open and embracing enough that it would work, I think, for nearly anyone. It has obviously worked to great advantage for King, too. I could elaborate, but I’ve already taken up enough space in your comments! Seems most appropriate to end with this: Long live King! (and I don’t mean Elvis)

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I first started posting in a critique group, I would see the comment “show, don’t tell” and I couldn’t figure out what specifically they meant. So I did a Google search for it and I looked at five or six websites and nine or 10 examples, and by the time I was done, I knew what they meant.

      Then I did I had to decide how much paint I wanted to apply with that paintbrush.

      Sometimes, a lot. Sometimes, not too much. I had one scene in Poggibonsi where the guy was stuck all day due to a train strike. Nobody wanted to read about a guy killing his entire day wasting time. So I simply said he was stuck all day in the station because the train strike. That was definitely telling and not showing, but nobody wanted to “see” that!

      I bought gum. I stared at the clock. I looked at the clouds. I bought some more gum.

      Nope. Nobody wants to read that.

      And that’s where you have to come in with your judicial restraint. Your artist’s eye. Your creative judgment. If you show everything, your story is probably going to drag.

      One of my critique partners was constantly asking for more detail, like every pebble on the road was important. They aren’t. Pebbles on the road aren’t important unless they are flying up from the car in front of you and smashing out your windshield and causing your main character to wreck the car so that the bad guys catch them. Otherwise, pebbles on the road aren’t important. You get to exercise restraint.

      However, so does your reader. And so you have to trust the judgment of the person giving you advice. That’s why when I go into a critique group, I look at several people and how they critique and what they’re saying and then I ask them to read my writing.

      Anybody who comments on my writing that I didn’t ask, I go and look at two or three samples of other pieces they have critiqued and see if I agree or disagree them. Not because I want everyone to agree with me but because I need to understand their perspective before I consider their advice.

      I also heavily heavily heavily listen to my beta readers and try to get a few dozen of them to read my story before I publish it, so I can tell if they are all getting bored at the same spot – they will let me know I need to fix it. Better to have five critique partners or 12 beta readers point something out to you than 200 Amazon reviews giving it 1 star!

      Liked by 1 person

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