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 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.
You’re writing. Creating.
So go create.
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