Rules from the “Maine Man” of Horror

Love him or hate him, there is no question that Stephen King understands the craft of writing. When he’s on his game, he is one of the best at what he does, and even when he’s not, he understands why and what’s missing. Herewith, a list of some advice from the man himself: Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers.

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First Personal

When Melville wrote the words, “Call me Ishmael,” his friends didn’t assume that he was changing his name from Herman. While I always assumed that since every Melville epic I slogged through took place on or near the ocean the author has some experience at sea, I didn’t assume that he was the sole surviving member of a doomed whaling voyage (and he wasn’t).

Yet I have been guilty of reading more current first-person works and wondering, “Did that happen to the author? Is that why she writes about…?”

This tendency to conflate authors with characters, and to wonder about the boundary between “write what you know” and “this is not autobiography!” has been much on my my since I published Live Free or Die. When I started writing the book I was a forty-something woman of fluid sexuality living on an island in Southern New Hampshire, as is my fictional protagonist, Katherine “Kit” McCormick. No one was ever murdered (to my knowledge) in my small town, yet certain real-life events did occur that sparked my interest in writing the book. Readers who know me personally and who visited my home on the island read the book with a certain ache of nostalgia, and they are the ones most apt so far to ask, “Did that really happen?” or “Who was that?”

Obviously, I am gratified that they believe so readily in the book’s people and places that they cannot tell where fact and fiction diverge. But they do diverge: I am not Kit, and she is not me. Which brings me to my real focus here, which is writing in the first-person point of view (POV).

I admit to being a POV purist and snob. I love a good first-person or third-person narrative, and will even become happily engrossed in a book with multiple narrators if their POVs (technically PsOV, but that looks so wrong) are separated by chapter or section (I.e., alternating person POV).

Too many third-person books written in a supposed omniscient narrative POV are often just badly written third-person books. These leave me feeling as though I have just had a few beers and a huge meal, then taken a ride on a Tilt-a-Whirl. Gack.

When I started Live Free or Die, I used the third-person POV. But as I kept going, I realized that I needed to rewrite it using a first-person POV, for two reasons. First, I wanted the immediacy that the first-person POV confers. The second, and more important, reason was that I wanted the limitation that it gives. As a strict POV purist, I know that restricting what my readers know to only what Kit McCormick knows will be more effective for the kind of story(s) I want to tell. I want readers to be feeling their way around in the dark just as she is.

My writing is always character-driven, even when I’m writing a murder mystery, where the genre would seem to depend primarily on plot. Plot is important, but I’m more interested in the story—the setting, the people, the situations, the conflicts. As Stephen King wrote in his superb book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.”

More on POV another time. Right now, it’s time to get to work.

A Literary Light Goes Out

Aside

An amazing writer leaves us. The humble (and humbling) author of the incredible book 100 Years of Solitude, died today at 87. Gabriel Garcîa Márquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in1982, was the master of “magic realism.” Love in the Time of Cholera was an equally riveting book (humbling work). Here’s a link to a great obituary of this literary giant.

Place

“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.” —Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Even if your story takes place completely inside someone’s head, you need to give readers a sense of place. You don’t need long, poetic descriptions, just some handle for readers to grab onto, a small platform to steady them while characters and actions swirl around. The best writing, for me, is more about character development than plot. In many of my favorite books, the setting is as much a “character” as the people: imagine The Shining without the creepy hotel…One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest without the locked wards…Harry Potter without Hogwarts…To Kill a Mockingbird without the fence between security and fear…. In Live Free or Die, Loon Island is a character, and perhaps the strongest influence on and revealing clues into in the main character’s life. (She lives with a moat around her private “castle,” and she likes it that way.) Setting reveals character, showing them over time, through seasons, and in a context.

Ask Max: “Should I hire an editor?”

As a full-time freelance editor and writer, I am often asked this question by clients and colleagues alike. My response to this particular writer’s query follows.

“There seems to be two schools of thought in regards to submitting manuscripts to Publishers. One that claims Publishers have their own editors so it is not all that important to have your work edited prior to submission, and others that say your work should be as polished as possible. What are your thoughts?”

As an editor, anything I say will sound biased, of course. But I am above all a writer, and passionate about my craft, snobby as that may sound. I would never send out anything that I felt was less than my very best work. I am my own harshest editor. Yet as you probably know, the closer you are to a work, and the more time you’ve spent lovingly connecting one word to another, the more difficult it becomes to see what’s really there on the page: you see what you meant to say. So if nothing else, every writer should have one trusted, eagle-eyed person read through the manuscript for surface errors.

Yes, publishers have their own editors, and regardless of how clean and typo-free your manuscript may be when it lands before the first reader, if your book is accepted it will pass through at least one editor. However, you must edit for that first reader (probably an overworked, underpaid editor or writer wanna-be who hopes to find the next J.K. Rowling). Agents and publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts and queries every week, and when then turn to the first few pages, they are looking for any reason NOT to keep reading—a typo, a hopelessly mangled sentence, a cliché…any of these things means they can shunt that work aside and move on to the next one on the pile. For this reason, I personally have a handful of faithful detail-oriented friends and family who are happy to read through anything I plan to send out. I don’t “pay” these people, but they are editors all the same, and I reward them in every way I can.

As an editor I can tell you that there are writers with excellent ideas and fascinating plots who couldn’t write a sentence that made sense to save their own lives. There are also people who can write delicious sentences and create wonderful, fully dimensioned characters but whose books go nowhere and will put you to sleep after a page or two. There are also mediocre writers with so-so ideas, a basic command of grammar and punctuation, a workable story, and an interesting character or two. Any of those writers could get a book accepted, but the odds favor (unfortunately) the one whose book represents the least amount of work required on the part of the publisher. Once you are established, you can “get away with” a lot more: Stephen King or Dan Patterson could scribble six words on a paper towel and have a publisher send a contract for the upcoming book, because they know what they’ll be getting. For the unknown writer, you absolutely need to send in your very best, most highly polished work.

I will say that as an editor, I approach every work with the goal of making it the author’s very best work. I do not want everything I touch to sound as though I wrote it—the editor’s voice should be invisible—and apparently I am successful at that. My clients (fiction, nonfiction, short stories, novels, academic works…everything) have all said that I made their books better without stomping all over their style. This has been true even with writers who have sent me books that needed serious substantive editing.

Whew, that was probably more than you asked for. So yes, everyone needs to send out only their most polished work. Whether you pay someone to do it or take your chances with friends, family, and your own biased eye is a choice only you can make. (And yes, I have found three typos so far in my first edition of Live Free or Die, all of which were introduced during my last read-through—which I foolishly did not show to may faithful detail-oriented friends, so it is my fault, not theirs. $$%@@!!)