These are the people who get big bucks to tell other people how to write. Their publishers figure, “Hey, the guy’s famous. People will want to hear how he got there.” That much is true; people do want to hear how Stephen King, for example, became a writer. But do famous writers really know anything about writing?
After reading Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I have to conclude that famous writers don’t know jack. That’s because they are writing intuitively. They have a gift, and the substance of that gift cannot be transferred. They can only say, “This is how I write.”
The section of his book in which Stephen King chronicled his career as a writer (starting in grade school) was wonderful. It was funny, and scary, and very down-to-earth - just like his novels. Unfortunately, he spends most of his book telling us not how he wrote his novels, but how we should write ours. No doubt, if you follow his advice, you will probably end up sounding a lot like Stephen King. (The question is, do you want to?)
Stephen King's Rule #1: Don’t use passive voice
Active voice is great if you want to produce a driving passage, filled with energy and momentum. But what if you want to convey something else – mystery, suspense? Here is an example of passive voice:
The body was hanging in the hall. It had been hung there some time in the night, when we were sleeping. As we made our way down to breakfast, we all stepped around it. Nobody looked up.
We all knew who it was.
Would this passage have worked as well using active voice: “Somebody had hung it in the night"? Absolutely not. The focus here is on the body. Using passive voice increases the tension and forces us to wonder, "Who hung it there?"
Stephen King's Rule #2: Don’t use adverbs
The overuse of adverbs (anything ending in -ly) can be clumsy. However, the adverb, much like any other part of speech, fulfills a purpose. Sometimes you need to describe how someone is performing an action, without a lengthy descriptive phrase.
Gently, oh so gently, they lifted my body out of the river. They placed it on the bank and arranged my tattered clothing to cover what remained of my flesh. Then they stood around me, in perfect silence, their hats in their hands.
If only they had shown me such respect when I was alive.
That passage could have begun without the “gently.” But the impact of the (dead) narrator’s voice would have been compromised, and the force of the final line would have been diminished.
Stephen King's Rule #3: Don’t use a long word when you can use a short one
English, a gloriously complex language, is a mashup of Germanic and Latin roots (among other things). The Germanic lexicon is agglomerative: get up, get down. Latin roots are inflected: ascend, descend. Academic writing favors Latin roots, while colloquial speech prefers the Germanic. If you want to sound like Hemingway, or Stephen King, stick to the Germanic roots. But, if you are after a more scholarly effect, go for the Latin.
As the waiter stared at the coin in his hand, a slow flush spread across his cheeks.
The time traveler leaned back in his chair, adopting a stern demeanor. “My good man,” he said, “I trust the generosity of my emolument will not tempt you into drink."
The waiter threw the dime on the floor. “Next time you can get your own damn burger and fries!”
I'll admit I’ve cheated. In dialogue anything is permissible. But, placed well, those five-dollar words can accomplish much more than their one-syllable equivalents. Here is the last phrase of Camus’ The Stranger, taken from two different translations:
… and that they greet me with cries of hate.
… and that they greet me with howls of execration.
Which version do you think you will remember?
The real rules of writing
There is only one rule for writers. So pay attention. I will not repeat it.
You can do anything, provided that you can pull it off.
That second clause is the key. If you can pull it off, whatever it is, you will have written a masterpiece. If you can’t, you will have produced a piece of trash. Being able to do something successfully is what is important, not whether you follow the rules.