Stephen King is an All-Time Great, arguably one of the most popular novelists the world has ever seen. And there’s a good chance that he’s inspired more people to start writing than any other living writer. So, as the Guardian and King’s UK publisher Hodder launch a short story competition – to be judged by the master himself – here are the ten most important lessons to learn from his work.
1. Write whatever the hell you like
King might be best known – or, rather, best regarded – as a writer of horror novels, but really, his back catalogue is crammed with every genre you can think of. There are thrillers (Misery, Gerald’s Game), literary novels (Bag Of Bones, Different Seasons), crime procedurals (Mr Mercedes), apocalypse narratives (The Stand), fantasy (Eyes Of The Dragon, The Dark Tower series) … He’s even written what I think of as being one of the greatest Young Adult novels of all time: The Long Walk. Perhaps the only genre or audience he hasn’t really touched so far is comedy, but most of his work features moments that show his deft touch with humour. It’s clear that King does what he wants, when he wants, and his constant readers – the term he calls his, well, constant readers – will follow him wherever he goes.
2. The scariest thing isn’t necessarily what’s underneath the bed
Horror is a curious thing. What scares one person won’t necessarily scare another. And while there might be moments in his horror novels that tread towards the more conventional ideas of what some find terrifying, for the most part, the truly scary aspects are those that deal with humanity itself. Ghosts drive people to madness, telekinetic girls destroy whole towns with their powers, clowns … well, clowns are just bloody terrifying full stop. But the true crux of King’s ability to scare is finding the thing that his readers are actually worried about, and bringing that to the fore. If you’re writing horror, don’t just think about what goes bump in the night; think about what that bump might drive people to do afterwards.
3. Don’t be scared of transparency
One of my favourite things about King’s short story collections are the little notes about each tale that he puts into the text. The history of them, the context for the idea, how the writing process actually worked. They’re not only invaluable material for aspiring writers – because exactly how many drafts does it take to reach a decent story? King knows! – but they’re also brilliant nuggets of insight into King himself. Some people might think that it’s better off knowing nothing about authors when they read their work, but for King, his heart is on his sleeve. In his latest collection, The Bazaar of Broken Dreams, King gets more in-depth than ever, talking about what inspired the stories in such an honest way that it couldn’t have come from another writer’s pen. Which brings us to …
4. Write what you know. Sort of. Sometimes
Write what you know is the most common writing tip you’ll find anywhere. It’s nonsense, really, because if we all did that we’d end up with terribly boring novels about writers staring out of windows waiting for inspiration to hit. (If you like those, incidentally, head straight for the literary fiction section of your nearest bookshop.) But King understands that experience is something which can be channelled into your work, and should be at every opportunity. Aspects of his life – addiction, teaching, his near-fatal car accident, rock and roll, ageing – have cropped up in his work over and over, in ways that aren’t always obvious, but often help to drive the story. That’s something every writer can use, because it’s through these truths that real emotions can be writ large on the page.
5. Aim big. Or small
King’s written some mammoth books, and they’re often about mammoth things. The Stand takes readers into an apocalypse, with every stage of it laid out on the page until the final fantastical showdown. It deals with a horror that hits a group of characters twice in their lives, showing us how years and years of experience can change people. And The Dark Tower is a seven (or eight, or more, if you count the short stories set in its world) part series that takes in so many different genres of writing it’s dizzying. When he needs to, King aims really big, and sometimes that’s what you have to do to tell a story. At the other end of the spectrum, some of King’s most enduring stories – Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption, The Mist – have come from his shorter works. He traps small groups of characters in single locations and lets the story play out how it will. The length of the story you’re telling should dictate the size of the book. Doesn’t matter if it’s forty thousand words or two hundred, King doesn’t waste a word.
6. Write all the time. And write a lot
King’s published – wait for it – 55 novels, 11 collections of stories, 5 non-fiction works, 7 novellas and 9 assorted other pieces (including illustrated works and comic books). That’s over a period of 41 years. That’s an average of two books a year. Which is, I must admit, a pretty giddying amount. That’s years of reading (or rereading, if you’re as foolishly in awe of him as I am). But he’s barely stopped for breath. This year has seen three books published by him, which makes me feel a little ashamed. Still, at my current rate of writing, I might catch up with him sometime next century. And while not every book has found the same critical and commercial success, they’ve all got their fans.
7. Voice is just as important as content
King’s a writer who understands that a story needs to begin before it’s actually told. It begins in the voice of the novel: is it first person, or third? Is it past or present tense? Is it told through multiple narrators, or just the one? He’s a master at understanding exactly why each story is told the way it’s told. Sure, he might dress it up as something simple – the story finding the voice it needs, or vice versa – but through his books you can see that he’s tried pretty much everything, and can see why each voice worked with the story he was telling.
8. And Form is just as important as voice
King isn’t really thought of as an experimental novelist, which is grossly unfair. Some of King’s more daring novels have taken on really interesting forms. Be it The Green Mile’s fragmented, serialised narrative; or the dual publication of The Regulators and Desperation – novels which featured the same characters in very different situations, with unsettling parallels between the stories that unfolded for them; or even Carrie’s mixed-media narrative, with sections of the story told as interview or newspaper extract. All of these novels have played with the way they’re presented on the page to find the perfect medium for telling those stories. Really, the lesson here from King is to not be afraid to play.
9. You don’t have to be yourself
Some of King’s greatest works in the early years of his career weren’t published by King himself. They were in the name of Richard Bachman, his slightly grislier pseudonym. The Long Walk, Thinner, The Running Man – these are books that dealt with a nastier side of things than King did in his properly attributed work. Because, maybe it’s good to have a voice that allows us to let the real darkness out, with no judgments. (And then maybe, as King eventually did in The Dark Half, it’s good to kill that voice on the page … )
10. Read On Writing. Now
This is the most important tip in the list. In 2000, King published On Writing, a book that sits in the halfway space between autobiography and writing manual. It’s full of details about his process, about how he wrote his books, channelled his demons and overcame his challenges. It’s one of the few books about writing that are actually worth their salt, mainly because it understands that it’s about a personal experience, and readers might find that useful. There’s no universal truths when it comes to writing. One person’s process would be a nightmare for somebody else. Some people spend years labouring on nearly perfect first drafts; some people get a first draft written in six weeks, and then spend the next year destroying it and rebuilding it. On Writing tells you how King does it, to help you to find your own. Even if you’re not a fan of his books, it’s invaluable to the in-development writer. Heck, it’s invaluable to all writers.
Season one of Dirk Gently except that, just beneath the surface, all of the psychic murder children are eldritch horrors.
They seem just a bit too interested when their gaze flickers over you, and there’s something almost predatory in their smile (even Dirk’s too-toothy grin). There’s something in Bart’s careless movements, and the Rowdy 3′s hive mind, and the way that bizarre and frightening states of disaster follow Dirk wherever he goes.
(Just before the breakout RIggins finds a book about cosmicism, finds a name for what he’s felt for years, the sense that ordinary life is a thin shell over a reality that is so
alien and abstract in comparison that merely contemplating it would
damage the sanity of the ordinary person.)
There’s a reason why Blackwing wants them all back so badly.
The Hannibal series on Netflix is amazing! I truly disliked most of the remakes and series released in the past 10 years, and finally decided to give this one a try… glad I did. It’s a twisted combination of my love for the culinary arts and my obsession of horror culture.
I’m a (recently finished first year) university student studying
psychology in Canada. I’m originally from Australia, but I moved here in
my early teens and absolutely adore it. I’m not really sure what all to
put here in all honesty, going off of what others have said about
themselves I s'pose it’s an open ended thing…
Mostly I’m just looking for a penpal or two to send snail-mail to, since
I thought that’d be pretty neat and I never got the chance to do that
as a kid. I’d love to have more friends from around the world also, I
have a bunch already but you can never have too many eh? Oh, and I
absolutely adore languages! Though unfortunately at the moment I only
speak English, understand basic french and speak incredibly basic
German. Would love to get better at German though, and perhaps learn
other languages like Irish or Swedish. Particularly Irish, it’s just
such a wonderful language to listen to. But all languages are welcome if
you want to attempt to teach me it!
A couple of the things I enjoy include: kayaking, writing, classical
literature & modern, architecture, learning about different
cultures, horror movies & just most things unusual/spooky, anything
related to psychology, generally just rambling, all things creative, and
I genuinely enjoy listening to people talk about themselves or vent. A
couple of the more specific things I like, or rather fandoms and
whatnot, would probably be… Hannibal, Sherlock, The Strain, Game of
Thrones, The Vampire Chronicles, Kingsman Secret Service, and a bunch of
others! But I enjoy talking about anything and everything that you can
think of, so don’t feel like you have to stick to the above to get in
contact with me.
That’s about all I can think about… so shoot me a message on tumblr, instagram or email.
17+, I’d feel weird chatting with anyone younger.
I can only speak English for the time being so hopefully someone with
some degree of English abilities, perhaps we can help one another with
our respective languages aha.
Snail mail, email, or instant messenger all work.
Please don’t be close minded, I’m a trans guy on the LGBT spectrum so I
dunno how well our conversations would go if you weren’t open-minded;
and on that note… I am probably one of the most open-minded people
you’ll meet, so don’t be afraid to tell me anything!
(1/2) Hey Steph! This is a long ask, so feel free to take your time answering as I love your insights! I have two Q's actually. 1. Was TAB supposed to be a standalone? I heard that they lied and something about how it was vital that they showed it before S4, but in hindsight (tinfoil hat aside), I don't see any connections between the two? 2. What were your initial thoughts on the "I Love you" trailer before S4? Ik many use this as proof for queerbaiting, but as a casual viewer then, I...
(2/2) thought y’ll were ridiculous for believing that it’s John when he was clearly in the background. Ofc after rewatching the series with an open mind, I became aware of my own prejudice and am all aboard the Johnlock train now. But I would imagine that as a shipper then, my hopes would be gone after seeing that, not fuel confidence like it did for some. Ik it’s done and we know who it’s to, but I’m interested in hearing the insights from a Johnlocker at that time. Thanks! :)
Never a problem! I’ll try to answer as best I can!!
1. Ahhh, TAB is an episode I studied IMMENSELY. I love it so much. Mofftiss, before TAB aired, kept insisting that it was a standalone episode and had nothing to do with the current timelines. They also kept saying that “the time is right for us to do this” which had us believing that they were insistent in getting it out before S4, which is why a lot of us DIDN’T believe that the episode was standalone. Many thought it was important because it was foreshadowing the events to come and let us know what Sherlock knows and feels for John…. essentially, instead of trying to solve the mystery of Moriarty, he ended up rediscovering his own self, and finally learning to love and accept John into his life as an equal, not as someone he needs to protect and keep safe. The episode was a huge character-building episode for Sherlock specifically, and I personally think it’s one of the most important episodes of the series. Because “it’s all a dream”, it forces the audience to use metaphorical interpretations of Sherlock’s character and of the people around him, showing us what he knows and how to teach us to see below the surface and read the subtext.
Many people think that it is a “key” to understanding what the hell is going on in S4, and reveals to us that if something seems wrong in the Sherlock universe, then something most likely is. Some people have suggested that the “alternatively” that we have been flipped to in the opening credits is when a secondary timeline had started. I personally don’t think so, since so much character development happened on Sherlock’s part in TAB and to exclude it negates all that development he had. Plus everyone was very much in character, so I digress. I do believe, though, that Unreliable Narrator started in T6T’s D-Notice scene.
Regardless, TAB helps us understand how to read the subtext at a metaphorical level. So when we refer to “John’s TAB” we mean that John is also now having hallucinations of his own, and everything in TFP is all metaphorical like it was for Sherlock – Sherlock’s is Victorian and dramatic like him, and John’s is full of pop culture and horror tropes like the things he likes. In that sense, it makes TAB connected to S4, since it helps us uncover the subtext below.
Unfortunately, much of S4 is so inconsistent that I honestly have no idea how THAT season connects to the rest of the series, LOL. But if it is all a metaphorical season of a play-by-play of the events of the series so far, then I suppose it can work. It has been suggested that S4 is a “reverse” of the events that have happened so far, or a subtextual replay of the series. I can’t find the post at the moment, but it’s an interesting read.
2. Well, given what we thought was going to happen, and given the logical narrative next step in the chain, I as well initially thought it was finally Sherlock admitting his feelings, but upon sitting on it more, I then thought it was either blackmail and Sherlock was being forced to confess his feelings under duress, or it was a passcode. When Mark revealed that Sherlock was “speaking to a mirror”, I then thought it was going to be Molly, but it won’t be good. And lo and behold, what we got was the forced ILY that we did get, which was exactly an entire scene mirroring John, especially if it is in John’s head (she’s even wearing the same sweater that she wore when she was “being John” in TEH). It was baiting, though, especially since BBC themselves kept using it to boost the watch numbers (”who does Sherlock love?!?!!!111?”) and while I am glad that it wasn’t directed at John, I am horrified that it instead destroyed the character arc of Molly, who, in S3, “grew up” and it really seemed like she was done with Sherlock and finally understood he was gay and in love with John. The only way I can deal with it is with John’s POV / TAB reading of the episode: it’s how John has always viewed Molly, and this is his projecting his own fears of Sherlock’s “reciprocation of feelings” – as in he fears Sherlock will only say it because it’s what John wants to hear, and not mean it. It’s a very powerful scene at the subtextual level, but on the surface level, it’s very misogynistic (ie. woman being used only as a throw-away plot device and hopelessly in love with the male lead) and terribly drags Molly’s character through the mud. It makes me sad that many cannot see it as such.
As I’ve said numerous times, I’m 50 / 50 on S4. I cannot logically take it at face value simply because of how inconsistent and fucky it all is, and my brain just cannot understand how we went from TAB to S4 without either something happening in the interim, or there being a bigger plan in play, ie. TJLC. I still firmly believe Johnlock is endgame, but I also accept the very likely possibility that the series is over – I have to remain a bit skeptical since I am a creature of logic and because of the “finale” feel of TFP (ie. no cliffhangers) and the post-season interviews with the actors makes me think that it’s likely that it’s not really coming back. But I remain hopeful… I have too much fun doing what I do, and I thoroughly enjoy making people feel better about the series again, as best as I can.
PHEW! Sorry, I ramble a lot; seeing as you are a new Johnlocker I assume you’re also new to my blog and therefore have just discovered how long winded my responses can get when I am passionate about a topic! That all said, thank YOU for allowing yourself to at least give us the benefit of the doubt and understand where we were coming from – it’s all most Johnlockers and TJLCers ever ask for, to be honest. We aren’t trying to convert people, we just want people to understand how narrative structure and tools work, such as mirrors and subtext. I mean, I’m tickled pink that you are all aboard with us, and I am happy that you just watched the episodes through new goggles. Here’s a fun game, Nonny: Now that you have Gay Goggles™, rewatch all the episodes again, and then ESPECIALLY DIE at TSo3 (my Johnlock Enlightenment Episode®) – you’ll be kicking yourself once you realize how close to the surface it really all was and – if indeed S4 is the final season – you’ll understand WHY we call it all queerbaiting. It’s not even subtle in S3 especially, but yeah, it fucking HURTS to see how much they love each other and how hard Mofftiss just keep making them stay apart. It’s REALLY apparent in S4, like it looks like they’re doing everything possible to keep John and Sherlock apart because Ben and Martin can’t fucking stop making Goo Goo eyes at each other, LOL.
Anyway, TL;DR: 1) Surface level, no, it doesn’t really connect except as the “what happened on the tarmac” filler episode, but subtextually it is the key to the series as a whole. 2) Yes, it was baiting of all kinds, hetero and queerbaiting… sadly a lot of The Others didn’t see how fake that whole scene was and how much it dragged Molly, and I feel sad for them, genuinely, because what kind of standards for relationships do they have if they thought that scene was real and genuine? Sherlock clearly didn’t want to do it because it wasn’t true, and he cares for Molly very much as a friend and didn’t want to hurt her.
I hope I answered your questions alright! Cheers Nonny!