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Stephen King Was Wrong

August 7, 2015
If you're going to criticize Stephen King, don't use any adverbs to do it. (image via Wikimedia)

If you’re going to criticize Stephen King, don’t use any adverbs to do it. (image via Wikimedia)

When it comes to writing, I expect Stephen King to know what he’s talking about.  He’s published more books than just about anyone (except maybe James Patterson), and almost everything he writes turns into a best-seller.  He could rewrite the phone book, and it would be a best-seller.  His collection of short stories Different Seasons is still one of my favorite books ever.

Stephen King has written a lot of advice about writing that I agree with.  He doesn’t like adverbs ( “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”), and I can understand why, though I think the adverb gets criticized too much.

He also says that writers need to read a lot (“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”), which makes a lot of sense.  But there’s one Stephen king statement about writing that is absolutely wrong.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

I don’t know.  I just finished writing something, and I was a lot more scared after I was finished with it than I was when I started.  Beginning a project is fun, with lots of optimism and initial excitement, but finishing a writing project is scary.

So many bad things from a writer’s point of view can happen after you finish something.  Your writing can be ignored.  Commenters can tell you that you suck.  The worst is when nobody reads your work, but commenters still tell you that you suck.

20 years ago when I was involved with several writers groups (this was before blogging was invented), the most nerve-wracking part of the week was when my writing was about to be critiqued.  Feedback can be brutal.  It’s scary.  To me, it’s the scariest part of the process.

When I say the “scariest” part, I don’t mean that I’m frightened.  I’m not “scared” when I publish something on Dysfunctional Literacy.  I don’t quiver with fear in the middle of the night.  I don’t scream at sudden noises.  I just mean that I’m tense about it.  I think that’s what Stephen King means about “scariest” too, and I don’t want to quibble with him about word choice, especially since he’s an accomplished writer.

Maybe Stephen King really does get scared just before he starts.  Maybe he doesn’t care about feedback or sales anymore.  After all, he’s accomplished more than any author could ever expect to.  He could stop right now, never write another word, and he still would be considered one of the most prolific U.S. authors ever.  Maybe that’s what Stephen King is scared of, that moment when he’s ready to start and then he can’t think of anything.  For a writer like Stephen King, not being able to think of anything would be the worst thing to happen.  That would be the scariest moment, the time when you’re not sure if you can think of anything to write.

But I don’t believe that applies to most writers.  I think the scariest moment is feedback.

Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe I have no business telling Stephen King that he’s wrong about anything, especially writing.  Maybe I’m the only aspiring writer who thinks finishing is the scariest part.  Maybe I’m way off on this and am too narrow-minded to see it.

Or maybe I’m right, and Stephen King is wrong.  Stephen King writes about a lot of stuff.  He writes his opinion about movies, other books, and even political issues like gun control.  If Stephen King is wrong in his own field of expertise, what else is he wrong about?

When you’ve been proven wrong once, that’s it; you’re completely discredited in everything else for the rest of your life.

Just so you know, I was kidding in the previous sentence, but sometimes people can’t tell when I’m being sarcastic.  My monotone voice carries over into my writing sometimes.

*****

What do you think?  What is the scariest moment in the writing process?  Is it the moment just before you start?  Or is it when you finish/publish?  Or do you think another moment in writing is the scariest?  When a person has been proven wrong once, is that person’s opinions about everything else discredited forever?  Do other people sometimes think you’re being serious when you’re really being sarcastic?

*****

Reading this story in front of my tenth grade English class was far scarier than any part of writing it.

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49 Comments
  1. I think you are right but I don’t have a scary moment anywhere in the book. The book ideas flow like water through my mind but nothing before starting the book because the first two chapters are always written for me.

    • I like that your first two chapters are usually written for you. I usually have to start in the middle (that’s the part that’s usually written for me) and then branch out in both directions, filling in the gaps.

      If we could find a third writer who always has the ending written for him/her, we could work together and the whole thing would be done without any effort.

  2. Bailey Jackson permalink

    To me the scariest part is when I get about 4 chapters in and the excitement wears off. It’s usually around then that I realize I have no idea what I’m doing…

    • Oh yeah, I didn’t even think about that. That’s a lousy feeling, way worse than that moment when we start.

      • At that point you continue. If you’re aware, you realize you didn’t know what you were doing initially, and the next 20,000 words are what you’re writing about.
        The fallacy is that the great writers wrote great books from word one. Nope. They figured them out as they went along, frequently revising extensively after finishing.

  3. francescalee12 permalink

    Hmmm, the scariest part is when I start feeling like I’ll never finish something. I’ve been mentally exhausted after dealing with a certain piece for too long to the point of hating it. Not fun at all.

  4. By the time I’m done, I know I will have worked as hard as I can to make it good. At that point, I welcome feedbac and constructive criticism. Starting is definitely the scariest part.

    • I’m similar to you in that I welcome feedback, but the moment before the initial feedback, I get a little tense. At least, when I was in writer’s groups, I did. I had a couple “interesting” feedback experiences in writer’s groups. Online, it’s usually a lot easier.

  5. Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel permalink

    There is nothing scary about writing at all. Politicians, on the other side, can kill you.

  6. My scariest moment is when I lose all perspective on my story and start to feel like it’s all gone to crap, no one is gonna want to read it ever, and I’m wasting my time. Probably the real reason I’ve never completely finished a novel revision. (I’ve written 5 complete rough drafts though)

  7. As I’m about to start submitting my manuscript to agents, I’m finding that pretty terrifying. What if I send it out to every possible agent, to every publishers’ open submission opportunity and am rejected by each one?
    Well, then I guess I can self publish.
    Either way I will get published, but then what? When my little darling is out there, scanned by the cruel, critical eyes of the reading public what will happen? Will they find my characters flat and lifeless? The plot full of holes, weak, lacking in thrills? Will I get trolled to within an inch of my life?
    And yet I’m still determined to publish.
    What kind of masochistic maniacs are we writers?

    • You’re right. Submitting manuscripts to agents can be pretty scary, especially when the self addressed stamped envelope comes back (I got a lot of those back in the 1990s), but Stephen King hasn’t had to do that for a few decades, so he might have forgotten what it’s like.

      • Haha, true. It’s a really harsh game, isn’t it? I’m sure I’ll start the process very chipper, very hopeful, remaining bouyant through the first few returns. My smile may start to drop as the rejection pile climbs well over double figures, though 🙂

  8. girlunoccupied permalink

    I agree. It’s not beginning that’s the scary part. It’s 1) keeping going and 2) having others read your work.

    • I wonder if Stephen King has those issues anymore. I wonder what Stephen King would be like getting criticized in a writer’s group. That might make a good story.

  9. i think both the beginning and the ending is scary or is it scary when you have started something and you get stuck in-between and don’t know how to proceed further?? or is it when you want to be an amazing writer and you and people around u believe that you have it in you to be a great writer but you have no clue where to begin?? i would say people who were discredited should always be given another chance as we do not know what made them to take the incorrect judgement but in general the society can be brutal and will jump at any chance to stereotype a person.

  10. I have downloaded your book and yet to read it

  11. Anonymous permalink

    Well, at the moment I have more academic stuff to write at the cost of time for fiction, but to me, there are “brackets” of angst – when I am supposed to begin the writing part and when I am supposed to hand the paper in. Then months later, when I am about to get the rating and after getting the rating.
    But hey, we’re talking about feelings here; only way to get objective would be to find out, what most people are regularely scared of. But what would be the point of that? Mr. King has his scary valley, everyone else have their own. The interresting point, I guess, is: How to cope with it?
    (E.g. I found a method I call “rubbish and repair”: 1st I write the pure content without any regards for style, formal standards, esthetics etc. even to the point of including vulgarisms (feels so liberating). Then, 2nd step: When the content is there, I can care for style etc. and make the text readible for decent, civilised persons.
    It works for me, because this way the two main problems of writing – “what to say” and “how to say it” – are seperated and don’t jam each other.
    Downside: I need make sure to revise the work really thoroughly – nothing’s as awkward as having swear word in a supposedly scientific text.)

    Aaaand yep: In talking I seem to appear that overall serious, most of my jokes go unnoticed.

    • I like the idea of the “rubbish and repair” method.

      My favorite science texts are the ones with swear words in them, but I don’t read a lot of science texts.

  12. I think it differs from person to person. And expectation (dreams, goals, ambitions etc) to expectation.

  13. Editing over and over again, developmental hell:)

    • Do you ever get the “Not again!!” moments, where you think you’ve refined a piece, come back, and realize that you need to edit it all over again?

      I think that’s worse than knowing ahead of time that a piece needs editing.

  14. Was this from On Writing? I just started reading that. 🙂 Not having read it though I would say that there is a difference between being scared/anxious/nervous at some point in the writing process, versus those same feelings when trying to become an author. Anyone can become a writer – not everyone gets to become an author.

    • I think most of the Stephen King’s quotes originally come from On Writing, but I usually see them on websites that have famous quotes. I agree with your distinction between anxiety in the writing process and anxiety in trying to become an author.

  15. I agree with you, I love all the possibilities that come with a whole new project! It’s exciting to start something new, and I’ve started things on occasion just for the excitement or to get them out of system. It’s invigorating, and I love brand new notebooks for that very reason.
    I haven’t had a really scary moment with ‘Rise of the Sparrows’ yet, but I imagine it will be at some point while I edit the first draft when I realise that everything I’ve written is crap 🙂

  16. I think he means that starting is the scariest part because there is probably a time in your life when you LOVED writing and felt it was magic, and what if you get started and nothing happens. Does that mean the magic is dead? Dead magic is really, really scary.

  17. I never find starting scary. Starting is a world of possibilities, a world I am in charge of. It’s amazing and freeing almost. Finishing, having no one like it, or no one even bother to read it-I agree that is knee quaking, nerve fraying, fear.

  18. I agree that feedback is scary, but for me, the scariest part is in the middle of the story when I run out of steam or start to doubt myself. I find myself wondering if it’s all complete crap, if I should just scrap it, where is the story going, etc.

  19. I believe the scarriest part of the writing process is how you enter the deepest parts of your mind trying to compose something

  20. Absolutely the finished product is the scariest! There’s always the nagging doubt that I could have said something a bit differently, used a different phrase or word, changed something around. Even after several drafts, I’m always afraid I could’ve done something, ANYTHING, different!

  21. lexc13 permalink

    Posted very similar thoughts on my blog recently. Don’t see why starting is scary or hard.

  22. I know that Stephen King is fashionable. Whether warranted or not, he is not the best. Mark Twain is much better. 125 years ago he was giving the advise King is repeating today. Begin with The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper.

    • When Mark Twain gave writing advice, there was usually a little humor to it. Stephen King’s quotes seem serious, unless there’s humor there and I’m missing it. Maybe Stephen King was kidding in On Writing, and the quote is taken completely out of context.

      • King tells it like it is, but his message is convoluted. His book has little organization for the novelist. Although all writers should approach the art independently, it is helpful to read someone else’s approach to art and how he has made himself perform within the art.

  23. For me it’s when I’m done and no one reads or critiques it. We all love feedback, any kind of feedback. When you don’t get anything it kind of makes you think no one got what you wrote or cared enough to tell you how it made them feel or how they thought of it. Starting is the easy part, it’s publishing that’s hard.

  24. The scariest moment for me was when I don’t know what the next “scene” is. I totally lost it, though I know how it will end. I have my fair share of books that have read, and there are times when I twist the story in my mind. That gave me the idea to write my own. I knew how to start the story, but after five chapters, I asked myself “Ok, what’s next?” Then I don’t know what to do anymore. Right until now, I haven’t started the next chapter of my story. 😥

  25. I agree and disagree with you there! Stephen King is an amazing writer but subject to doubts and fears, don’t forget if it wasn’t for the support of his wife Carrie would not have been published and in my opinion that was an amazing book! So the “scariest moment” is different for every writer! I find every page scary but I have to power through it if I every want to finish my book! Don’t be so quick to judge others without judging yourself first!

  26. I am not an accomplished writer, but I do write for myself; poems, stories and such. I agree with SK – the scariest moment is before I put anything on paper. I FEEL like I need to write, but I haven’t a clue what I’m going to write about….or even what format. It’s pretty scary. But once I decide that it doesn’t matter what I write as long as I live in the moment, I’m no longer scared and the words just flow. At the end, when it’s critiquing time, I rarely get nervous. Instead, I just know I did what I wanted/needed to do… all that’s left is hearing the suggestions of other people, which I can ignore if I chose to. It’s my writing, the second words hit paper I claimed it, so there’s no fear. For me, the uncertainty of what is to come is scary — once it comes (or even if it suddenly stops), doesn’t matter to me. And I don’t care if anyone likes it or doesn’t like it. All that matters is that it means something to me. So I think he’s right.

    As for your other questions: sarcasm is sometimes incredibly difficult to register via written text. I have found that, although they’re irksome, emoticons/emoji can portray sarcasm; as can a notation at the end of the sentence, although I think that’s a little more obscure than a properly placed emoji {sarcasm}. And everyone has the right to be wrong. Being wrong is not akin to bearing a scarlet letter — it should not forever scar you and have all of your future ideas ignored. I mistake is a mistake is a mistake. Everyone makes them. Everyone is wrong at least once in their lives. It shouldn’t have any effect on the rest of one’s life. There are, of course, exceptions, like science and math: if you’re wrong once, it doesn’t mean you’ll always be wrong, it just means that you need to take extra steps to ensure you’re right in the future. As far as SK saying the hardest part is starting, can you even really say that’s wrong? For him (and me) it’s the scariest part of writing….many others disagree…. but those others also disagree with each other. There are many steps involved in writing a book, and any one of those steps could be terrifying for someone who is writing a book. SK’s not wrong; he just has a different fear than yours so you personally cannot relate. It’s not wrong, it’s not a lie, it’s not a half-truth: it’s reality for him. You state that you find the critiquing part scary; SK and I don’t agree….does that make you wrong? And if being wrong discredits you for life, then why write or even communicate with anyone at all? There’s always the chance that what you say can be considered “wrong” to the listener. So why put your reputation on the line? Why communicate at all?

  27. I agree with Stephen King. Yes, I am a huge fan of his and love his book, On Writing. The scariest part of me is starting, wondering if I am going to hit the roadblock that I hit every time, will I be able to finish what I have started, and will people like what I have written.

  28. Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    I’ve only read a little Stephen King.

    I thought he was a good writer.

    But, writers can be wrong, even about themselves…

  29. Stephen King is my favourite author because I can remember his stories and I forget most of what I read.
    As for scary – the start isn’t scary at all, the middle can be scary if you feel you have taken the wrong path and have to change it but, for me, the worst time is when I read the published book and find an error.It might be a space in the wrong place or a ‘his’ instead of a ‘her.’ but it has been missed in the proof reading and I get upset (until I realise I can’t do much about it)

    • OMG I KNOW! Currently, I’m reading a series by Jim Butcher. His stories are interesting and fun to read, but easy fodder, and fairly easy to forget entire portions of them. It’s nothing against him, it’s just that the only books regarding wizards to actually permeate my brain were the first few Potter books. Otherwise, I enjoy the ride, but since nothing spectacular happens (other than saving the world in every book), there’s nothing for my imagination to really grasp onto and hold in it’s mouth, if that makes sense. The books almost read as a demon-of-the-week kind of thing. They’re fun, and I would recommend them for some light reading; unless you have the issues you named above (which I have too). The point gets across, but I get hung-up on stupid misspellings on occasion, and it drives me crazy. “going” becomes “goinf” etc. I mean COME ON! You couldn’t press “spell-check” before sending it to your lazy editor?? And then once your lazy editor gets it, he can’t click it either? UGH! The other thing that drives me crazy is continuity errors, they always have, and these books have some of those too. I understand the author maybe missing them (you know, being busy writing them), but if the lazy editor read them, then they wouldn’t be there. Case in point, our hero comes home after a long day, removes his coat and puts it on a chair and puts his magical stick down in the corner by the front door. He then makes a phone call. At the end of the phone call he puts his stick down in the corner and takes his coat of and puts it on a chair. WHAT? Paragraph 1, he puts his stuff down, paragraph 2 he talks to whoever he’s talking to, paragraph 3, he puts his stuff down. That’s really just lazy editing. That’s all there is to that.

      In lighter books (like the series I’m referring to, or most of Laurel K. Hamilton books), I can get stuck on such things because they’re page turners but not something I’m sucked into. Other books, like The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons, a lot of Stephen King books, etc., there’s something about that kind of book that sucks me in like a black-hole. You could reread the same sentence 10x in the next 10 paragraphs, and it doesn’t bother me if he took his coat off 10x, or if ever other word is spelled like gibberish; the point is getting across, and the point is PERFECT. You won’t see or hear from me until the book is complete. But during these books, I audibly groan on occasion, or calmly put it down and explain to DH (who recommended them) that he should send a free-copy of a spell-check program to the authors LOL He just tells me to enjoy the books and goes back to his book. Such support! LOL

      • Thanks for your comment. It’s great to find someone who really engages with what I have written. I sometimes think blogging is a waste of time. Julie.

        • There’s always someone who engages with what you write, I’m sure. Maybe not in my case…. but for almost everyone else, I could say that I think it’s true LOL

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