You’re not Stephen King


I think one day, you totally can be as great or even better. Here’s why I’m saying this to you right now. Someone stumbled on an article about common mistakes new writers make — mistakes that make it really easy for editors to toss you into the no pile — and she was incensed. I’ll just let you read the email I got.

… With all due respect I have to say that I disagree with a few of them, especially #2. Stephen King uses italics all the time. And I have to say, I’ve heard of Stephen King. Before I saw your blog post on Pinterest I’ve never heard of you.

I am insulted!


Catch that? I get a lot of emails disagreeing with me — particularly my thoughts on why you need to stop worrying so much about f&^%ing backstory and why you shouldn’t base your characters on real people (for no other reason than that you may get sued and you might very well lose) — but they’re rarely such strong insults covered in such thin veils.

But let’s just ignore the insult for a minute.

My response, as polite as I could make it, was — hey, you’re not Stephen King. That goes for everyone. I’m not saying you’re not as talented or capable or hard working or that his level of success is out of your reach. What I’m saying is that Stephen King has reached a level of success where he is working with a different set of rules. Maybe that’s not fair, maybe we should all be judged on the same playing field. But the reality is, we’re not.

Here’s why I wrote that post, and why you should listen. As a new, unproven or working your way up the ladder writer, you have a lot of obstacles in your way. Maybe you’ve got an agent, or you’re trying to get an agent. Lets go with that. You’ve queried an agent open to unsolicited submissions from new writers and they’ve requested your manuscript. Awesome. Go you. That’s amazing. Celebrate.

That agent now has your manuscript to read and maybe tons and tons more. More from her own clients, more from submissions, more from referrals, etc. What I’m saying is that she’s busy. And to get through her submissions, she’s going to look for reasons — any reasons — to say no.

Here’s a really hard truth. When I was editing, I almost always made up my mind about a manuscript — that is, I got to ‘no’ — in the first few paragraphs. Because I’m a sap I almost always forced myself to read the first 10 pages, definitely the first 5, but not once did the additional reading ever change the ‘no’ I reached early on into a ‘yes.’

(a lot of early ‘maybes’ definitely got to ‘no’ in those additional pages, but that’s another issue).

Got that? See how quickly your dream can be killed by someone as heartless as me? Really, it’s not that I’m heartless or that your dream agent or editor is either, it’s that most times, the only way to manage the workload is by looking for quick reasons to say no. To clear the plate.

What kinds of things made me say no? The kinds of things in the article my email friend was so upset about. And it’s going to work the same way for agents and managers and editors who are way way busier than I ever was. I met a manager about a month ago who told me if he gets to the ‘no’ in the first page, he’s done. He won’t read on.

So the key is you have to put that ‘no’ off for as long as possible. You can do that by not making the mistakes I list in my article. Not because they’re mortal sins, but that because they set you apart. That by not doing them you take away a few more reasons that agent or editor can use to say ‘no.’ Remember, we want to avoid that no for as along as we can.

Back to that email.

I think that aspiring writers cripple themselves by blindly following this rule or that. For every person online who has the opinion that you should never used “said” or an adverb I can easily find three or four who do and who use it quite successfully.

I’m not sure how writers cripple themselves by following this rule or that. Most bad writing I’ve seen has been because the writers didn’t take the time to learn the rules in the first place. Like grammar. (And to make the point clear, I don’t think many people tell you to “never” use an adverb. Part of the skill in writing is to learn how to use modifiers with precision and punch and that usually means sparingly).

But what I want you to take a way here is that when you learn and honor the rules, you’ll figure out ways to break them spectacularly — but first you’ve got to learn them. Too many writers try to skip that part. They want to do what Stephen King does when they haven’t put in the work Stephen King has.  Trust me, it doesn’t do you any good. It just gives one more gatekeeper a reason to tell you no.

I believe that a writer has to find a style that suits him or her. Otherwise, what’s the point? Writers (aspiring or otherwise) are a notoriously neurotic bunch who can be very hard on each other. I have many writer friends who fret and obsess over every writing rule they see when they should just sit their butts down in the chair and write. Polishing comes later.

I hope by now you’ve caught on to the glaring lack of self-awareness in my friend here. She’s worried that writers are “very hard on each other” and she’s telling me this in an email that she opened by trying to insult me. And that lack of self-awareness is the problem in a lot of writers, “aspiring or otherwise.”

And the point about sitting down and writing is a good one, but why is that exclusive of learning how to write well as you do it? If you have a better handle on the logic here, email me and let me know.

By the way, the rule she was so upset about, the one where I say you should ditch all the italics in your manuscript. It’s not mine. It comes out Garner’s Modern American Usage, the guy who wrote the grammar-and-usage chapter in the Chicago Manual of Style. If you don’t want to listen to me, maybe at least listen to him.

Not sure my email friend had heard of him either, though.

Guys, one day, I know many of you will be very, very successful. And that’s what I want for all of you. So we’re not Stephen Kings yet, 99.99999 percent of the population isn’t. I’m not saying that to put anyone down. I’m saying it so you can gain some insight and position yourself, so you can become aware of your current tier and play accordingly. Give yourself every advantage. There’s a time for major rule-breaking and some of the most creative, brilliant people do it all the time to great success. The submission stage for an unpublished manuscript from an unpublished, unknown writer might not be the best place to flout standards.

Good luck 🙂