Advice from Stephen King that Writers Can Live Without

By , August 1, 2011 12:00 am


It is a well known fact at The Exception to the Rule that I long ago named Stephen King as my literary idol.  I love him so much in fact, that when I was a teenager, I pooh-poohed reading The Poisonwood Bible because I had just picked up a copy of Cujo.  How I could resist the allure of Oprah’s Book Club sticker is beyond me!  (And yes, that is about as rebellious as I was in high school.)


It was also during my high school years that King wrote On Writing.  My Christmas list that year included On Writing, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Bonne Bell lip gloss, and the Backstreet Boys “Black & Blue” album.  My dad dutifully typed the list into his Palm Vx for safe keeping, and I received everything I wanted.


"Indie Angst" by MMRule


Naturally on Christmas Day, with Bonne Bell on my lips and the Backstreet Boys flowing out of my Discman, I sat down and started reading On Writing by tree light.  I was going to be an author, goshdarnit, and Stephen King was going to tell me how.


Now that over a decade has passed since that Christmas, I have a novel+ under my belt and am getting my feet wet in the querying kiddie pool.  I have also realized that I am not Stephen King, and not everything he told me is going to work.


2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%


King didn’t come up with this equation by himself.  It is advice that an editor wrote on the bottom of a rejection slip during his early days, and it in part helped his writing evolve to legendary status.  But as of today that advice has not helped me, and it likely will also not help you.




Super star blogger Nathan Bransford mentions in this post on word count that many aspiring novelists produce staggering drafts that pass 100,000 words and keep going.  I, on the other hand, am not alone in completing a draft at 70,000+, fearing that I didn’t write everything I should have.


Subtracting 10% of your draft isn’t going to help your work in progress if you struggle with these length issues, or if you have an appropriate amount of words but wrote 50% action and 50% boring backstory that no one but you cares to read.  I suggest a different approach to the equation.


2nd draft =

1st draft – Everything that isn’t Important + Everything Important You Forgot to Include

(Repeat until your draft is an appropriate word count for a debut novel in your genre.)


Is this formula too vague for you?  It should be vague!  King’s advice works best for someone who can already tell a damn near perfect story, but who at times includes too much detail.  However, that is not my problem, and it likely isn’t yours.  Part of the work that distinguishes a writer from an author is the ability to self diagnose.  To critically think about a work in progress and keep pushing it until it stands alone.  Being an author means that you write something that has a backbone because you built it from your labor and desire to improve.


Stephen King found the editing method that worked for him, and now it is your turn to tear through your work in progress and find what works for you!  Plug those plot holes, evolve your characters, and have the courage to write your own equation for success.


Help get the conversation started at The Exception to the Rule by posting your equation for the perfect 2nd draft as a comment for this article.  Happy writing!


19 Responses to “Advice from Stephen King that Writers Can Live Without”

  1. Nancy Kelley says:

    Very, very good point. I write very short first drafts, because I blaze through them, NaNo style. My first round of editing always involves fleshing things out, adding subplots, and explaining why this character did that thing.

    2nd draft = (1st draft – dead end story lines) + (subplots * dramatic irony) / (physical description)2

    Yep, that looks about right.

    • MMRule says:

      I find that I’m going back through my WIP and adding subplots too. Your writing process reminds me of the snowflake method, which I expect I will use when I plan my next novel. Thanks for submitting your equation! I’d guess by your use of parentheses that you know more math than I do ;-)

  2. I guess my two cents doesn’t concern editing per se, but a way to reduce the amount of revising and editing you have to do. I think that, for a novel, you should outline, outline, outline! That way, you can smooth out any plotholes as they develop, have a strong framework, and determine early on if the work is even worth devoting the amount of time it takes to write 60k words.

    I haven’t taken my own advice for novels, and that’s why mine always implode 30k words in. Now, if they can’t even make a decent outline, I figure the ideas can’t sustain a novel. Saves me a lot of time, effort, and disappointment.

    So, I guess if I were to give an equation, the amount of time spent outlining is inversely proportional to the amount of time spent editing. So, the less you outline, the more you edit. And vice versa.

    I’ll let you know if my hypothesis actually works, haha

    • MMRule says:

      I find your point about outlining to be especially interesting because I outlined nothing for my novel! I started with an idea about what would happen to one character during the beginning, middle, and end of the book, and I just went for it. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I spend about 90% of my free time editing my WIP, so I think that outlining must cut back on editing time. Thanks for commenting :)

      • I always started with a general idea, but it hasn’t worked. So, time for a different approach. I got the notion from Terry Brook’s book on writing called “Sometimes the Magic Works” (or something on that order – forget the exact title.)

        He even talks about Stephen King in the book, and says that while it’s great that he can write without an outline, most of us mere mortals can’t without tripping over our own feet. Brooks has ten words for writing success:

        Read, read, read; outline, outline, outline; write write write; repeat

        He outlines so extensively that he does 1 draft, then 1 rewrite, and that’s it. The power of outlining right there haha

  3. David Nelson says:

    I didn’t outline the first book until I was more than half way through it but because it involved terrorists, I had to in order to keep it straight. It did work too to help move things along but it also hindered the creative process sometimes when I was avoiding things that weren’t in the outline. When I realized that I was able to self correct and use the outline for what it really was, just an outline.

    • MMRule says:

      Excellent point that an outline is just that! Although I had to go back and do quite a bit of editing after my first draft, I valued the way my characters did as they pleased and took the story in directions I could never have expected. My second draft required more structure due to the time frame of the story, and that is where more of an outline would have helped earlier.

  4. Angela says:

    I saw your tweet about this post, and I knew I had to check it out, especially since I am from the Stephen-King-can-do-no-wrong camp ;o)

    I agree with almost everything in “On Writing,” but you are so right about the 10% rule! If I took out 10% of my current WIP, I’d be in trouble–it’s only 55,000 as it is (it’s YA, but still . . .). I’m also realizing that I have some loose-ends that require MORE detail, so I’m thinking my word count might actually get pumped up a bit more.

    Great post!

    • MMRule says:

      Thanks! It isn’t easy to turn away advice from King :) It seems like many people agree with you that a second draft requires adding/beefing up sub plots, and you will end up adding to your word count in the end.

  5. Stephan Loy says:

    My advice for managing that second draft: don’t forget that there’s a third draft, and a fourth, and… My first published book, Last Days and Times, went through five drafts of add, subtract, add, subtract, refine. I finally published it when I found I was mainly just moving commas around.

  6. Amy says:

    Besides the excellent advice, what fantastic comics! All around the best.

  7. Jeff Greene says:

    This is a bit tongue in cheek (but just a little) because this is what I am going through at the moment.

    2nd draft = 1st daft minus the crappy scenes and minus the MC who walked around like a wet noodle add to the 1st draft brilliant writting yet to be discovered.

    Very good post.

  8. In my first book the editor at the time complained that a scene of particular importance had no point to it and should be cut. Instead I wrote lots of new text which illustrated the relevence and importance of the scene.
    My flaw is that I write too little, expecting readers to make the same conceptual leaps that I make. My editors point these out and I add text to fill in those gaps. I rarely have to remove text, except in the case of my first novel where that same first editor somehow missed over 20K of unnecessary verbiage, which I removed on my own initiative for my second editor.

  9. J.J. Lancer says:

    >>”King’s advice works best for someone who can already tell a damn near perfect story”

    Oh boy. I agree with you 150% on this statement. King is a good writer, that’s for sure, but I find that a lot of his advice is not that great for beginner writers.

    I think your revision to his rule is fantastic. Much better. :)

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