Stephen King’s 20 Writing Rules Reconsidered – Part 1

We open up a can of arrogance on Stephen King’s 20 Writing Rules.
Sometimes we like his advice…
Sometimes we don’t…
As always, we discuss why and why not.

Find the whole article here:

1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story. Your stuff starts out being just for you, but then it goes out.”
2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. The timid fellow writes “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, ‘Put it this way and people will believe you really know. ‘Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write ‘The meeting’s at seven.’ There, by God! Don’t you feel better?”
3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence “He closed the door firmly.” It’s by no means a terrible sentence, but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really has to be there. What about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before ‘He closed the door firmly’? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, then isn’t ‘firmly’ an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?”
4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.” “While to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.”
5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make him/her forget, whenever possible, that he/she is reading a story at all. “
6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”
7. Read, read, read. “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”

Truth, Lies, And Psychopaths

Need a bad guy for your novel?
No problem. Grab yourself a crazy, hell-raising, face-mask-wearing, serial killer psychopath.
Perfect. Right?

Maybe not.
For many reasons. Juliet and Jon discuss what psychopaths probably really are and why we write about them.

Podcasts that Jon mentioned in the show:

From Radio Lab several years ago:
This is more about the con artist Hope Ballantyne from the Radio Lab Story:
This is Actually Happening: 78: What if you narrowly escaped with your life?


Books about psychopaths that Jon liked:

Books Jon didn’t like as much:


How Many Exclamation Points Can Dance on the Page of a Novel?

Exclamation Points.
When you need to shout, scream, yell, and LOUDTALK!

How many should you have in your novel? 100? 200? 400? How about 649?

Jon shares an uneasy moment while editing the novel he’s working on, Loom, when he began to think, Hey how many exclamation points have I used here?

Juliet and Jon discuss how many exclamations are too many through the lens of several others novels. They discuss when to use them and when they can be edited out.

Novels mentioned in the show:

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Andy Weir’s The Martian

Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Examples in the Podcast from Jon Armstrong’s upcoming (and when he says upcoming, he means years from now):

“Ken!” I cried. “Shut up! Can you hear me? Ken? Please listen.”

“Ken,” I cried. “Shut up. Can you hear me, Ken? Please listen.”

Another Example:

“Stop it! Shut up!” Shouting made pain explode through me.

“Stop it. Shut up.” Shouting made pain explode through me.

“Stop it. Shut up!” Shouting made pain explode through me.



Write What You Know. But What Do I Know?

Writing teachers everywhere say, “Write what you know.”
Forget if it’s good advice—What do I even know?

In this show, the Js (writer Jon Armstrong and editor Juliet Ulman) talk about some examples of novels where maybe… just maybe the author didn’t know what he was writing about. How do we know what we know? And do we know anything?

In the show, Jon expressed concern about Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. (Amazon link)

A tweet from Paul Gilmartin was mentioned. (He is the host of The Mental Health Happy Hour):

Sara Zarr’s A Writer’s Life podcast was mentioned. Author Coe Booth offered advice to white authors writing characters of color.
A quote from Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love: (Amazon link)
“Look at you,” she says, “you big cross numpty, you.”

The Colors, Man. The Colors.

Juliet and Jon paint pictures with color words.

They discuss Ingrid Sundberg’s Color Thesaurus. It’s usefulness and limitations. They read some lovely sentences and tackle the difficult issue of skin colors.

Show Links:

Ingrid Sundberg’s Color Thesaurus

Josh Roby’s Handy Words for Skin Tones

Pantone Colors of Human Skin

7 Offensive Mistakes Well-Intentioned Writers Make

Fates and Furies: A Novel by Lauren Groff (Kindle Edition)

Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn (Kindle Edition)

The color image was lovingly swiped from Denise Rose.



Corpse of the Corpus

Jon and Juliet discuss some of the fantastic on-line tools for researching slang through time (among other things): Historical Dictionaries and—cue the dramatic music—The Corpus.


Links from the show:

Urban Dictionary (

On-line Slang Dictionary (

Historical Dictionary of American Slang (

What is a Corpus? Slides by linguist Jonathan Owen (

The Google Corpus or Ngram Viewer (


The Seven (Mostly Painful) Stages of Being Edited

Ever had your novel come back from an editor?
If you have, you will never forget.

Jon and Juliet break down the Seven Stages of Being Edited. And this showed is based on a blog post of the same name by editor Mike Pope. See the whole post here: The 7 Stages of Being Edited.

1) Shock
Red. Red everywhere. I feel like someone just kicked me. This was once a clean, beautiful manuscript, and now it’s awful, a horrible tangle of strikeouts and lines and margin notes. There’s hardly a sentence that hasn’t been hacked up, starting with the title!
2) Denial
This cannot be true. Surely this is some sort of mistake. I spent hours and hours on the document, and I read it over before I sent it to the editor. Some of these edits — well, I’m floored. There is no way that I said something that dumb! Or that I misspelled that word. Nuh-uh.
3) Anger
I’m starting to get irritated. What the — ? That’s a stupid edit. And so’s that one. Ha! That’s just wrong! Smartypants editors think they know everything! Well, let me just set that editor straight …
4) Despair
Gad. Look at this. I’ll never be a writer. What a disaster. Jeez, what if someone else sees this thing?!? I’ll probably get fired. Why did I ever think I could do this?
5) Acceptance
Well, I guess that that’s a good point. Hmm. Yeah, I can see that. I agree, that sounds better. Hmm. Hmm. Ok, I guess I’ll start here at the top …
6) Love
OMG, thank you so much for fixing this up. Holy cow, what if it had gone out without editing?!
7) Impatience
Hey, can I have that document back? I have a deadline, you know.

Italic—Good or Evil?

Italic? What’s the matter with italic? I use it everywhere!

Juliet and Jon discuss italic’s use in novels and YA novels. We have a little anecdote, a little history, a little caution, and a little advice. And none of those words should have been in italic. Including italic.


Profanity or Amateurfanity?

We cover all the letter-bombs…
from F to N.

Juliet and Jon discuss the use of profanity in novels and its use for specific characters. We also consider the four types of profanity, strengths, weakness, and the cultural trends.

During the show, Jon mentioned Benjamin Bergen’s book:

31FtFM59l8L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen
(Amazon link.)

Smart as hell and funny as fuck, this book explains why we can’t stop swearing and what it tells us about our language and brains.

Everyone swears. Only the rare individual can avoid ever letting slip an expletive. And yet, we ban the words from television and insist that polite people excise them from their vocabularies. That’s a fucking shame. Not only is swearing colorful, fun, and often powerfully apt, as linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows us, the study of it can provide a new window onto how our brains process language. How can patients left otherwise speechless after a stroke still shout out “Goddamn!”? Why did Pope Francis say “fuck” in the middle of a speech? When did a cock cease to be a rooster? Why is “crap” vulgar when “poo” is just childish? And what are we shooting when we give someone the bird?

What the F? Let me effing tell you.

Jon also mentioned that Benjamin Bergen appeared on a recent podcast. The show was Why Are So Many Swear Words Monosyllabic? on Slate’s Lexicon Valley.



The Next Chapter—Length and Title

Novels are made from them.
How long should they be?
What to call them?

Juliet and Jon discuss chapters. How long should they be? What about chapter titles?

It turns out Jon had considered—at least for a time—the worst chapter name in the history of the multi-verse for one of the books he’s working on.


Bonus images. After Juliet’s help, here’s the before and after from Jon’s murder mystery:


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