The Deliberate Rise of Stephen KingJune 1st, 2013 · 27 comments
On Reading On Writing
Every few years I re-read On Writing, Stephen King’s professional memoir. It helps me reorient to the reality of becoming better at creative endeavors.
Here’s King, talking about his initial efforts to publish his short stories in magazines:
“When I got my rejection slip…I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor [phonograph]…and poked [the rejection slip] onto to the nail…By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging.”
It would be another ten years before King sold his first novel, Carrie.
The obvious lesson of this story is that King wrote a lot before he became good. The visual of rejection slips filling a spike is vivid.
But there are two other important elements lurking, uncovered only with a deeper reading of On Writing.
First, King didn’t just write, he tried to get people to pay for his writing, by submitting it to magazines. The nice thing about money (as I elaborate in SO GOOD) is that people don’t like to give it up. Therefore, when you ask people to give you money in exchange for your product, you’re going to get brutally honest feedback.
Second, King was careful to always aim above, but just barely above, his current skill level. His first published story was in a fanzine — the 1960’s version of a blog. He moved from fanzines to second-tier mens magazines like Cavalier and Dude. After he cracked that market he moved on to top-tier mens magazines and top-tier fantasy and science fiction publications. Only once he could consistently hit those targets did he succeed in selling his first novel to Doubleday.
Let’s step back and summarize these key points of King’s training: lots of practice, driven by honest feedback and challenges just beyond his current skill level.
King’s rise to writing fame is a perfect case study of deliberate practice in action.
(Photo by snck)