Writing is not a unique skill. Let’s put it as bluntly as a well-worn HB pencil: anyone can write as long as they are capable of stringing a few words into a reasonable sentence, and piecing these sentences into a story.
The art of writing, however, is a different story (pun intended) altogether.
I have my own quirks when it comes to translating loose thoughts into words, gleaned mainly from experience. I do not mimic my writing style after specific authors. But there are novelists whose works I respect immensely, and Stephen King might just sit atop the throne of that list.
I have learnt much from the man who authored masterpieces like Misery, Carrie, and more recently, Finders Keepers, sequel to the electric page-turner Mr Mercedes. His oddball mix of dark humour and contemptuous observations are aspects I love most.
Before I digress with his enviously elongated bibliography, let’s dive into my take on the do’s and don’ts of writing, peppered with reflections from the master of horror himself.
1. Get Your Basics Right
When I started out as writer seven years ago, I made several gaffes as expected of one still wet behind the editorial ears. I tried too hard. I inserted every ostentatious word I knew — sometimes with the help of a thesaurus — into every other sentence I wrote. After two editors raised the alarm, I knew I was adopting the wrong approach. So I threw out that attitude and started from scratch. Writing plainly and coherently, I discovered people were able to better appreciate my works.
2. You Can’t Please Everyone
This insight of King resonated with me. See, I used to worry about other people’s perceptions a lot. Will my upbeat review of Brand A’s product, for instance, antagonise fanboys of Brand B? Are my views offensive? Thankfully, I soon realised that if I write objectively, honestly, and with a measured sprinkling of tact, no-one can accuse me of a heinous crime. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered anyway,” King pens in his fantastic memoir, On Writing.
3. Take Your Writing Seriously
“Come to it any way but lightly. If you don’t want to take your writing seriously, close the book and do something else,” King observes. Pretty self-explanatory. To add, even if the story does not carry your name in the byline, my advice is to approach each article you write with respect and gravity. Spill the words first, sure. But then refine it, and then go back and polish it again. Crosscheck your facts if factual references are involved. In other words, honour your efforts as a writer.
4. The Third Eye
Make it a point to reread your works from the reader’s perspective before you turn the copy over for publishing. If you have to revisit a sentence to make sense of it, chances are the reader will as well. Tear it apart and reconstruct it if need be. King certainly does. At the end of On Writing he even includes a first draft of a chapter, complete with all the scribbles, deletions and tweaks that even pros find necessary. In this perennial dance of clarity and penmanship, it pays to remember: the reader is always king.
So now that’s we have established those rules, do you want to master horror writing? Follow Stephen King’s lead and master the three types of terror:
1. The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs. It's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.
2. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around. It's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worst one…
3. Terror: when you come home and notice everything you own has been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there.