Writing Advice from Stephen King & Jerry Jenkins

HOW DID THE TWO OF YOU MEET?

JENKINS: We happened to have the same audio reader, a brilliant voice actor named Frank Muller. In November 2001 Frank was in a horrible motorcycle accident that left him brain damaged, incapacitated and barely able to speak. One of Frank’s brothers started a foundation to assist with the obscene expenses, and Stephen became aware that I was helping out.

Stephen was carrying the lion’s share, undoubtedly contributing more than half of the total the foundation raised, but he called me one day to thank me for my part and to suggest other ways we might be able to help Frank. Needless to say, when my assistant told me Stephen King was on the phone, I quickly ran through my list of practical joking friends to decide how to greet whoever was claiming to be him. But, just in case, I said my usual, “This is Jerry.”

I had to squelch a laugh when he said, “Steve King.”

Who calls Stephen King “Steve”? Well, Stephen King does. We learned that we read each other’s stuff and laughed about being strange bedfellows. Then we agreed to [meet to] visit Frank at a rehabilitation facility.

YOUR WORKS ARE IN SOME WAYS POLAR OPPOSITES, BUT IN OTHER WAYS PARALLELS CAN BE DRAWN. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF EACH OTHER’S BOOKS? DO YOU IMAGINE YOU SHARE AN AUDIENCE?

KING: I got to know [Jerry] through the Left Behind series, which has a lot in common with The Stand—both are stories about the end of the world, with Christian overtones (mine has more four-letter words). While I’m not a big believer in the Biblical apocalypse and end-times, I was raised in a Christian home, went to church a lot, attended MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship—lots of Bible drills, which every writer could use, Christian or not), and so I knew the story. The Left Behinds were like meeting an old friend in modern dress. I very much enjoyed The Youngest Hero, which is a crackerjack baseball story written by a man who must be a serious stat freak. Jerry writes sturdy prose and plots well. He’s also warm and compassionate. Understands families inside and out. There’s a lot there to like.

JENKINS: Much of my audience tells me they read Stephen’s works. Others, of course, find horror horrifying, and some of his stuff pushes the envelope of comfort for them. Even for me, I lean more toward The Green Mile than, say, Carrie, but regardless of what one thinks of the genre, Stephen’s talent is no longer up for debate.

WHAT COMPELS YOU TO WRITE?

JENKINS: I write because I can’t do anything else. I like to say I don’t sing or dance or preach; this is all I do. But I [also] have a passion for my subject matter. I was a sportswriter as a teenager (after being injured playing sports), but felt called to full-time Christian work. I thought that would mean I’d have to give up writing and become a pastor or a missionary. I was thrilled to find out I could use my budding writing gift and accomplish the same thing.

KING: Jerry’s direct and correct: I can’t do anything else. And every day I marvel that I can get money for doing something I enjoy so much.

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO CONSIDER IN WRITING ABOUT BELIEF SYSTEMS AND OTHER THEMES THAT ARE INTENSELY PERSONAL TO YOUR AUDIENCE?

JENKINS: It’s one thing to preach to the choir, as we often say. It’s quite another to try to make a particular faith understandable, palatable and hopefully even attractive to the uninitiated or the patently hostile. I’d had some experience writing to a crossover audience (the general market) because I had done many sports personality books (Hank Aaron, Walter Payton, Orel Hershiser, Nolan Ryan, et al.), but when Left Behind crossed over in a big way, I quickly realized the spot I was in.

Here I was, writing fiction with an overtly Christian theme (the Rapture of the church at the end of time) to an audience that suddenly seemed to include everybody. I tried to remember always where my readers were coming from and to be sure to stay away from insider language.

Of course, the singular challenge I had was to allow the message to come through without letting it overwhelm the fiction. The story has to be paramount. Readers must fall in love with the characters and want to keep turning the pages. The minute your novel starts to read like a sermon, end of story.

KING: The old Robert (Psycho) Bloch witticism applies here: “Thou shalt not sell thy book for a plot of message.” Jerry said it, and I’ll double down: Story comes first. But—and I think Jerry will agree with this, too—what you write ought to be about something you care about. Why else would you spend all that time and expend all that effort?

WHAT ARE YOUR SECRETS FOR MAKING READERS SUSPEND THEIR DISBELIEF AND IMMERSE THEMSELVES IN YOUR IMAGINED WORLDS?

KING: Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. And I think Jerry would agree that belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything. Or a broken billboard. Or weeds growing in the cracks of a library’s steps. Of course, none of this means a lot without characters the reader cares about (and sometimes characters—“bad guys”—the reader is rooting against), but the details are always the starting place in speculative or fantasy fiction. They must be clear and textured. The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising.

JENKINS: Ironically, the definitions of nonfiction and fiction have flip-flopped these days. Nonfiction has to be unbelievable, and fiction has to be believable. So, to my mind, the task (and I agree with Stephen that it’s no trick) of getting readers to buy your premise and temporarily suspend disbelief is to yourself believe your premise with all your heart.

For me that meant that for the Left Behind series, I believed the biblical prophecies are true and will happen some day. Then I went about trying to show what it might look like, all the while owning it. When Stephen writes about what Edgar Allan Poe referred to as the phantasmagorical, I imagine him pecking away in the dark, all the while telling himself, “This could happen.”

As to why people like to escape into other worlds, that has to do with this world. People are longing for something beyond themselves and their current circumstances. They want either hope or escape—or both.

WHAT DO YOU THINK IT IS ABOUT YOUR BOOKS—AND EACH OTHER’S BOOKS—THAT KEEPS PEOPLE UP AT NIGHT? WHILE WRITING, DO YOU EVER FRIGHTEN YOURSELF?

JENKINS: From my perspective, Stephen’s gift is this incredible ability to recognize and exploit details of life and squeeze from them every ounce of meaning. I’m reading his N. right now and find myself constantly saying, “That’s how I would feel! That’s how I would say it!” (I’m speaking of identifying with the characters, not with the author. If I could say it the way Stephen says it, the Left Behind series would be just one of a string of megahits, rather than an anomaly in my career.)

As for frightening myself, it happens that by, in at least this sense, being part of the Stephen King school of fiction (trying to put interesting characters in difficult situations and writing to find out what happens) allows me to have the same emotions the reader will have. Since I write as a process of discovery—even though I know this is all coming from my subconscious—I am often surprised, delighted, scared, disappointed, saddened, etc., by what happens. If it’s serendipitous to me, it certainly should be to the reader, too.

At least it gives me an out when readers demand to know why I killed off their favorite character. I can say, “I didn’t kill him off; I found him dead.”

KING: I usually feel in charge. But not always. You know how Jerry says, “I didn’t kill him, I found him dead”? That does happen. It happened to me in Cujo when the little boy died. I never expected that. I wasn’t frightened, but I was sad when that happened. Because it seemed outside my control.

WHY DO YOU THINK THE BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL NEVER CEASES TO FASCINATE READERS? IN WHAT WAYS DOES IT CONTINUE TO FASCINATE YOU?

KING: The battle between good and evil is endlessly fascinating because we are participants every day. Sometimes we see it on TV, as in the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and sometimes we see it on the street, as when a big kid pushes a smaller one or some maladjusted individual indulges in a little drive-by harassment. We feel it when we’re tempted to skim a little money or do a little running around outside the relationship or participate in some deal we know damn well is skeevy. When evil is vanquished in a book, most of us feel cathartic triumph.

I think we’re also looking for strategies to use in our daily battle. And, let’s face it, we enjoy the conflict. That’s what makes pro football such a ratings wow, not to mention [pro] wrestling. And—rule of thumb—those of us who root for the “good guys” are probably well adjusted. But writers must be fair and remember even bad guys (most of them, anyway) see themselves as good—they are the heroes of their own lives. Giving them a fair chance as characters can create some interesting shades of gray—and shades of gray are also a part of life.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF WRITING FOR “CONSTANT READERS,” AS STEPHEN CALLS THEM? WHAT’S FUN ABOUT HAVING A DEVOTED FAN BASE?

JENKINS: Readers come to respect you, believe in you and set certain expectations for you. I always want each book to be better than the last, and sometimes readers want to stay where they’re comfortable. People still ask for more Left Behind books. Sixteen was plenty. I’d be surprised if people didn’t occasionally ask Stephen for sequels to some of his classics. But writers need to grow, too, and try new things.

Stephen, am I right? Do your fans obsess over the old stuff and want more of the same?

KING: They just want a good story, and I think they come to crave your voice even more than the story itself. It’s like having a visit with an old friend. As for revisiting old stories … I remember a very young fan in Houston (it was my first book tour) telling me that he loved ’Salem’s Lot and thought I should write “a squeal in that jenner.” After a moment of frantic cranial cogitation, I realized he was saying “a sequel in that genre.” I have thought of writing a “squeal” to one of my early books, mostly because I’ve never done it before.

JERRY, DO YOU WRITE FROM A PLACE OF UNCOMMON SPIRITUAL INSIGHT?

JENKINS: I wouldn’t say it’s uncommon spiritual insight, but it does come from a lifetime of belief. In many ways writing Left Behind, a story I had been telling since I was a teenager, felt right because I grew up in a tradition that believed it. I am neither theologian nor scholar, but I understand the story and am fascinated by it. When I assisted Billy Graham with his memoir Just as I Am, again, it felt right, as if I had been prepared for it by a lifetime of passion for the same tradition.

When writers “outside” the faith attempt to write about these same things, the base audience senses their disconnect and their discomfort.

STEPHEN, A LOT OF YOUR CONSTANT READERS SEEM TO THINK THAT, ON SOME LEVEL, YOU MUST BE CHANNELING SOME SORT OF OTHER WORLD ENTIRELY. IS THERE ANY TRUTH TO THAT?

KING: I have no particular spiritual insights, but I think every writer who does this on a daily basis has a “back channel” to the subconscious that can be accessed pretty easily. Mine is wide and deep. I never write with an ax to grind, but I sense strongly that this world is a thin place indeed, simply a veil over a brighter and more amazing truth. To me, every ant, cloud and star seems to proclaim that there is more to existence than we know. I suppose that sounds like naturism and pantheism, and to some degree it is, but I also believe in a power greater than myself. If I die and that turns out to be wrong, there’s this advantage: I’ll never know.

HOW HAS YOUR WRITING EVOLVED OVER TIME? IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU FEEL YOUR AUDIENCE HAS EVOLVED WITH YOU?

KING: For sure my audience has grown older with me, and to a greater or lesser degree, wiser. Certainly more sophisticated. I think I have a greater grasp on my narrative powers than I used to have (that’ll start to degrade in another 10 years or so, as the gray cells begin dying at a faster and faster rate), but I still refuse to recognize any limits to my gift. I think it’s important to keep on pushing the envelope. I also like to think that I’m being “discovered” by younger readers, but who really knows? Certainly I haven’t evolved as a writer by consciously trying to evolve; I just keep writing and hoping to find good new stories. In truth, I hardly ever consider the audience at all. And I don’t think it’s wise to. I have a built-in desire to please; that should be enough. Beyond that, I’m just trying to amuse myself. Usually that amuses others, too. Which makes me a lucky man. True for Jerry as well, I’d guess.

JENKINS: I hope my writing has become more spare and direct over the years. The longer I write, the less patient I am with needless words. That’s fortunate, because my audience has kept pace with the culture, in which technology has reduced us all to short attention spans and sound bites.

That said, a good book can’t be long enough for my taste. And a bad book can’t be short enough.

YOU’VE BOTH WRITTEN WITH CO-AUTHORS AND SEEN YOUR WORK INTERPRETED INTO FILM. WHAT IS MOST SATISFYING ABOUT SUCH COLLABORATIONS? WHAT’S THE WORST PART?

JENKINS: I don’t believe [I] can co-write fiction. At least, I wouldn’t want to try. I have such a great working relationship with Dr. Tim LaHaye because he serves as an idea person, a biblical and theological expert, and a great cheerleader. He doesn’t try to help with the writing.

KING: I’ve collaborated with two writers. Stewart O’Nan and I wrote a nonfiction book, Faithful (about the Red Sox), and I’ve written two related novels (The Talisman and Black House) with Peter Straub. I enjoyed the experience in both cases—enough so that Peter and I will probably write the third and last Talisman book in one or two years. Faithful was like a dual diary. With the novels, Peter and I got together and whammed out a “bible.” Then we took turns writing the story. The core story for Talisman was mine. The core story for Black House was Peter’s. I tried to write like him, he tried to write like me, and we met somewhere in the middle. Hey, I’m a go-along-to-get-along guy, not a lot of ego, and that made collaboration fairly easy. But I wouldn’t want to do it all the time; mostly I like having the playhouse to myself.

JENKINS: As for films, as I’m sure is true with Stephen, some I’m thrilled with, some I don’t even acknowledge. I was particularly happy with what Hallmark did with Though None Go With Me and what my own son Dallas (Jenkins Entertainment) did with Midnight Clear. Stephen, you’re on record for hating a lot of the film treatment of your work. Were there some you were happy with?

KING: Who gave you the idea I hate most of the film adaptations? There are at least eight really good ones, and the only one I can remember hating was [Stanley] Kubrick’s cold adaptation of The Shining; spending three hours watching an ant farm would be more emotionally uplifting. But the ones that are bad … I just laugh
and then forget them. I’m always interested in what happens, but my expectations are low, which makes life a lot simpler. My favorite adaptation is still Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me.

JENKINS: Speaking just for me, I think the best film ever made of one of Stephen’s works was The Green Mile. Usually watching a movie of a favorite book is disappointing, but in that case I kept remarking that it reminded me of what my mind’s eye saw as I read.

STEPHEN, DO YOU CONSIDER THE DARK TOWER SERIES YOUR MAGNUM OPUS? HOW DO YOU VIEW IT IN RELATION TO YOUR COMPLETE BODY OF WORK?

KING: I hope my magnum opus isn’t written yet, but by length and ambition, I’m sure most readers would say The Dark Tower is the big one (when they’re not naming The Stand, that is). Another sign: I don’t feel done with it yet. Those seven books feel like the rough draft of one unified novel. I’ve already rewritten the first one, and I wonder if Jerry sometimes has the urge to revisit Rayford Steele and his buddies and spruce them up. Not saying they’re bad as is; just saying sometimes you look back at a completed work and say, “Oh yeah! Now I know what I meant!”

JENKINS: I have made the mistake of saying that my latest novel, Riven, was indeed my magnum opus. Trouble is, I don’t know how to do anything else, so more novels will be coming. And readers will say, “Didn’t you retire? How does one follow his own magnum opus?”

SO—ANY THOUGHTS OF RETIREMENT?

JENKINS: Retire from what? Why would I want to quit doing what I love? Slow down a bit, sure. See the kids and grandkids more, you bet. Retire? Nah. [My wife] Dianna says she’s going to put on my tombstone, “Never an unpublished thought.”

Stephen, it seems every few years someone breaks the big story that you’ve announced you’re finished. Thankfully it’s never proved true. Are you toying with them, or are there times when you feel the tank is empty? (As I’ve told you, after Riven I seriously wondered if I had anything left to say, and your counsel was to not make any rash decisions while recuperating. That proved great advice and I’m back at the keyboard.)

KING: There was a time when I thought I would, because I’d had an accident, I was hooked on pain medication, and everything hurt all the time. Things are better now. When I wonder if I really have any more to say, I pick up a recent novel by John Updike or Elmore Leonard … which gives me hope of another 20 productive years.

HOW DO YOU THINK HAVING WRITTEN A BOOK FOR WRITERS HELPS DEFINE YOUR CAREER? MIGHT YOU PEN ANOTHER?

KING: I think I’ve said what I have to say about writing, and I’ll be interested to see how Jerry answers this question. For me, On Writing felt like both a summing-up and an articulation of things I’d been doing almost entirely by instinct. I thought it would be an easy book to write, and it wasn’t. I also thought it would be longer than it turned out to be. But you know what we used to say when we were kids, playing Hearts? “If it’s laid, it’s played”—meaning you can’t take back a card once it’s on the table. Nor can you invent new cards. I said everything I knew then, and if I added what I know now, it would probably amount to, “Don’t write long books, because the critics rip them,” and, “Don’t end sentences with a preposition.” Which I might have said in On Writing!

JENKINS: I didn’t write Writing for the Soul to define my career, but it did give me my only chance to be overtly autobiographical, so in some ways it accomplishes that. Because of my ownership of the Christian Writers Guild, I may have another writing book in my future. This would be more nuts and bolts and less personal, probably.

KING: Last but not least—we’re all amateurs at this job, really. It’s always new. For me (to quote Foreigner), it always feels like the first time.  [WD]

This article appeared in the May/June issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.

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