King’s Camps of Writers

by limebirdkate

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King says “while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

According to King, we can’t go from good to great—which would tell me that King believes great writers need to have some sort of “thing” that can’t be taught. A gift that was there from day one. Great writers were great as they swooped out of the womb.

And what of King’s premise regarding bad writers? Is there no hope for a 7-year-old girl who has a vivid imagination but struggles to put her ideas into words? Or if a 20-year-old writer hasn’t learned how to properly craft an engaging action scene or stretch of dialogue, then he never will?

If I lived in King’s world, I wouldn’t want to be lumped in with the Bad Writers. He holds no hope for them. They all share one bunkhouse and one computer, because there’s no need to waste resources here. When it isn’t their turn to write something badly, they’re on work detail, shoveling all of the deleted writing tossed out the windows from the other camps. Bad Writers are tempted to plagiarize the discarded material, in a desperate effort to become a Competent Writer. But they’re terrible spellers and grammarians, so they give themselves away.

I also wouldn’t want to be in his Great Writers’ Camp. Those writers would be whisked away from their mothers before they’re weaned and chained to desks with strong light and revved-up computers. Because Great Writers are expected to write best-sellers, they can’t tolerate poor conditions. They should remain on their straight, narrow path, otherwise they find trouble. Such perilous areas include the Sea of Once-Great Authors, the Cave of Forgot-How-to-Socialize, and the Dungeon of Failed Books.

I’d like to start off as a Competent Writer, with the goal of graduating to the Good Writers’ Camp. Both of these camps sound promising. They get to grow and learn and refine. In turn, they get to be astounded and amazed at their discoveries. They get to have a journey, which is long and unpredictable, but colorful. This type of journey automatically factors in mistakes, rejections, and failures, which makes it possible for Competent and Good Writers to try again if they choose.

Of course, this is all in jest.

As much as I laud King’s book, this was one section where I had trouble following his line of reasoning. And maybe there’s some stat somewhere that backs him up. If so, please feel free to enlighten me.

However, I like to think we’re all put on this world to see what we can do with the tools we’re given. And if our tools aren’t quite up to snuff, then we must be resourceful. I believe in destiny to a point, but I also think we choose our paths. (Many of us get lost on the way to our calling.) And when we realize we took the wrong path, we can head in a different direction. Even when we start off in a rotten, bottom-of-the-barrel position, we can beat the odds if we want to. I think we have the power to improve our situations.

So, if we’re bad writers and we’re determined to write better, then we will. I also think that great writing isn’t bound solely in our genes, it isn’t always instinctual, and that great writing can be learned and cultivated.

I think that anything is possible if we want something badly enough, work hard enough, and approach each day with dedication and determination and heart.

What are your thoughts on the various levels of writers?


42 Comments to “King’s Camps of Writers”

  1. I totally agree with you Kate. I can’t quite accept what he says there. We all know that King is a big time pantser, so I do wonder if he pantsed a lot of this book too, i.e. it is just his opinions and not based on evidence – maybe I’m being unfair, I don’t know. There’s no doubting he can tell a great page-turner of a story though, I’ll give him that! 😉

    • Hey Vanessa, Good question. I wonder if he pantsed that book too. He does acknowledge that many would disagree with his idea, so at least he is aware that he has stated something pretty controversial.

  2. You could be right there Vanessa! Pantser indeed.

    I love King and am forever reading his work, but I think he’s wrong with the assertion Kate’s highlighting, because he himself didn’t start off as a great writer. Some of his early stuff is laughably bad, but he didn’t let it stop him developing from novel to novel.

    My two criticisms of King would be:

    1. He likes to spoil himself and write reams and reams where a couple of pages will suffice.
    2. Some of his endings fall WAY short.

    Perhaps there’s a camp for these two flaws, because I know it isn’t just King who has them.

    That aside, he’s a great storyteller. Possibly on a par with the likes of Dickens, though the English professors might scoff. In a lot of the articles on my own blog that set out to help writers improve, I talk about King’s characterization. How he gets inside the heads of his characters and makes them so fully formed, and that’s what I strive for in my own writing. When I wrote my first novel, The Hunter Inside, I was an OK writer, but certainly a long way from being good or great. But I learned so much from that first novel, and as I write the last 10K of my new novel, From the Sky, I KNOW my work is so much better, so much so that I’d now say I’m in Good Camp. I intend to get into Great camp one day, but it takes time and patience and practice – the same things that made King a great author. I won’t be doing it for myself and for fame and riches. I’ll be doing it to give my readers what they want and re-pay them for their faith in my development.

    • hi David, I am glad you bring up the fact that King’s earlier work was not considered great, and that he improved over the years. Having an idea do how much time he committed to his writing, it might be safe to say that it was due to his passion and dedication that he became great (by some standards).

      It is good to hear you use your own works as evidence of your growth as a writer. I think practice is key in developing certain skills, and as long as we are willing to learn we will improve.

    • David, I totally agree about King’s endings. I was talking about that with someone else on a blog a while ago after I read Cell, I was so disappointed with the ending (although I know others found the ending of Cell to be fine). It’s not that I need to have ALL of the answers in a book ending, but you know, SOME answers would be good! You get the feeling he writes himself into a corner sometimes and doesn’t worry about getting out of it in any logical way, he just stops, or comes up with something completely random.

  3. I agree with you – I think all writers develop their craft through the years even so called great ones. I often think about one of my favourite Jane Austen – she wrote for years before publishing and you can see her first novel Northanger Abbey is kind of about other novels as she was developing her own voice.

    • hi Victoria,
      Yes, Jane Austen is a good example. When we can compare books across a writer’s career and note differences – then it would seem that theirs was a craft that they developed with time and practice.

  4. Great post – what tickles me though is King talking about ‘great’ writers – some people think that Henry James is a great writer, others think he is a constipated writer. J.K. Rowling sold an unbelievable amount of children’s books; she is a page turner and a fabby story teller, however we could question the greatness of her writing. I think that talking about great writers is a tad formulaic.

    • Hey Loony,
      The term “great” is pretty relative, isn’t it. What King thinks is great may not be considered great by another well-established author. I think we need to figure out the criteria for greatness first, then decide which authors could be considered great.

  5. I agree totally with much of what was said above. In relation to ‘greatness’ even the greatest of the great must have started out as pretty amateurish, a child may be a really good ‘storyteller’ but not have the technical skill to write the stories down, it is only through practice that one becomes proficient and then works up the ladder.

    • Hi Dennis,
      Practice is key in developing skills. I am sure King, as well as all great writers, did their fair share of practicing before selling their first breakout novel. Absolute terms such as ‘never’ and ‘always’ aren’t wise choices in controversial statements like King’s.

  6. I won’t rehash the other commenters here (because, for the most part, I’ve agreed wholeheartedly with every comment above mine), but I want to mention how much I love the observation you make about a storyteller finding his or her own niche, Kate. Not every storyteller has to be a novelist, bestseller or otherwise. Alan Moore’s novels are confusing and dense to a fault, yet he is one of the finest, sharpest comic book storytellers I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot. 😉 Similarly, Joss Whedon’s comics fall flat, but he has a great eye for stories-in-motion (TV and film). Jill Thompson really only does comics work…but her children’s comics are flights above the more “serious” plotlines she’s sometimes been saddled with.

    Maybe King and his bestseller ilk would pooh-pooh these folks, but I think storytellers exist in all walks of life. And humans are born storytellers. We just need to learn which outlet is the right one for our talents: novels, poetry, comics, film, TV, music, mime, sculpture, chemistry, horticulture, astrophysics… I could type that list forever and still not get to the end.

    • Hi Mayumi,
      Yes, I agree that humans are born storytellers. And there are many avenues we can take to express our desire to tell a story. I also love your opinion regarding comic books. I am sure that many ‘great’ novelists don’t consider comic book storytelling to be comparable. However, when we compare on comic book storyteller to another, then there would be levels of greatness within that one category.

  7. This is a wonderful discussion. I agree, King, as every other writer, learned and improved as he wrote each novel. I enjoy reading his books because he knows how to scare the B-J out of me and that is talent, not to say his other ones aren’t good reading also.

    I wonder if he isn’t talking about great writers never needing to scramble for an idea–and always having a new and different one, restless to arrive on the page.

    • I have never read any of King’s fiction, but because his fan base seems pretty diverse I presume he is a ‘great’ storyteller. I really did get a lot out of his book On Writing, and based on that I think he is an engaging writer with helpful information. His assertion that writers cannot grow in leaps and bounds does disturb me, and it makes me wonder if he thinks he was a great writer all along.

  8. Perhaps he is saying there are few “great writers”? Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft that includes no masters…” Does King include himself in this group of “great writers”? (A lot of other writers wouldn’t necessarily, despite his commericial success.) Maybe he doesn’t…maybe he thinks he is a Competent Writer that became a good writer…

    • It is difficult to determine if he thinks he is a great writer. He doesn’t offer a lot of examples to illustrate which authors he considers great or good or bad. I should re-read that section, because you bring up an interesting observation. It is entirely possible he considers himself merely ‘good’.

  9. Like so many aspects of life, it’s a head and heart matter. If one’s heart is committed to the vision then the head works it out.

  10. I have a little problem with King’s logic. As I see it, classifying a writer as either “good” or “great” is a largely subjective process, dictated by a reader’s individual tastes, prejudices, and expectations. There are great genre writers, for example, who will only be seen as “good” to some readers — because these readers are not big fans of the genre, or the writer’s unique approach to that genre.

    • This is true. If we were to base greatness on sales, we would see a lot of not-so-great authors be tagged as great. I think his premise would be less controversial if he didn’t use absolute terms such as ‘never’.

  11. I think you are spot on. I do believe that some have a gift that can, if nurtured, give them an edge. However, I believe that hard work, dedication, and the willingness/desire to learn can help individuals improve and excel. A Bell Curve of writers has very small numbers at either end of the curve. However, there is a lot of room in that curve for movement based on motivation.

  12. I met one of Mr. King’s early editors at a writing workshop many years back and he told our group that he felt Mr. K. did a great disservice to writers in some of the things that he wrote in his Memoir on Writing. I have to agree with that statement, and your post today is proof of that. Just look at the long history of “the greats” who were told their work wasn’t up to snuff and would never see the light of day. Opinions–even those of well-known commercial authors like Mr. King–need to be politely acknowledged–and then set aside, so a person can get on with what they want to try to do.

    How many people get dissuaded from what their heart wants to do because some well-known stabs out publicly with their own overly-strong opinions and thoughts?

    • Hi Rebecca,
      How interesting! And what a neat experience for you to have met an early editor of Stephen King’s. I do have to wonder at what King was thinking when he wrote that, for surely he knew how controversial it would be. What would be the point of saying something so discouraging in a book about the craft of writing? For the most part, the rest of his book struck the right chords with me. It was difficult to write this post, knowing it would cast an unfavorable light on his book–there are other parts where he isn’t discouraging at all and in fact is quite supportive of the newbie writer. But that section always bothered me, wouldn’t let me go, and now that I’ve posted about it I am glad that I did.

      And you’re right–we tend to listen to the people who are famous or successful because they should know how the game is not only played, but won. Too often those successful, yet negative and thoughtless, people get someone down enough times that he won’t try again.

  13. I’ll start by saying I wholeheartedly agree with the above comments about subjectivity and growth, and that we don’t start out as great.

    More than that though, I have a problem with anyone who says there is one way, one view. There simply isn’t. There’s room in the world for all types, and that variety is what makes the world interesting.

    I own a copy of On Writing and meant to read it, but a number of comments and quotes from Mr. King have made me decide against doing so. I don’t think his book is for me. I’m an outliner, something I know he’s pretty much against. This discussion of camps is another thing that makes me feel like I have no place in his view of how writers should be and how they should do things. That won’t stop me from writing; nothing could do that. But it does make me feel that there’s no point in me reading that particular book about craft. It’s a bit sad, because there probably are things I could take away from it, but I already feel excluded, so my receptiveness to the rest wouldn’t be that high, I don’t think.

    I doubt this was his intention, but I do wish he’d see that other ways than his are as valid, if they work for the person in question. And I’ll admit, his general attitude may not be as closed as it makes me feel, but that’s kind of my point. He’s made at least this writer feel shut out.

    • Hi Julie,
      Other than that section, his book didn’t really strike me as discouraging or narrow-minded. It’s a section that doesn’t fit, really, in the overall scheme of the book. Then again, he devotes several pages to this premise so you know he feels strongly about it. I fail to understand the reasoning behind making such a controversial statement, though. I’m not convinced he lumps himself in with the “great” writers, but why say it at all in a book meant to teach and inspire writers?

      I don’t blame you for feeling shut out. If anything, that seems like a reasonable reaction. Imagine someone reading this, someone about to embark on a lifelong desire to write but never having had the courage before. I think this section would sock ’em in the gut.

  14. I don’t have any issue with saying their is a divide between good and great. Not that every great writer gets the accolades they deserve. When I study “great” writers, I can see that they think and express themselves differently than “the norm.”

    I do think that writers can experience some sort of influence or “Aha!” moment that can transform their future work from good to great.

    And I also think good writers who work at their trade have “great moments.” But while all writers have awful moments, truly great writers are more effective at discarding the dreck and packing a high proportion of great moments in between the good ones.

    • Hi Jilanne,
      I agree with you that many great writers think and express themselves differently from the norm. They also are the ones who spend less time with ordinary Life stuff, and more time writing — I think that plays a role in the differences in expression.

      I like your thoughts regarding ‘moments’. We may struggle with a particular sport, for instance, but in the middle of that struggle we can have an awesome game, so awesome we feel like we’ve conquered the world. And that’s a great moment. But if we don’t capitalize on those moments, we revert to being mediocre or good. Maybe even back to struggling. I think that the more great moments we have, the higher the liklihood we become great, period.

  15. If we weren’t able to improve then we might as well all pack it in right now. Like anything, you grow the more you practice your craft and I know that I’m a better writer now than I was five years ago. I hope to be better still in the years to come. That’s all you can ask for.

    • Hi Pete,
      Well said. What is the point of trying if we can’t at least go from bad to mediocre or bad to good? That doesn’t make sense. I continue to think about children in all of this. I teach kids, and they range from bad to pretty darn good. Not one of them is great — yet. But do I think any of them will become great down the road? Absolutely. There are several who have the potential to be great writers, as long as they practice and hone their skills. And as far as the bad writers becoming good? I think they’ll all become good, and again only if they practice and hone their skills.

  16. I’m not sure there’s much I can add to what everyone has already said so well. But the idea that some people would be destined for “badness” no matter how hard they tried is depressing. I believe given the right encouragement/training/teaching/etc. everyone can improve. The degree of improvement will vary, of course, depending on motivation/talent/desire and such. But to never be able to move from “bad” to “competent?” I can’t buy that.

    • Hi JM,
      Yes, that idea is depressing. I’m a fairly positive, hopeful person, and I noticed throughout the book King is pretty sarcastic and a little bit on the cynical side. Perhaps he’s just a doom-n-gloom type of guy? In any event, if we’re going to believe that people can’t improve in writing, then they can’t improve in anything. Writing is one of those trades where you can easily practice and learn new info every single day.

      The idea that badness is forever is hard to swallow, I agree. I don’t know if he had anyone in mind when he wrote that, or what his experiences have been with “bad” writers. However, it’s the kind of statement that makes me stand up and say, “Oh, yeah?”

  17. Everyone has such good comments on this. The post was very well done Kate, though it’s been so long since I read the book that I can’t remember such specifics. All I know is that it did inspire me a great deal. Life’s too short. I take the part I like or find interesting and blow off the rest!

    • Hi Neeks,
      Yes, overall the book is very inspiring. The first copy I read was from the library. I was inspired so much that I bought a copy for myself. There is a lot in there that resonated with me, because it wasn’t so much about do’s and dont’s of the craft, but more about approach and dedication and how to make writing a part of your life.

      I like the way you think, Neeks. This is one section that we should blow off. 🙂

  18. I definitely agree with all the comments above, and I love that this post has created such a great discussion. I might be on my own here, but I haven’t really read anything by Stephen King, not sure why. But I think it’s definitely like Mayumi said, it’s subjective. What I might classify ‘great’ writing, you might read and think ” this is the worst thing I’ve ever read”. So, who knows! Great post Kate, started a good discussion which is what we like to see! B

    • Hi Beth,

      This is the only book by King that I have read, as I’m not a horror fan. I think great is subjective too — and he doesn’t really go into examples of who he thinks are great writers. It’s not really clear if he thinks he’s great, either. His reasoning doesn’t really hold water, and judging from the comments here, he would be hard-pressed to find backing for his statements. 🙂 If he ever visits Limebird, he better watch out!

  19. I think talent is innate. But even those with a smidge of talent can become good at something. They have to practice and apply themselves ten times harder. But I don’t think a bad writer must remain a bad writer. I think you can move from bad to competent. And possibly great. 😉

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