Many times throughout On Writing, Stephen King advises his audience to take no thought of fame or riches, to write for the fun of it. He gives that advice sincerely, but it comes well after the pages upon which he describes his open-mouthed astonishment at the news that the paperback rights for Carrie sold for $400,000–$200,000 of which was his.
There’s a balance to be struck in our endeavors to be literary craftsmen. We should write for the fun of it. If it’s not fun, if there’s no feeling of happiness at writing a well-turned sentence, no feeling of satisfaction at having solved a difficult problem with a line of poetry or a plot, then we should get out of the business of writing and try something else. But if we do find it fun, and we’re writing for the public, we ought to conduct ourselves as professionals, and we ought to aim to get paid.
The list of writers who made no apologies for the living they made as writers is almost too long to cite: Dickens, Trollope, Jacqueline Susann, James Patterson, Tolkien–these are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Doubtless, many of you could add to the list. All of these men and women made their money by learning what their audiences wanted, and giving it to them. Dickens, by knowing his audience responded well to melodrama, was able to go beyond merely supplying his readers with a familiar kind of tale. He provided them with characters whose actions, while melodramatic, pointed toward larger, more universal meanings: Mr. Jaggers, constantly washing his hands in Great Expectations, for instance.
Even King himself, in Carrie, knew that his audience was likely to respond to this story with more excitement than they had to anything else he had written before. True, he had to be convinced of it by his wife, who fished a crumpled draft of a chapter out of the trash one night and told him, “I think you’ve got something here. I really do.” But he knew. What did he have? He had Carrie White, a picked-on nobody, with the strange power of telekinesis. King links something ordinary with something extraordinary. He’d been doing that in almost every story he’d ever written before Carrie, but this time the linkage really worked. Why? It worked because King depicted on a fundamental level what came to be called High School Hell–the same trope that Joss Whedon would later explore so brilliantly in Buffy, the Vampire-Slayer. Nowadays, we call High School Hell “bullying.” Same thing. But King’s twist on it is exceptional, because he finds a way for his universal teenager to do what we all wanted to do in school: take vengeance on those who tormented us.
What King counsels us to do is make decisions based on the tale itself, not ones based on how we think our audience is going to react. Carrie White is a sympathetic character because she just wants to be a normal girl. The vengeance she takes is apocalyptic and deadly, but it is as much a matter of the last resort and self-preservation as it is anything else. Her behavior is uniquely her own, but Carrie was drawn from girls that King knew and knew of in school. What she does is based on motivations that all of us can understand.
King is certainly correct that our choices must be made in relation to the story, but that does not mean we can’t or shouldn’t think of other things. Native Son is a great literary novel but, as my tenth-grade English teacher pointed out to me after I mentioned the beheading scene, Richard Wright wrote it that way “because he knew it would sell.” I am in Wright’s corner to this extent: I think that in the planning and early drafting of a work, we need to add characters or scenes–or take them away–shamelessly, as long as they’re relevant to the tale we’re writing. If we don’t make those kinds of decisions, the omissions will be glaring. It always struck me as odd, for instance, that on the old Andy Griffith Show, there was in Mayberry, North Carolina not a single black person in sight. It wasn’t that they didn’t exist. It was 1960; such people were everywhere. It was that the producers didn’t know how to write for such characters. They were scared to death of being compelled to write a different kind of comedy and drama because of them, scared of alienating both audiences and advertisers, so they left them out. Maybe Aaron Ruben thought we wouldn’t notice. But we did.
If your characters belong in your story, keep them there. If they don’t, take ’em out. If your test readers–the people who comment on your drafts–tell you that a minor character is really likeable, pay attention. Maybe that character needs a larger role, or will merit a story of her own later on.
Write with an eye on making a living. At the very least, what you write can supplement the living you already have. King was teaching when Carrie was accepted, and he tells us that he had largely forgotten about it by that time. I don’t quite believe him, but I can believe that the acceptance and the money that followed were both shocking. He didn’t write the story for the money; I believe that, too. But he did write it because it represented an effort to pay the bills. Such an action is honorable through and through, and we need more writers who think that way. Write because you love to write. Write with an eye upon those who will read your work, and money will almost surely follow. If it does, you will have earned every penny of it.