You know how it is when you’re hungry but you don’t know what you want to eat, and everything sounds pretty blah to you, and there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to food, and so you just order a burger or something you’ve had 1,000 times before because you know it’ll taste good, fill you up, and not give you a major case of buyer’s regret?
That’s what it’s like reading Stephen King for me. He’s like the burger of writers. Whenever I need to take a break from something experimental, be it classic lit or Asian crime noir, and I just want to read a page turner that fills me up and tastes good, I’ll get a Stephen King book.
Right now I’m reading his 2019 crime thriller, “The Outsider.” I started it a few days ago and I’m already 100-plus pages in. It’s the typical Stephen King book in that it swallows you whole from the first page and keeps you planted there. He didn’t even start writing crime fiction until later in his career, but he’s a master of the form, which is maddening. More on that later.
Now, I can’t say I’ve been a major consumer of Stephen King’s books. I guess I’ve read about 10 of them, plus various short stories and essays. That’s not much, considering that the man publishes books with roughly the same frequency that a rabbit makes babies. The first Stephen King book I read was “The Stand,” maybe 25 years ago. By then he was already a literary icon, a household name, a one-man industry with maybe 30 titles under his belt.
So, I was a late arrival. The main reason I hadn’t picked any of his books up sooner was because I was never a big fan of the horror/supernatural genre, and just figured King’s books would be full of all this phantasmagoric magical crap, when what I really wanted to read about were private eyes and hoodlums.
Well, “The Stand” knocked me on my ass. It was loooooong and had a lot going on shifting from one setting and POV to another, but reading it was a revelation – and a breeze. I started off absorbed and stayed that way throughout its 800-odd pages (I read the first edition – the short one). I decided it was one of the best books I’d ever read.
Then I didn’t read another Stephen King book for oh, five years or so. Don’t ask me why. I don’t even know why. I should have dived into his entire body of work, but instead went back to the private eyes and hoodlums. I’ve read about one of his books every couple of years since then, and they’ve never failed to mesmerize me in one way or another. I figure there are 50-odd more Stephen King novels and collections I haven’t read yet, and that excites me more than it probably should, given my age. I’m like a kid who still has 50-odd Batman comics to read.
That’s the reader inside of me speaking.
The writer inside of me wonders how Stephen King can even be human. It is simply impossible for one individual to be this prolific, this tireless, this imaginative and creative, this mentally engaged and this consistently good over four-plus decades and across all kinds of genres and formats – and make it look so easy and effortless, as if he could knock out a 300-page masterwork in the time it takes me to grind out eight GD paragraphs.
Who else can do that? In the entire English language canon I can only think of Shakespeare – and there are more than a few people who wonder whether a single Shakespeare actually wrote all those plays.
Who else can you name? Dickens and Twain both wrote a lot of great things – or at least I’m told, because I’ve maybe read five of their books combined – but I’m not sure they ever ventured out into new territory the way Stephen King goes from horror to fantasy to sci-fi to crime noir to conventional literature so frequently and so well. Margaret Atwood probably would get a lot of votes, but I haven’t read much of her stuff so I’m not the one to ask.
The writers I’ve probably read the most of are Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Walter Mosely and James Ellroy. They all are/were crime writers. They were/are great at what they did/do. But they never weaved too far out of their lanes (okay, Elmore Leonard did write some westerns).
Strange as it sounds, I’d love to see Stephen King write a romance novel. If I were obscenely rich and could pay him an obscene amount of money to write a romance, I would do it. Because I am 100 percent positive he would knock it out of the park. He not only writes a lot, he reads pretty much everything, and he seems to have an uncanny knack of figuring out how to wed his talent to different forms.
Critics of Stephen King – and there are plenty – will say he’s too commercial, not literary enough, not strong enough on themes involving the Human Condition. Well, okay. I happen to think that’s bullshit, but okay. You’ve been duly acknowledged….
I don’t just read Stephen King because I like his books. I also read them because he inspires me as a writer. Reading him is like taking a master class in fiction. He doesn’t overthink things, even though some of his plots are complicated. He doesn’t try to fill every page with whiz-bang pyrotechnics. He simply tells a story, expertly, with perfect lines, fully realized characters, spot-on dialogue, scenes you feel like you’re actually living in, and enough tension and intrigue to keep you shuffling through the pages like you just topped off a double espresso with a couple hits of speed.
Which pisses me off sometimes, because he makes it look so easy, and it forces me to rethink my entire strategy of writing fiction.
I start reading his books and I immediately go back to the drawing board. A few days ago I was about 8,000 words into writing a new novel – very early on in it, but still far enough along that it couldn’t be turned into a short story. It had some characters I liked and some scenes I was happy with, but it had no manageable plot and really nowhere to go. I could either press on, knowing it probably would never find a publisher, or I could ditch it and start on something else.
So I did the latter, thanks to Stephen King.
Plot is hard for most of us. Story is hard. They are also the most important things in a book, unless you are blessed with cosmic literary gifts that can’t be taught, which rules out 99% of us. So you have to think about story. You have to suffer over story. If you don’t have a compelling story, forget it, go learn something else. Be a butcher or baker or candlestick maker. Because without a good story, you’re not going to get one toe in the door of the book publishing industry.
So, I’ve gone back to Square One. I put the novel aside and started reading articles, blogs and posts about plot and structure. How to outline a story. How to graph the right elements – the initial situation, the problem, the exploration of the problem, the insight into the problem, the exploration of the insight, the solution, the aftermath. The beginning, middle and end. The first, second and third acts.
I’m doing that now. I’m starting a new story, taking another shot at another novel. I’m creating a road map that can take me from point A to point Z, without free-forming or making it up as I go along. I’m going to sketch everything out ahead of time. Plot the story before I write it. Try it that way. Who knows, maybe that’s the magic elixir.
Stephen King, I understand, doesn’t do it that way. He just dives in and lets things go where they may. But he’s Stephen King.
And I’m not.
Note: The image I used with this blog, which I probably don’t have permission to use, is something I saw on a Facebook ad promoting a Stephen King “Friends” T-shirt featuring Stephen and some of his most famous and disturbing characters. You can buy one here. There, now I’m simply promoting a product instead of stealing an image. Stephen makes a few more bucks; I avoid a lawsuit. I hope.