I’ve finally begun reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63: A Novel.
Feeling a bit burnt out, I reached for an old reliable author to get me into relaxed creativity mode. The fire in the wood
stove is burning bright and hot as a cold blizzard’s squalls pull at the house. Under my wool blanket, I’m cozy and this book feels comfortable, too. Different story, same old friend in King. I’m one of his Constant Readers. To my delight, King has an Easter egg for writers right off the top.
His hero, a teacher grading essays, complains about his students “writing like little old ladies and little old men.” Heh. Yeah, I know exactly what he means: Grammar and spelling correct, but boring. Tried and true narrative, but too safe. I want surprises. The development of the story has to be logical, sure, but please, take a chance! Dare to take the reader by the hand and shove them on the roller coaster they didn’t plan to get on. Give them the adventure they didn’t know they wanted.
For instance, in Season One of This Plague of Days, I did a lot of plausible things with strange characters (and I put the implausible in a context that makes it believable.) In Season One, you see a kid on the autistic spectrum operating in our world (i.e. at the end of it.) That was cool, but to heat up the narrative and quicken the pace, I had to go deeper into the implausible and still attempt to make it as believable as it was fanciful.
In Season Two, the story takes some new turns and we’re in Jaimie Spencer’s world more than he is in ours. Though many people loved Jaimie in Season One, I wasn’t interested in making Two a copy of One. If One is a siege and Two is basically The Road, I had to take the crazy train to places people hadn’t seen before in an apocalypse. The virus that came to kill humanity keeps evolving and that takes us down unfamiliar roads. The Plaguers and I are happy with it.
People love Same Thing Only Different. Too different is a gamble, but some gambles pay off.
Changing a character people love is uncomfortable at times, but certainly do it if the story demands it. (By the way, nobody loves Jaimie more than I do, but he ends up doing a lot of questionable things for a Christlike figure.) I demanded development and change, so I got dreams, a touch of magic and some big questions for the surviving humans caught in the teeth of the gears of existence. If Sartre could read my apocalypse over a lunch of cold milk, ham sandwiches and angst, I think it would spark an interesting discussion about the existential subtext of ambition versus chaos theory. You know…sliding in the thin spaces amongst the bloody zombie attacks, scary new species and terrorized, grieving humans.
Dare to be wrong and, surprise! You’re right.
Sometimes it’s just simple mechanics where writers wimp out and opt for their grammar book over Art with a capital A. In Higher Than Jesus, for instance, a character uses the non-word “father-in-laws”. The correct plural is “fathers-in-law,” of course. Trust your readers to figure out that you know when you’re wrong. Better to stick with what’s true rather than what’s correct. The speaker of “father-in-laws” is an old, homeless guy whose education isn’t terrific. Talking like a Harvard law professor does not fit, so wrong is right.
Most readers will go along and the very few who will think you’re an idiot were never going to like your work, anyway. Grammar fascists don’t read for the enjoyment of reading, so relax and focus on the readers who are with you for the right reason. That reason is Story (and to forget we’re all going to die, and maybe soon, in Death’s razor claws and unforgiving, crushing jaws.)
I like prose that is edgy. Lots of book lovers love it when we’re gutsy.
I like Chuck Palahniuk a lot, perhaps especially when he cruises the experimental. I like much of Norman Mailer’s work for its simplicity. However, I love Stephen King. The narrative is straight A to B. Snobby readers might call it “muscular” or “workmanlike.” That’s old code for not “literary” enough or too pulpy by half. But who do you want telling you a story? An arid auteur who tells it correctly or a writer who get it across right? The writing I’m talking about is visceral. It affects you. It makes you think but it doesn’t have to call attention to itself too much. Have something to say and mean it. Lofty’s fine if your feet stay on the ground.
Don’t give me fancy writing tricks. Tell me the story, please.
You know all those New Yorker short stories with the super-opaque endings where it’s so very arty you can’t figure out what the hell the last paragraph is supposed to mean? Where they try to trick you into thinking vague ends equal powerful conclusions? You’ve surely read those stories so bathed in antiseptic that they have no honest feeling or real humor. The words are all in the right order but they can’t make you care. It’s hard to define, but when a book has no heart, you know it.
I suggest you do the opposite of all that empty scribbling and I’ll try to do the same.
A good short story, or a solid book, should deliver a punch and satisfaction (or at least anticipation of the next book in the series) with its last line. It should not generate a confused look on the face of an intelligent reader.
A great story can be read aloud in the flicker of a dying campfire. If the story’s solid, your rapt audience will worry about the characters in the book. They will be blissfully unaware of the starving bear watching from the woods behind them, sniffing the air, drooling, and measuring the distance to the fading circle of light.
~ I’m Robert Chazz Chute: author, podcaster, perpetually worried. If you want to learn more about This Plague of Days, go to ThisPlagueOfDays.com. Or just zip over to AllThatChazz.com and buy some books. That would be good. Also, Season One of This Plague of Days is in paperback and Christmas is coming. I’ll let you connect the dots from there. Thanks!
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