Posts Tagged ‘Stephen King’

Review: The Dark Tower (2017 Film)

August 8, 2017

On Saturday, my wife and I went to see The Dark Tower, the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, specifically The Gunslinger.  I’d read a lot of negative things about the movie, and was worried that the movie would devolve into one of those characteristic “1/4 plot, 3/4 fight scene” movies that seem to have infiltrated all of my favorite genres and franchises.  The short run time had me doubly concerned.  Nevertheless, I didn’t come away from the movie feeling particularly cheated.  In fact, I think that the movie was good for what it was.  At least, it didn’t try and fail to remain faithful to any one book.  Instead, it was the spiritual successor to The Gunslinger with a little bit of everything else thrown in for good measure.

I may not be doing my job as a long-time Stephen King aficionado, as I am not absolutely gushing over the movie.  Still, I showed up in my favorite Megan Lara shirt — probably the only one in the theater to do so, and ignored everything I’d read to that point.  I would have expected a full house on this first weekend, and was amazed that our local screening still had plenty of empty space.  We sat next to a few stoner teens.  We didn’t need to ask those teens whether they were fans, as they were chattering about their confusion pretty much as soon as they sat down.  It didn’t matter to me.  This was the weekend that I’d circled on my calendar months ago, and nothing was going to stand in the way of me getting a sense for the overall film.

First thing’s first: I’d recommend going to the film, if only to see how thousands of pages can be condensed into 95 minutes.  At the same time, I’d warn any Dark Tower reader that there’s things that you’ll enjoy, and things that will bother you a bit.  I’ve come up with five positive aspects and six negative aspects to consider if you’re on the fence.

As some of these deal with the climax or end of the film, or deal with novels outside of The Gunslinger, I’ll have to slap one big SPOILER ALERT to everything that you read below.  If you’re the type of person who hates spoilers, then this is what I recommend: read the bold text and then go see the movie.  You can get back to this later.

Things The Dark Tower Did Right:

1.) Continuity Nods: Granted, I probably didn’t catch everything, as it might take a few stop frames to do so, but the production crew certainly put in a few details that are nods to other books in the series or other Stephen King books.  the number 19 comes up several times. As does 1408, a nod to a Stephen King short story.  We don’t hear about “the beam” in quite the same way, but we get to see a beam of light attack the tower.  They refer to “the shine” more than they do in the books, which is a nod to The Shining and Dr. Sleep.  Finally, there’s a small discussion in which Roland draws a wheel with the Dark Tower at its hub, evoking a favorite saying about “Ka,” his world’s answer to fate.

2.) Casting Idris Elba as Roland Deschain: I’ll get grilled for this one in certain circles.  Yes, Roland was supposed to be a skinny, tall dude with piercing blue eyes.  Elba is at least tall, scraping the skies at 6’3″.  He’s not exactly skeletal, and it looks like the man could handle himself at the weight bench.  I think that the thing that really makes Elba stand out is his gravitas.  Yes, you could get someone like Keanu Reeves out there to play the role of the solemn hero, but Elba lends power behind his solemnity.  The only thing that I didn’t like about his characterization is the implication that this would have for a future conflict between Roland and Detta Walker. My wife would also mention that Roland smiles too much (i.e., at all).

3.) Streamlined characterization: Considering that they’ve pulled five books into one film, they did a great deal to make the movie less complex.  There’s no Eddie, no Odetta or Detta or Susannah, and no Susan Delgado, either.  As far as Roland goes, there is no love interest — or any real interaction with women.  Jake makes eyes at a young girl, but the story relegates most characters, outside of Roland, Jake, and “Walter” to the third string.  The only “second stringers” are Jake’s mother and (maybe) Sayre.   Considering how much they’ve condensed, it’s surprising that none of Roland’s other ka-tet is even mentioned.

4.) Shift in Focus: Do you want to make a movie with mass appeal? Put a kid in it.  Yes, The Gunslinger included Jake.  However, Jake doesn’t appear until the waystation.  He becomes important to the story, and to Roland’s characterization, as Roland nears The Man in Black, but that’s it.  The Dark Tower movie focuses on Jake, and starts with Jake’s experience, wherein he sees things that are not of his world.  Jake’s quotation from the book “there are other worlds than these” does not appear in the film (except on the promotional poster), but it is reflected within the movie — just in the reverse of what one might expect.

Ultimately, this aids in making viewers relate to the movie.  By the time they’ve seen the film, viewers have either been a teenage boy or have met one.  They have not met an otherworldly gunslinger.  Some purists may hate this switch, but I understand it.  One stoned-off-his-gourd guy sitting near me quipped that the movie was like Harry Potter.  I can understand this; the tropisms are evocative of Harry Potter, for all of the right reasons.

5.) Left It Open Ended: If this is all that we get of The Dark Tower, then at least we’ve seen a little of everything.  However, this movie is like a new series Dr. Who episode in the sense that the story resolves the main plot, but leaves with the characters ready to go on another adventure.  In this way, the movie does something that we don’t always see in individual books within the series — it ties together everything that needs to be tied together.

Things The Dark Tower Movie Did Wrong:

1.) Run time: I like long books.  I also like long movies.  I’m not talking about Lawrence of Arabia long, but 90 minute run-times are usually reserved for comedies, not epic action-fantasies.  Heck, Superbad was 1h 53 minutes, that’s 18 minutes longer than The Dark Tower.  Eighteen minutes would have been just enough time to add some backstory about how Roland knows The Man in Black, or why Stephen Deschain and Walter were at odds.  Eighteen minutes could have been enough time to show The Man in Black hold greater dominion over his underlings, or create an extended fight scene between Roland and The Man in Black.  1 hour 35 minutes was just a bit too short for the genre.

2.) Fight Scene Rather than Palaver:  In The Gunslinger, Roland’s interactions with the Man in Black are less about the fight than they are about the testing of wits.  As much as Roland’s struggle is a physical journey, it is also a psychological challenge.  In the book, Roland kills everybody in Tull after The Man in Black has poisoned their minds, but he only has a brief physical fight with The Man in Black, everything else is verbal.   In the movie, Walter’s silver tongue is nothing compared to his telekinesis.  Yes, he uses the power of suggestion multiple times for some important scenes, but the last scene is only a fight of the mind in the sense that Walter’s telekinesis is moving things with his mind.

3.) Condensed Narrative: It was clear that the writers were trying to get as many nods in to the book series as they could before their run-time was over.  After all, if this is all that we, Dark Tower fans, get, then it might as well have a little bit of everything.  We didn’t get Shardik, the giant bear, but we did get some forest predator.  We didn’t get Roland slipping into the mind of Jack Mort, but we did get him raiding a gun store.  We didn’t get his reunion with Sheemie, but we did get a look at the psionic blasts directed at the Dark Tower.  With items spanning five books, The Dark Tower series may need to reshuffle some material, or bring in new material entirely, in order to help frame any future installments.

4.) Too Much New York: Yes, New York has a few vital scenes in the series, but there isn’t anything except a little backstory until The Drawing of the Three.  Before Roland meets Eddie, he doesn’t spend any time in New York.  During this iteration, much of the action takes place in New York.

5.) Too Little Backstory: Aside from the encounter in Tull, one of the major omissions from the movie is Roland sharing what life was like in Gilead before the fall.  There is no mention of Roland’s mother, nor of Roland’s ability to outsmart Cort.  We get much more about Jake’s background, something that we only briefly glimpsed in the novel, than we get of Roland.  This, in part, works to the movie’s great benefit, but I think it comes as a great detriment to Roland’s characterization.

6.) No Oy! For everything that The Dark Tower introduces out of sequence, the one thing that bothered me the most was not the inclusion of the house, or too much time spent outside of Mid-World, it was the ommission of a little billy-bumbler named Oy.  The creature, which is like a domesticated raccoon, is the mascot, if not an important character, for Roland and his cadre of travelers.

Advertisements

Unfinished Business (Part One)

April 5, 2017

Note: This is the first in a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  The second part of this series is scheduled to go out during the week of April 10th.

When I was in teacher training, I had no fewer than three mentor teachers.  I worked with one teacher per semester for three semesters.  For the fourth semester (second, chronologically), I assisted another teacher in an unofficial capacity before replacing her as a long-term substitute. The last of these three (or four) mentor teachers was a sharp-witted man named Nick.  Nick introduced me to a little tidbit that I’d either never learned or had already forgotten about John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The title of that short novel stems from a few lines of a 1785 poem, “To a Mouse,” by Scottish poet Robert Burns:

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley, / an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / for promis’d joy!”

(frequently as “the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry…”)

Let’s leave that last portion alone for a second, and think about the phrasing for “the best-laid plans” (one of Nick’s favorite phrases).  When I am writing at my best, I have a firm outline of where I want to go with my narrative.  I generally view it by act, following the same five act format that was popular in Shakespeare’s time.  At times, those five acts are reduced to four, and I group the denouement and the conclusion together. This doesn’t mean that I’m exactly successful at carrying these narratives out to the end.  In fact, only three of my novel-length works (and only two in my adult life) can count as completed first drafts — or beyond.

I’m not the only writer who has left something unfinished, either due to frustration, illness, or death.  Let’s take a look at the writers who stepped away from a novel, and were never able to complete it.

The Long Goodbye – Harper Lee – The woman who brought us To Kill a Mockingbird apparently had a follow-up that long predates her Go Set a Watchman “sequel.” The Long Goodbye was apparently 110 pages of what happened after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I have not found out where it is in relation to Go Set a Watchman. It is among three known books that Harper Lee never completed during her lifetime, and abandoned long before her illness and death.

Dark America – Junot Diaz – Diaz is a darling for many contemporary lit teachers due to his economy of words, and the clever use of the words that he does use. His collection of short stories surrounding Yunior and Rafa, Drown, has graced many shelves since 1995.  However, Diaz has abandoned at least two novels, including Dark America. This, a sci-fi story about mutants, was something that, per the New York Times, Diaz found “stupid and convoluted.”

The Mysterious Stranger – Mark Twain – Over a period of nearly 21 years, Mark Twain tried and failed to complete The Mysterious Stranger. Each time, one of America’s most famous humorists, had to start over.  There are three vastly different drafts floating around somewhere, a fourth fragment that represents his earliest attempt, and who knows how many other false starts have vanished with time? They each follow the tale of a demonic figure, who is explicitly named Satan in at least one of the drafts, but the setting and story itself change from one draft to the next.  Each time, Twain set his story down, and there is no evidence that he attempted to publish any of those drafts.  The last version takes place in the same St. Petersburg, MO, a partial setting for several of his well-known books, was apparently “finished” in the sense that there is a beginning, middle, and end, but there are enough holes to make analysts highly dubious about its completeness.

Fountain City – Michael Chabon – If anybody knows the frustration of an incomplete work, it’s Michael Chabon.  Chabon started Fountain City, a book about architects who want to build a baseball stadium in Florida, and continued writing about it for 1,500 pages, before realizing that he hadn’t found the right way to end it.  He abandoned this book, but the experience inspired him to write the 1995 novel Wonder Boys, which was then optioned into a 2000 movie with Michael Douglas.  What is Wonder Boys about?  An author who cannot finish his 2,611 (gulp) page novel.

Eamon Diaz and the Vampire Queen – Larry Hama – You might not know the name, but comic book fans know his work.  Larry Hama is responsible for such titles as G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero and Bucky O’Hare, and has been an editor (as well as a writer and artist) on a number of Marvel projects.  A quick Google search does not yield anything about the content, but Hama’s oeuvre is enough to make this one notable, as if a Hiberno-Latino vampire hunter does not.

Bonus: The Cannibals – Stephen King – Stephen King is famous for the volume of books that he produces.  Because of his prolific nature, King was forced to publish several novels under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman.  However, Stephen’s consistency in delivering 2,000 words per day (a good sized novel every two to three months) has had a few misfires that he was unable to publish.  One of those misfires, The Cannibals, a project that King started in 1982, plagued him for years.  However, he was able to return to the book and, after a “partial” rewrite, he published the story as Under the Dome in 2009.

There are plenty of other well-known authors who have famously set aside a novel and never completed it.  Are there any big ones that I’ve missed?  Feel free to leave some examples in the comments section below.

Tug of War: Some Thoughts on Collaborative Writing

March 22, 2017

There are many writers out there who collaborate with others.  The past century or so is littered with examples of well-known writers who bring their own unique perspectives to the fold.  Under these circumstances, writers have commonly brought their own flair and aspects of their own writing to the collaboration, while the narrative takes on the unique aspects of both writers.  The thought of collaboration on a work of fiction has not been entirely foreign to me.  It isn’t an easy road to follow, and is probably best left to lifelong professionals.  One of the chief barriers that holds me back from collaborating with others is an understanding of the time commitment.  With talented, prolific writers, such as Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Dean Koontz, and Ed Gorman having collaborated on books, it is possible to do it, but much easier to coordinate when novel writing is your job.

Last week, I caught wind of a press release advertising Stephen King’s collaboration with publisher and editor Richard Chizmar on the novella Gwendy’s Button Box, a Castle Rock story that has at least some connection to King’s Dark Tower mythos.  It is King’s second announced collaboration due for release in 2017.  The first, Sleeping Beauties, is in collaboration with his son Owen, and is set to arrive in September.   With these collaborations in mind, I wanted to discuss some notable collaborations.

Ford and Conrad

One of the earliest examples that I have found of continued literary collaboration is that of Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad.  The two writers combined to write three novels.  The first, The Inheritors (1901) is one of the early examples of the science fiction genre.  It is interesting to see their name associated with science fiction, as Ford was known for his modernist leanings, and his particular attention to current events, such as wars. He was a literary critic in an era where science fiction did not have much critical appeal.  Meanwhile, Joseph Conrad had more interest in the “other,” and the ideas of otherness, and the unusual circumstances his white male protagonists encountered when venturing to foreign lands. Things don’t get much more “other” for him than the Inheritors, wherein the main character explores a cabal of people who claim to be from another dimension.  Although I have not read this book, it is hard for me to imagine Ford and Conrad engaging in the realm of the fantastic or even of science fiction.

Niven and Pournelle

Larry Niven, the writer behind the Ringworld series, has a number of prominent collaborations under his belt. The Caltech grad is a prolific writer, with fourteen anthologies and six full-length novels in his Man-Kzu series, and numerous other anthologies.  Niven has co-authored multiple books with Steven Barnes and Jerry Pournelle.  My introduction to Niven came via his collaboration with Pournelle on 1977’s Lucifer’s Hammer, an apocalyptic fiction book that deals with the fallout from a comet impact.  From how individuals react to scarcity, how militaries react to opportunity, and how groups react to outsiders, Lucifer’s Hammer offers a more scientific and sociological viewpoint to how society reacts before, during, and after an apocalyptic event.  Other highly-lauded Niven-Pournelle collaborations include The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), and Footfall (1984).

Nolan and Johnson

I think we’ve all heard of Logan’s Run.  The 1976 Michael Anderson film has become one of the better known movies of its era, and won awards for its artistry and cinematography.  The concept of a society where humans have an extraordinarily short shelf-life (21 years), measured via markers embedded into the skin, is not only the thanks of movie magic, but is also the basis for a 1967 novel.  Written by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, the original Logan’s Run was a 133 page dystopic novel set in the far off future of “the year 2000.”  Predominantly a novelist, Nolan dabbled in many other genres in his career, whereas Johnson wrote short stories and television scripts.  The two were well established by 1967, and their novel was earmarked for film almost from the beginning.  However, it took years in development hell before the promising novel became a film reality.

King & Straub

As mentioned above, Stephen King is not averse to collaboration.  Including collaborations with his sons, Owen King and Joe Hill, King has collaborated with Stewart O’Nan in 2005 for a non-fiction book about the Red Sox (Faithful) and Peter Straub for The Talisman (1984) and Black House (2001).  Straub is a respected figure in the horror community, and a multiple time winner of the prestigious Bram Stoker award.  Straub’s style, honed through years of reading gothic novels, has the deliberate pacing and word choice of literary fiction.  He has varied from more direct plot arcs to plots that rely on numerous twists and turns.  King, by comparison, makes characters that are generally familiar, peppering their actions with bits of pop culture, and has these characters go through terrible things.  The Talisman, my favorite literary collaboration, does just that as it follows 12-year-old Jack Sawyer’s journey through “the Territories” to find that story’s titular talisman.  It also introduced me to the “overworld-savage world” concept that is the basis for The Dark Tower series.

It is rare that I have even discussed collaborating with other writers.  Part of it is a time consideration, as I know that my own schedule is demanding, and my own energy levels are finite.  Part of it is a control consideration, as ceding control over a story is a difficult thing to do.

Jim & Robert

I first attempted a novel-length collaboration with my friend, Robert, more than twenty years ago.  We’d always been creating stories, and the lands we created through our imaginations were limitless.  It started out when we were in the lower grades at our elementary school, where we created characters that were simply us inserting our own personalities into characters such as Spider-man and Batman.  It progressed from there.  Between the two of us, I’m sure that there’s some journal somewhere that has an embarrassing and exhaustive list of overpowered superhero characters.

We were probably ten or eleven when we decided to write a novel.  We would type out our story, handing it off to each other via a hard plastic “floppy disc.”   The story discussed what we later understood as “nanorobotics,” and focused on a reluctant cyborg; it never got off of the ground after perhaps twenty hard-wrought pages in Word.  I recall the frustration of seeing a new paragraph that went into further depth of the technology.  I did no better, and would send back another paragraph about the cyborg’s Pinocchio-like desire to be human.  After perhaps only a few months of this back and forth, our great novel had no plot, and neither of us had created any sense of movement, either in the sense of the story, or in the creative process.  I am sure that the pages of descriptive paragraphs, wherever they may be, never progressed past that point.

Best Practices: Collaborative Writing

Despite my reluctance to collaborate with other writers, I have discussed the possibility on several occasions.  What I’ve uncovered during these rare discussions makes for some interesting “best practices.”

First, it is important to understand and agree upon the concept.  If the ground rules for the story aren’t clearly articulated, the writing process can become contentious.  At best, collaborating on a story without rules can lead to a hodge-podge of conflicting ideas.

Secondly, it is important to identify the roles within the storytelling process.  Both authors may be charged with advancing the story, but it is best to play off of strengths.  Some authors write elegant description of settings and spaces, while others have an ear for dialogue.  While one author may be aware of their own tendencies, it typically takes an outside voice to clearly articulate and confirm your strengths.

Finally, mete out the direction and plot arcs for individual characters.  Inevitably, a writer develops emotional ties with one character or another, and builds a sense of the character’s thoughts and actions.  A potential conflict here is that another writer may have another sense of who that character is, and how that character perceives the World.  Be sure to identify a character’s starting point, and identify who will be responsible for charting that character’s development.

Anything I Missed?

There are numerous potential pitfalls to collaboration, and probably just as many best practices for avoiding them.  What pitfalls have stood in the way of your successful collaboration, and how did you overcome them?  What would you call the “best practices” for collaborative storytelling?  Let me know in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Viganhajdari, Creative Commons CCO License. 

The Writing Process: Where

March 13, 2017

I’ve heard two conflicting schools of thought when it comes to a writing space.  Some argue that the writing space is sacred, and that you need to have an assigned space that is your writing space, where you know you’re there to write and do nothing else.  Others argue that you need to be ready to write anytime and anywhere, because it doesn’t matter; when the muse inspires you to write, you must be ready.  When I consider my own writing space, I break it down to three components: physical space, time, and mind space.

Before you set a pencil to paper or open up that word processor, you need to find your own writing space.  For some, it is easier than others.  In On Writing, Stephen King describes writing on a typewriter and a children’s desk before getting his own writing desk.  I’d imagine he’d be able to set up a piece of butcher paper on an ironing board and still manage to get his 2,000+ words per day on the page.  Max Barry, the writer behind Jennifer Government reportedly wrote in his car during his lunch breaks.  Somewhere, I once read that Hemingway would write while naked and standing in the middle of his kitchen; I’m not sure if that’s a joke, or if that’s the winning formula for a Pulitzer.  I write wherever I can find a comfortable space, but it usually amounts to the couch.  When I was first married, we had a broken old futon that served as our primary couch, and on more than one occasion as our guest bed.  We still have it, and it still serves as our guest bed.  If I had to guess how much of Absconded by Sin was written while on that futon, I’d place the number at about 90%, and think that I was guessing too low.  Nevertheless, this was my writing space through my first several completed works.

I’ve heard that a number of writers write in the morning. Barbara Kingsolver and Kurt Vonnegut are two such writers that I can verify through their own words, and I’ve seen Stephen King mention the same.  When I started out, I was a morning writer, too.  I would wake up with my wife, who had an early commute, make her lunch every morning, and then start writing as soon as she left.  If I was lucky, I’d be out doing errands by 10am.  If I wasn’t, then I’d still be on the futon at noon, wondering if I’d get out to the grocery store that day or be able to get in a short run before I started my run of job applications for the day.  Whichever way you looked at it, both my plans for the day and my physical location depended on just how much I’d written that morning.  Now, of course, I have other obligations, and I do most of my writing at night.  I’ll talk more about that in a later post.  Today, the only time I spend working on fiction in the morning is after the clock strikes midnight, if I have the energy.

Aside from the physical space, there’s also the mental space.  There was a time that I’d be in constant thought, entirely focused on my fiction writing.  It didn’t matter if I started at 7am or 11am, I was going to be working on that novel.  I would go out on a short run or a bike ride, or go to the store, and I was always thinking about Angela and Henry, the two protagonists of my story.  In fact, sometimes the mere act of rolling a cart through a store was the perfect subterfuge that allowed me to focus on ending a scene or identifying a character’s motivations.  Of course, things have changed since I started writing Absconded by Sin, and getting started is sometimes a more arduous task.  I do some of my best writing on Sundays, or after I’ve had time to decompress in the evenings.  It’s rare that I’m able to get home from work, hit the keyboard, and feel like my writing is truly at its best.  When I’m writing, and truly moving the cursor, I’m not thinking about work, and I’m not checking to see what my friends think about the new MCU movie trailer, I’m writing, and that’s all that’s going on between my two ears.

I am a writer of habit, and I have never been able to write for any sustained period while in a coffee shop.  Once, I spent the day writing from a park bench.  It was a very productive day, and that park bench was much better than a coffee shop.  However, from the perspective of physical comfort and mental space, neither was nearly as familiar as my time spent on that old futon.

Short Recommendations: Books to Help You Write Books

March 1, 2017

I remember hearing somewhere that there is more money in books on how to publish novels than there is in publishing novels.  This is clearly not cited, verified, or quantified, but there’s no doubt that there’s money in “how to” books, and one of the most meta how-to books are books about publishing books.  In this brief blog post, I wanted to highlight three of the books that I’ve used through the years.  These are in no particular order, as I’ve used all of these, and found them all to be useful.

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published – Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry

My wife gave me this book as a gift several years ago.  It has helped me map out the route between a completed manuscript and publication.  Time and again, I hear subject matter that I first learned about in this book, and it is a great reference for deciphering “agentspeak” and “publisherspeak.”  I’ve primarily used it as a resource for creating my author packet.  In essence, what do publishers and agents see when I submit my query letter?

David and Arielle’s site: http://www.thebookdoctors.com

Story Engineering – Larry Brooks

It has been a few years since thriller-writer Larry Brooks has published an entirely new novel.  Instead, Larry has paid a particularly keen focus over the past several years toward helping other writers provide their best possible product.  Story Engineering is one of the first in a line of books that aims to do just that.

A lot of us have worked on projects where we have to clearly understand the requirements, and then we design the project around those requirements.  Story Engineering explains the purpose that engineering plays within writing. No, you’re not going to need to learn any JavaScript or Python, but you are going to need to learn about your book before you actually start your narrative.

Larry’s Site: http://www.storyfix.com

On Writing – Stephen King

As you well know by now, Stephen King is my favorite modern author.  He is my favorite in the pantheon of modern storytellers, and I’m sure I’m not alone there.  At one point, I was reading from this book every day.  There are some items from this book that I took to heart.  One of which was the 2,000 word per day rule.  I strive for this during NaNoWriMo, and was attempting to do this every day in my down period between careers.  By using this dictum, I’d complete a manuscript in 50 days, if I put my mind to it.  Of course, not everything goes as planned.  There are some other interesting discussion points for this book that are worth mentioning, with one of my favorites being “the road to Hell is paved in adverbs” (paraphrased, as I, sadly, don’t have the book in front of me at the moment).

Stephen King’s site: http://www.stephenking.com

Long Hiatus

January 23, 2012

Dear Readers,

It has been a long time since I’ve posted–or, at least, a long time compared to the previous string of posts. My writing momentum hasn’t exactly picked up since the post-Nanowrimo lull, but I have managed a few thousand words here and there, and estimate that my second novel is still 85-90% away from completion. At least, I hope so, and I hope things eventually pick up. Stewie Griffin aptly called one of his intellectual peers “Phony Curtis” in reference to Tony Curtis and the Alan Alda character from “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  I hope that this doesn’t sound like the half-sincere ramblings of “Phony Curtis” when I say that a finished manuscript is coming soon.

My wife suggested that I do a personal FebNoWriMo to get the project done. I’d be surprised if it took me another 50,000 words to get this done, as I’ve planned for about 15-20k.  However, you never know.  At least I won’t have the latest Stephen King book, 11/22/63 staring me in the face.  At the same time, I need another book to read, and I’ve read a great deal of what King has to offer. I’m not quite sure what my next great read will be, as I haven’t really found any authors that match the tone, narration, and scope of the King novels that I adore.

I enjoy reading King, that’s for sure. After all, that’s where I was, reading King, wondering what it would take for me to take my writing to that level, and that’s what spurred the yarn that I want to share with you this evening. Reader be warned, this may be a bit of a ramble.

Sincerely,

Jim

They say that you can learn a lot about writing from reading, whether it is good writing, bad writing, or somewhere in the middle.  As far as Stephen King’s 11/22/63 went, I won’t pigeonhole it into any of those categories.  Suffice it to say, while it wasn’t my favorite of King’s books, it definitely wasn’t bad, and it definitely wasn’t his worst.  Rather than evaluate it on a “I give this x amount of stars,” allow me to give a rundown about what I liked about it, what I learned from it, and what I think it needed in order to improve.

11/22/63 is a tour de force, and other bloggers in the blogosphere compare it favorably with “The Great Gatsby,” which I wonder how many 20th Century diarists privately complained that Nick Carraway’s character didn’t interact with Jordan or Mr. Gatz or Owl Eyes like he should have.   a King’s epic about a man who enters a 2011 diner and escapes into a 1968 alley is indeed an enjoyable read.  The main character ‘s attempt to stop the Kennedy Assassination–and, by transference, avoid MLK’s, RFK’s, and the entire Nixon administration–follows the hero’s journey, including gate keepers, monsters, and travels across time and country.  From Derry to Dallas, with Florida and Fort Worth in between, Stephen King has created an odyssey that spans two centuries.  Jake Epping is a modern day Homeric hero, but that label extends only so far.

You learn to like the character of Jake Epping.  He’s very similar to other likeable characters in the King universe. He’s an outsider, who is bound to be silent because of what he knows, and who tends to get in trouble when he forgets about that point.  It’s hard to say just where he fits though.  He has all the resources laid out for him, but he isn’t as resourceful as the main character from Cell, Clay Riddell, or the mute Nick Andros from The Stand.  However, when he rids Derry of their violent butcher (is there really any other kind), he shows that he isn’t entirely dependent on having a map to get where he needs to go.  In fact, he proves himself pretty darn ruthless.  At the same time, Jake becomes a likeable character.

One of the tools that King uses to accomplish this likeable character is the use of the first person narrative.  Since Jake knows what is going to happen, he actually moves towards a third person omniscient POV.  One couldn’t say that he is omniscient by any stretch of the imagination, but his ‘map,’ which allows him to foresee the events stretching from ’58 to ’63 accomplishes much more than a normal first person could.  11/22/63 clocks in at over 800 pages, which is quite a lot–and is significantly more than my first novel–but if you’ve seen and sensed the pace at which King writes his novels, you wonder how he could fit 5 years into 800 pages.  After all, many of his other works of that length span a year, maybe a couple of years on the outside, but Jake Epping’s journey covers 5+ years and a half dozen different continuities.  The sense of pace was something that I admired as I read through this book.  Epping might be the first person narrator, but he doesn’t linger long on details that are more or less incidental.  For example, though King creates two sets of teenage characters that serve as dramatic foils to Jake and Sadie, and several other adult relationships that also comment upon Jake’s relationship with Sadie, he only lingers on one other relationship, that of Lee and Marina Oswald.  All of the other potential foils flicker in and out, false green lights and eyes in fading billboards.

I could learn a lot from that pace, that first person narrative, and that likeability of character. Jake talks about the past harmonizing, and leaves it at that.  The two Als, the two teenaged couples, and the two estranged couples that end in death are all evidence of that harmonizing, that pacing, and that will that King has to get through 5+ years in less than two reams of paper. In my latest attempt at a novel, my characters always seem to rise.  At one point, some 110,000 words into the novel, I reintroduce the main character’s mother.  I seriously feel like including the commentary “and my mother? Remember my mother? The last time you saw her, I was in high school” into my text.  I could get away with it–I think.  After all, it’s a first person narrative.  But WWJED?  What would Jake Epping do?  Jake pines for Sadie when she’s not there, he compares her to his estranged ex-wife, who never actually gets any time on stage, and he doesn’t ramble when a character gets re-introduced after not appearing since 1958.

However, like that of Odysseus and Aeneas, Jake’s likability wanes.  Rather than 1400BC, Jake’s starts going south around November of 1963.  Jake, who always seems to do things based on the presumption that what he is doing is for the betterment of all mankind.  When things start to indicate that they will be any different than just that, he starts to come across as selfish.  It’s realistic, in a sense, because everyone seeks to preserve self, just like everyone changes.  If Jake didn’t change in the five years of literary time, I would have been a little disappointed.  However, even with the change, I remain a little disappointed in Jake because of the way in which he changed.  Jake, who had thought of himself as thoughtful and careful starts coming across as brash and reckless.  His motives appear to change in a manner that clashes with his original directive. Because of that, I think that the character arc for Jake Epping is what really needs improvement.

King did everything else well.  As someone who never lived 1963, I came away from 11/22/63 feeling like I understood it much better than any history book would allow.  I learned more about Oswald and Jack Ruby–though I know that the historicity of the characters is immediately called into question due to the fact that this was a work of fiction–than I’d ever learned in Mr. Mullen’s or Mr. Newell’s.  However, when it came to Jake Epping, I put the book away, wondering if Jake Epping was more Nick Carraway or Holden Caulfield. I sympathized with Jake, but started to wonder if I could trust him.  While Odysseus makes his triumphant return to Ithaca, and Aeneas triumphs in the Rome of antiquity, Jake is robbed of his triumphs every step of the way, to the point where you wonder if Jake was the instrument of change, or merely that guy that ends up coughing all throughout John Cage’s 4’33”.

I don’t want my readers to come away with the same feeling about my Tadashi Mori.

There were some lovable characters in 11/22/63.  High on my list, Deke and Sadie both take their turns as ascended secondary characters.  By the end, Sadie is probably right below the protagonist.  However, when it matters, Deke seems to go the same way as Ms. Ellie and the kids lindy-hopping in Derry’s park.  It’s not King’s fault.  Perhaps I’m projecting my own wishes for my characters onto Deke.  By the end of the novel, Deke is thirty-years gone and Jake has aged five years in a day.  I’m still left to wonder if Jake has learned his lesson  I suppose I am learning mine; if I want sympathetic characters, I need to make sure that they remain true to who they are when I introduce them.

With the rant out of the way, and the writing outlined before me, I return to my own novel, hoping that it will one day leave some blogger (or Twitter) discussing/ranting/ruminating (about/because of) it.  I leave you with these two polls.  Thanks for reading.

The Countdown to NaNoWriMo 2011 Continues

October 13, 2011

Last November, in the midst of my epic first novel, I started NaNoWriMo. It seemed like a great idea, and I’d been toying with it since hearing about it several years ago (whether in college or in grad school, I do not know). Since I was in the midst of a long dry spell for employment, I figured that it would give me something to do. I’d treat writing (and editing) as a regular, 9-to-5 job. In reality, it was more like 7:30 until whenever, but it gave me something by which I could keep myself occupied during those hours when my wife was out winning our bread. Things are different this year.

This year, I will come in to NaNoWriMo having been gainfully employed for ten consecutive months, assuming I don’t pull an American Beauty and start lifting weights and smoking pot in the garage. This employment means that I am occupied from 8:30 to 6:00, assuming you take into account my commute. This leaves considerably less time for me to work on my novel–vote below in order to help me shake the “Tentative Title” that serves as a header for each page. Due to this, there are certain changes that have taken place in terms of my preparation.

While I did my research for last year’s novel, I was still able to churn out 183,000+ words through flying by the seat of my pants and knowing my characters. Henry would always be Henry, and Brooke would always be Brooke. It also helped that there were really only two primary characters, a half dozen secondary characters, and a glut of tertiary characters. I wasn’t dealing with the Fellowship of the Ring here!

This year, I am plotting in advance, and plotting heavily. At the end of NaNoWriMo, I want to have 50,000 words for November, but I’m also aiming for the month of December to be dedicated to mop-up work. In contrast, it took me around seven months to complete my first novel AFTER WriMo. The problem with this little endeavor is that it feels less organic. I was happy going by the seat of my pants last year. I will be happy writing this year, too, because I’m not married to plot points being in order. Good thing, too; my wife wouldn’t go for Mormon marriage.

It is a nice safety blanket, that much is certain. I am busy plotting seven sections of the novel. So far, I’ve plotted three… fora total of 81 plot points or ideas–of course, I’m using plot point quite loosely here. Assuming that I divvy up the 50,000 words evenly (and allow for a little bit of wiggle room), I’ll have about 7,500 words per section. Using that as a means of measuring those three sections, those 81 plot points should cover 22,500 words–less than 300 words per plot point/idea. Wow, who knew building a safety blanket would involve so many steps!

I’ve written additional points in the remaining four sections, but I am having more difficulty than I anticipated in plotting something with this level of detail that is so far ahead of my real-time novel writing. Characters develop, they change. Even stoic characters must change a little, no matter how much they resist. That is the most difficult aspect of it all, especially considering I have a hobo slumgullion of characters with their own unique needs and personalities. In addition, I’d be covering dangerous ground if I decided to change plot points that impact the resolution.

As I was on my commute home, as well as doing some late night grocery shopping, I started to wonder about some of the most recognizable writers and their stories. Did Stallone know that Rocky would beat Apollo? Did Robert Rodriguez really go in knowing that The Mariachi and Bucho were brothers? Did the team behind the newest BSG have a detailed list of who was a cylon and when it would be revealed? I think that these three examples run the spectrum from “absolutely” to “probably not,” and it leaves me to wonder. Some books translate very well to the box office, and follow a clearly discernible heroic arc. Some books get where you expect them to be, but the journey from the alpha to the omega is a bit of a roller-coaster. And there’s the last kind of book. The kind of book that makes you go “who’s on first, what’s on second, and what the hell was I supposed to ask Alice?”

As I work my way towards the end of this novel, I wonder how much I should plot it out and how much I should leave it all to chance. Stephen King talks about writing as if you’re unearthing a fossil. The story’s all there, but you have to be careful how you unearth it. I love that analogy. I also think that writing is a means of making the subconscious conscious, and I am wondering just how much I want to funnel those subconscious processes into a very focused form of consciousness.

As with many pursuits, writing is like life. Rather than jump around from one brain dropping to another, and trying to expound on this one, I’ll leave it up to you to make the connection. How do you like to live your life?

Pitch for Novel #2

October 11, 2011

Hello everyone. Thank you for checking in from time to time. I’m going against the advice of the great Stephen King and opening the door just a smidgeon. For the uninitiated, the following is called a pitch. It’s essentially what’s on a book jacket, and it is meant to entice the reader to open to page one and see if the book is worthwhile. Please let me know what you think about the pitch. This is a very rough cut; as such, I am open to suggestions. Thanks!

There are roughly three seven-footers for every million people. What happens when one goes missing?

In 1988, the Slamming Serb turned California high school basketball upside down, taking a high school of under 100 students all the way to the state tournament. In 1989, he disappeared. Twenty-three years later, Tad, a history teacher and basketball fanatic, moves to the small fog-drenched California coastal town with the hopes of finding their legendary lost giant. The town hasn’t forgotten their big man, but nobody’s willing to talk.

If he is going to get anywhere, Tad must enlist in the help of a priest who delivers masses from an ice cream shop, a reclusive millionaire with an eye for antiquities, and the local pariah to help him put together the pieces. In the mean time, Tad must protect his students from a series of strange happenings as old rivalries are made new again. Tad must resolve his own family issues and uncover the truth before the entire town becomes buried by its own pride.

In addition, I’m looking for a working title. Vote for what sounds best, or tell me a better one in the comments.

70k Milestone Passed

October 7, 2011

Last night, I passed 70,000 words on my current project.  That leaves my project at somewhere between 140 and 230 pages, depending on pitch and typeface.  I told myself that I would budget my words carefully, though this book is growing like a wave that has not yet reached its crest.  Every time I try to place the story in a moment of rising action, climax, or falling action, I carve out another little niche, and must check to see if it jives with my overall outline.  Who knows what happened with my original outline, but my current outline is a lot more dynamic than I thought it would be at this point in time.

All told, I have passed 250,000 words of fiction since returning to novel writing.  For those of you who haven’t been keeping track, that was sometime after parting ways with my friends at Pioneer.  However, 250,000 words is still short of the estimate for Stephen King’s The Stand, and he has written several books of comparable length to that!  The irony of passing this little milestone is that I have no idea when it happened.  Given my most recent little break from writing, it could have happened a month ago and I wouldn’t have known any different.  I better get back to that old word count.  Then again, I should also reacquaint myself with my pillow.

Has anybody else ventured into fiction writing recently?  How far have you gone?