Stephen King has got it. That elusive writerly something that my agent kept trying to get me to add to the manuscript of my first mystery novel. She’d scrawl in the margins, Can you make this more compelling? Aargh! Compelling? Can you be more specific? I’d ask. She couldn’t and, apparently, neither could I. Besides a nice rejection letter from Random House, that mystery novel still has not seen the publishing light of day — yet.
Last summer I read Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 about time travel and the Kennedy assassination (see Blog Post of June, 2012.) I hadn’t read anything by King before, scared away because I’d dismissed him as a writer of horror stories. After reading (and really liking) that novel, I went out and bought his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which is excellent. How does this pertain to my not so compelling first mystery novel, you might ask? Stay with me. Besides including many great stories of King growing up and becoming a writer — the book is part memoir and part writing manual — the book also includes his take on the essential writer’s toolbox. A writer needs vocabulary and grammar to start out with. And after you read what Stephen King has to say about adverb, you’ll be crossing those babies out of your drafts left and right. And you will never use an adverb again in dialog attribution, ever. Again, I digress. Get the book and read it. Take it to heart. I guarantee that you’ll learn something you didn’t already know about writing, or, possibly, you’ll think about something you already know in a different way. Which gets me back to my subject, almost.
According to Stephen King, the most important thing that a writer must do is to read a lot and to write a lot. When we read great writing, he tells us, we are swept off our feet by it. We think, I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand. I have felt that, often. King also says that we read to get a sense of all that can be done. And in order to experience different styles. But here’s the part that sank in: You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Eureka! Here I am writing the sequel to that not so compelling mystery novel and this time I am determined to make it as compelling as possible, as suspenseful even as one of those Stephen King novels. Because in the part I’m writing now, I’m dealing with a crazy person who has kidnapped an opera singer and my protagonist now finds herself locked in the basement of an old building with them and nothing but her wits to get her out of there. I remember that Stephen King has written something similar, well sort of. So I go out and buy it.
In Misery, the protagonist, a writer named Paul Sheldon, wrecks his car and plows into a guard rail on a snowy Colorado highway. Unconscious and with two broken legs, he is discovered and rescued by a woman, Annie Wilkes, who describes herself as his number one fan. Annie is also a trained nurse and completely crazy. I want to tell you all about what happens in this terrifying book which I read in record time for the slow reader that I am. But I won’t. Suffice to say that this book is not just compelling, it is over the top suspenseful and downright scary. And, while I’m not going to give my own crazy character an ax to use to keep the opera singer in line and I’m not going to keep them in that basement room for months, I do hope I can keep them there long enough so that my readers get to know the crazy guy a little bit, long enough to keep them turning the pages.
I also suggest that you read Misery not only because is it a great read, but because you will learn a lot about writing from this novel. Yes, you read that correctly. As a writer who is being forced to write a novel, literally with an ax hanging over him sometimes, Paul Sheldon describes the agony and the ecstasy of writing in wonderful detail. How, even under these circumstances, he can and does get lost in the process of writing. How the story takes over and makes things bearable. He talks about the gotta that he is trying to get into the story he’s writing. The, I think I’ll stay up another fifteen minutes, honey, I gotta see how this chapter comes out. Paul knows he is playing Scheherazade to Annie Wilkes, but also to himself.
As I discovered in On Writing, Stephen King doesn’t plot out his novels. He begins with an idea, because he believes plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. So, too, does Paul Sheldon who keeps writing not only because of the threat of the ax, but also because he is under the spell of the story. He wants to know how it’s going to end up. And he keeps Annie from chopping into him too many times by keeping her wanting more after each chapter. For Paul, writing the story for Annie reminded him of a game he played at summer camp. In it, the counselor started a story and then went around the circle of kids, asking each one in turn to add to the story. There is a stopwatch and the question, Can you? Can you push the story forward in ten seconds? If you couldn’t speak, you had to leave the circle, and if you did manage to say something, the counselor would ask the other question of the game: Did he? Kids raised their hands if you cheated, if you didn’t add anything to the story. Then you had to leave the circle too. So Paul Sheldon asked himself as he sat down at the typewriter each day with his broken legs and asked himself, can you? And you best believe he could. It was a matter of life and death.
Now back to my own little mystery, the one in which I hope to add suspense through the influence of reading Stephen King. The question I ask myself now is, can I? And, I can’t help pulling out a memory from my own childhood to answer that. I’m remembering The Little Engine that Could. And . . . I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.