When I first started writing, I aimed to be a “serious young writer,” which is why after working as a stock clerk at a Hollywood camera store and then as a tile salesman in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, I joined an MFA writing program at USC.
I adored my time at the university and made good friends. We were all serious young writers, ready to storm the Bastille of Mediocrity, beat aside bad agents, and deliver the Truth. Some of us were there to write the serious and artful Great American Screenplay along the lines of Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, The Deer Hunter, and The Conversation. Others, who cared nothing for money, wanted to write the next great play, our generation’s Death of a Salesman or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff? I would later write Who Lives?, a story about who might be among the ten test subjects of the first working kidney dialysis machine.
Some of my friends wanted to crack the novel in a fresh way, such as was done with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and whatever Tom Wolfe was doing with New Journalism, which seemed novelistic. Witness The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Me, I wanted to write movies, plays, and novels—and throw in short stories and essays. The great thing when you’re young is you don’t have to put a governor on your ambitions.
None of us in the program were short of dreaming. The one thing we did NOT want to do was write in a genre, such as writing horror or a thriller. Genre was selling out—just not dreaming big enough.
Influential books at the time for me included Watership Down by Richard Adams, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig, and Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. I didn’t read Stephen King’s books of that decade, which included Carrie, The Shining, Salem’s Lot, and The Dead Zone. That’s because Stephen King was in the horror category, a genre I didn’t want to consider. I also assumed (wrongly) that King must not be a very good writer if he was always writing horror.
Then a few years ago, I read some of his short stories including the one that became the movie The Shawshank Redemption. The stories, touching, revealing, full of emotion, and well-written, blew me away. When his book 11/22/63 came out, I had to see his take on the Kennedy assassination because I remembered the day vividly. I was in fifth grade when Kennedy died. I saw all the adults around me cry, and my parents were Republican.
I became glued to King's 11/22/63. After I finished it, I moved onto his Joyland. I found it gripping and emotional.
These two novels made me appreciate King’s writing and also see many of the things he probably learned early on, things which have taken me many years of writing plays, screenplays, and novels to see. Because I also teach creative writing, these are some of the lessons I try to get across to my students.
I should explain both novels briefly. In 11/22/63, 35-year-old English teacher Jake Epping learns that his friend’s diner in Maine has a time portal in the back room that takes any traveler to a date in 1958 at that same place. No matter how long you stay away, you return two minutes after you left. After Epping tries it a few times, he realizes he could drive down to Texas, hang around five years, and then try to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK.
Joyland is both coming-of-age and a mystery set in 1973. Twenty-one-year-old Devin Jones's heart is broken by his college girlfriend, who runs off with another guy. Each day, Devin is consumed by the loss, but after he takes a summer job at an amusement park in North Carolina and comes to know his co-workers, he slowly mends. He also gets curious about a murder that happened in the park a few years earlier, and there's a rumor that her ghost can be seen on one of the rides.
Using Joyland and 11/22/63, I offer a few things I’ve come to appreciate about King’s writing.
1) Devin Jones in Joyland and Jake Epping in 11/22/63 are great protagonists. Jones is vulnerable and temporarily damaged—and I deeply empathized with him. Epping not only has tremendous curiosity for when he finds a wormhole into the past, but also he realizes he can expunge one great evil—Oswald—and perhaps change history for the better. Both these characters are driven, and readers clearly see their goals and desires.
2) Truth. One of my own goals in my work is to meter out truthful moments. I’m not so much going after the Big T Truth, but it’s the little ones that count, moments that reveal life as we know it. King does this as easily as breathing.
For instance, in Joyland, Jones says, “People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You've heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What's so sweet about that?”
Later Jones realizes, “It’s hard to let go. Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.”
In 11/22/63, Epping says, “We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” Later he adds, “Stupidity is one of the two things we see most clearly in retrospect. The other is missed chances.” We also come to learn and understand another truth, “The past is obdurate.”
When I write, I’m on the lookout for moments when such truths can lend the story extra depth.
3) Foreshadowing is hard to do, but when done well, it gives any story a sense of destiny and the tone of “This happened; you have to hear this.” One reason it’s difficult to create foreshadowing is that you have to know your own story well. If you’re on a first draft, you may not know what will happen fully. You can’t foreshadow it yet. Thus, foreshadowing is something I tend to add in later drafts.
In both of King’s books, the foreshadowing lends foreboding. Also, the narrator indicates he’s older than the events, and he’s relating what has come to dominate his memory. This gives a sense of importance to the stories.
4) Dialogue and details. King has the right balance for both—not too much or too little, which sets the pacing. “I started to reply,” says Jones about the fortuneteller. “She hushed me with a wave of her ring-heavy hand.”
5) The biggest thing that originally stood in my way of appreciating genre fiction was the idea that genre was devoid of theme. Perhaps I thought that literary stories considered theme and all other stories didn’t. Theme, however, is everywhere. Even writers who don’t think about theme tend to have one because where a story ends says something. You can have the richest, most empathetic characters, but if in the end they are all brutally murdered, that’s suggesting something about life, no?
I never thought of Raymond Chandler as genre because the plots of his detective stories were all over the map—but Philip Marlowe’s insights, tone, and themes grabbed me. That should have clued me in that genre could be special.
My wife tends to watch what I call “bludgeoning shows,” things like Dateline or 20/20 where the true-life tales are often about one spouse murdering another and then trying to hide it. A theme that comes through is “Spouses lie and murder, and marriages are horror shows.” While that’s certainly a truth out there, it’s not one I want as universal or paramount.
Theme at its best is a truth that weaves through a story and can be sensed in the end. Good writers somewhere along the way come to understand what their stories are about and then make readers or viewers discover it on their own. King is a master of this. In both Joyland and 11/22/63, you’re in good hands.
I'm now a King fan, even if I haven’t read most of his books. I love these two and I’m starting a new one, Lisey’s Story, because he said in an interview, he felt it was his best one. Truth be told, now that I’ve written two crime novels, Blood Drama and A Death in Vegas, I have an extra appreciation of genre. In theme, I’ve strived to make the books more than bludgeoning shows. They are about the human condition, including its joys and absurdities.
Good stories are hard to create, and as a writer, I have to celebrate good ones when I see them. In my off hours, I’m enjoying Bosch, which streams on Amazon. There’s another genre writer I enjoy: Michael Connelly. That’s for another blog.
Note: NPR interviewed King about how he writes. Read/hear that interview by clicking here.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.