My senior year of high school, I left my English teacher’s Christmas Party with Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot in my hands and an exciting new strain of the flu setting up shop somewhere in my respiratory system.
As a game (and our winter break reading assignment), we each wrote the title of our favorite book on a scrap of paper and placed it in a bowl, and then we passed the bowl around. It was literary roulette. And now, thanks to a sick classmate, I was about to spend my winter break reading.
Throughout that feverish Christmas holiday, I walked my first lap in the multiverse that would eventually introduce me to thinnies, low men, twinners, ka and ka-tet, and the Twelve Guardians of the Beams—in other words, the wonky fantasy lexicon that has contributed to some readers calling King a master of literature, and others a peddler of low art.
King is a divisive author. Some hang on his every word, while others fall in league with a more critical crowd. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days in polite society are numbered,” King wrote in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
As a brand, Stephen King conjures a lot of images, ideas, and opinions. As a person, he is an admitted peddler of art of sometimes dubious taste.
“I have spent a good many years … being ashamed about what I write. I think I was 40 before I realized that almost every writer … has been accused of wasting his God-given talent,” King also wrote in On Writing.
As a writer, he’s a lifelong tradesman with a prolific career and an intense love for his craft—and plenty of hard-won wisdom to dole out.
I finished ’Salem’s Lot before school started back, and the book staked my expectations straight through the heart. I’ll get more into that in a minute. I read The Shining and a few other books of his in college, but I didn’t rediscover King until a couple of years ago.
I was writing a spooky western, and reading The Gunslinger was my reward to myself for finishing my first draft. It’s the first book in the lengthy “Dark Tower” series, and I had no intention of going further than Book One (I’m now on Book Six and headed for the finish line). It was a fun read, but for me as a writer, it was a breakthrough.
I found words I’d never seen before and new ways to use ones I had. My smartphone’s Notes app became a glossary of these words as I kept track of these new tools and inspirations. For example, horses don’t just neigh and whinny, they whicker. That gritty substance that fills the desert isn’t just sand, it’s silt and scree, and the solid spots are hardpan. I live in Oklahoma, but I also live in the city. Out my windows are grimy alleys and police sirens—a challenge for someone who writes about a dusty town on the prairie.
When I sat down to write more drafts, I felt like one of those freaky rainbow shrimp some scientists think see eight times as many colors as humans do. Something in my mind had become unstuck, and I now had the screws (and ratchets sized perfectly to fit those screws) that I needed to fix my clumsiest passages.
And not only are King’s obscure and niche English words useful for a writer but so is his boldness with made-up words like the ones I mentioned earlier. This practice isn’t just for genre writers, either. Anyone who needs a word for something that doesn’t exist can invent one. This can be difficult to do so without sounding silly—I’ve read plenty of books that don’t quite nail it—but King does it right.
This year, I decided to return to Stephen King with a serious eye. That first binge at age 17 was half my life ago, but this time I wasn’t picking up his books to be entertained (well, maybe a little bit); I was there to try to assess one of the most pervasive voices in our media and learn everything I possibly could from him.
I selected 10 novels that I had never read and devoured them. I wanted everything: the good and the meh. Sort of like that guy who let every angry insect sting him so he could develop a pain scale. Although even my least favorite King books have been worthwhile.
Now that I’m over 10 books into my experiment, I’ve developed a fuller appreciation for King’s catalogue and a somewhat cynical understanding of the way his brand has been manipulated. More importantly, here are some things I’ve learned that have already started to seep into my own writing and perception of the industry.
Put Your Everyman Through Hell, but Not Right Away
When I said ’Salem’s Lot was nothing like I expected, I was mostly referring to the tone. When I read it 17 years ago, I was already writing. I’d finished my first (embarrassing) novel the year before and was very much intent on producing more of the same.
I’d read a bunch of heart-pounding books by Michael Crichton and Frank Peretti by that point, but Stephen King was taboo. I didn’t have any friends who read his stuff. In my circle, King’s books were the no man’s land of genre fiction. And his stuff was sinister and dangerous. (Thanks, marketing team!)
But reading ’Salem’s Lot was technically homework, and I’d just finished reading I am Legend, so I was primed for some hardcore vampire rampages. What I got was about 100 pages of Ben Mears courting Susan Norton. These early chapters had spooky moments. An early dream sequence and other ghastly hints were there, but this was just a book like any other, with characters doing interesting but mostly benign things. And for a long time, it was doing just fine even without the heroes having to battle vampires.
Much later, I discovered Bag of Bones was the same way, and so was Pet Sematary, Insomnia, 11/22/63, and presumably others. By the time we get to the central conflict, it’s hard to imagine anything terrible happening to these characters. We know them so well, and like them so much, that when one of them spots two bald little doctors armed with a giant pair of scissors outside their window in the middle of the night, it feels almost like we’re seeing it.
Too many times in horror movies, we cheer when the actor in the latex mask eats his next victim or the CGI natural disaster consumes its next city. That’s because the writers dump us into serious conflict way too early.
But if we let our characters go on dates, direct school plays, fly kites with their families, and spend time with their best friends, it becomes much harder to detach emotionally when the people they care about fall into danger. And the same goes for the bad guys.
“Bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do … murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street,” King wrote in On Writing.
As a beginning writer, I threw everything I could on the page. I thought darker meant braver. I knew I was young and new, but I also thought I was a genius (cringe!) and needed to prove it. Grim, cryptic, but ultimately thin characters and unnecessary “shocks” peppered my scenes. Talk about bad taste; I had it.
But I discovered that King’s writing often seemed light. The sun came out. Healthy people had healthy relationships. Friends palled around. Neighbors shared porch-beers. Couples danced and fell in love. And for a long time, vampires, wendigos, beings of pure chaos, psychotic ex-husbands, and Lee Harvey Oswald interrupted none of it.
For a writer who has always skewed toward genre (sci-fi, horror, fantasy), this was the opposite of what I’d always believed. Many writers give their characters a moment of easy breathing before things turn upside down, but I’d never seen someone linger on the good times for so long.
Even some of King’s strongest detractors will concede he develops strong characters. So I’ve learned to also let my characters breathe free, at least for a while. After all, the best drama comes from ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
I let a girl who’s about to meet some ghosts spend a few chapters exploring her new town and hanging out with her dad. I let a gravedigger in a short story eat a peaceful lunch before any nighttime visitors tried the knob on his bedroom door.
Good writing seems to call for the establishment of characters’ humanity. They’re unremarkable, underprepared, and caught off-guard by the craziness.
Please Do Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain
If you’re a professional writer publishing books on a consistent basis, your publisher will brand you. People don’t pick up a Coca-Cola expecting laundry detergent, so if you’re selling as a fantasy writer, you’d better get comfortable in your mithril.
If actors take roles against type to avoid being locked into playing the same character every single time, it seems publishers take pains to ensure the opposite for writers in their stable. You wrote a spooky story about a high school girl with telekinetic powers? You’re now the spooky story guy.
The myth of Stephen King as the horror master is a smoky hologram whipped up by his publishers’ marketing teams. It’s branding, and it isn’t quite honest.
The Wizard of Oz shows up over and over again in King’s books. Pet Sematary constantly uses Oz the Great and Terrible as a metaphor for death, the Frank L. Baum story gets referenced in The Talisman, and Oz imagery abounds in the sewers in It.
And I definitely can’t leave out how the gunslinger and crew visit a (spoilers!) literal Emerald City at the end of Wizard and Glass, the fourth book of the “Dark Tower” series, complete with a giant floating magic head and a shady machinist hiding behind a curtain who gets sniffed out by their dog (end spoilers!).
I’m sure it isn’t intentional, but there’s a tidy parallel here for the way a guy who’s essentially a man making a living has been magnified and mutated by marketing smoke and mirrors.
It’s true that Pet Sematary, styled as the manuscript King locked away in a drawer because it was too scary to exist, was never intended to be published … but that had nothing to do with the scares, and everything to do with its unrelenting grimness. It’s wasn’t that King thought it was too frightening for the world but that it was too bleak. There’s a huge difference.
That didn’t stop the marketing machine from running with the idea of King as the horror master, similar to the way they’ve run with the notion of King as the “spooky story guy” since the beginning of his career.
Let me slam on the brakes here: King is a horror master. It’s territory he’s returned to again and again, and some of his most enduring contributions to pop culture have come from there.
There are obvious exceptions. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, The Body (the film version is Stand by Me), and The Green Mile are famous because of the movies based on them.
But there are plenty of examples of King going beyond this label. Pick up Firestarter. It’s sci-fi. So is Cell and 11/22/63 (an excellent book with a hard title to remember if you missed the JFK assassination). The Talisman, the “Dark Tower” series, Insomnia, The Stand, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon are fantasy. From a Buick 8 is a meta commentary on the nature of narrative. And Desperation is Christian fiction (and also horror). Yup, you read that right.
All of those books have chilling moments, but so does “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
So, while we mortals (King included) like to tell stories and hopefully get paid for it, the economics of the industry might make it impossible for even the most successful of us to work without a distorted public face.
When you’re a household name, you can dip into as many genres as you want, and people will indulge you if your name is the reason they buy your books. But if you’re just beginning to see your name in print via the traditional pen-to-Barnes & Noble route, good luck getting your handlers to let you alter your image.
Take that into account while you’re first carving out your niche, and also when you assess authors on the shelves.
Scribbles in the Margins
My writing has changed on a granular level after reading King, as well.
- My descriptions are richer but briefer. According to King, writers have a heightened ability to observe the world. We recognize and remember details that a lot of people might not notice. We can use these details to trigger comprehensive images in readers’ minds without having to endlessly describe them. If there’s a dresser in a scene, there’s no reason to give your reader an account of each mismatched drawer pull. Just tell them it looks like it was built from a kit and constant moves have chipped it down to its particleboard heart, and they’ll fill in the rest.
- I spend less time tangled up in prose: My vocabulary is richer now thanks to the words King has introduced me to so I can think of the right one faster, and I’m less reluctant to take a breath and mentally untangle myself.
- My characters keep inside jokes with each other, and they get phrases and sayings stuck in their heads. This was one of the first things I noticed in King’s work, and I’ve wondered if he has a rule about giving these to all of his main players. It’s effective in humanizing and characterizing characters and their relationships.
- I use fewer adverbs. No one should ever run quickly or scream loudly. The road to hell is paved with adverbs, or so King says.
- I skip the boring stuff. It’s almost never a good idea to tell your readers everything you know about your main characters. A lot of that stuff is just too boring to make them read. (King has admitted that sometimes his wife has to rein him in on this.) There’s a difference between benign and boring, and a good writer can describe a character’s daily ritual in a way that reveals the character’s internal life, and that’s worthwhile.
- I’m bolder in exploring characters’ backstories, spending more time to go deeper. I used to leave more unsaid because I was afraid to overindulge my interest in my own characters (which relates to the previous point), but sometimes a few extra details can add valuable context and texture to a plotline. King’s work has shown me how to take a quick dive into a character’s history and then get back out to the present in a hurry.
- I’ve gone from a disastrous two-simile-per-page habit to hardly using them at all. I’ve paid attention to how often they pop up in King’s writing, and then gone back to my own drafts to really hammer on the backspace key.
You can learn these kinds of things from almost any writer, and no matter what you write, you should read everything. “You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little … should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written,” King wrote in On Writing.
Writing Is About Reading
The final thing I’ve gained by reading Stephen King is a deeper interest in stories overall. My to-read list has grown and expanded dramatically while I’ve worked my way through King’s catalogue.
This is great news for any kind of writer, whether you’re looking for that sweet Barnes & Noble shelf space, or you want the words to flow more easily in those quiet sessions with your journal and a latte, or you’re creating new copy for your favorite client. One more quote from On Writing, although King certainly isn’t the only writer who would tell you this: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write.”
I think my King experiment will affect my writing for the rest of my career. Not just because of the new tools I’ve picked up and the direct advice I’ve taken to heart but also because every book we read is like adding one more banana peel or beer can into our writer’s Mr. Fusion. It all goes in there and hopefully gets us somewhere worth going.