Parched For Readers

A few years ago I met a gentleman in New Orleans who had never heard of Stephen King. He was thirty-three years old at the time, a musician for whom a classical education even at the elementary level had never been a priority but who nevertheless was still knowledgeable of pop culture. Still, he was unfamiliar with King and Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and the other King books which had been adapted for film. He didn’t have a book in his house; neither, as it happened, did his mother, or the five of his eight siblings whose homes I visited.
Stephen King, I think I can safely say, is a household name, so people such as my acquaintance who have never heard of him are probably the exception rather than the rule. That no-book thing, however…that bothers me. I know people who watch Castle, which begins its sixth season next month, who haven’t read a mystery novel in decades, if ever. Dexter? Longmire? I still find people who have no idea that these popular dramas are based on novels. Justified slyly winked at Raylan Givens’ literary origins a couple of years ago but I doubt it increased sales of Raylan, which was published on season premiere night.
James Bell’s question from last week regarding the future of publishing was an interesting one which evoked a number of interesting responses. Almost all of them, however, implicitly made an assumption that I don’t think we can make anymore, in this era of entertainment everywhere: we’re each and all of us assuming that there will still be readers. Do you walk into homes without books in evidence? When you’re out somewhere and see people reading, how many do you not see reading? How many times in the past month have you been talking to someone about the last book you’ve read and heard them say, “Gee, I haven’t read a book in years. I just don’t have the time”?
I’m not attempting to be an alarmist here, or a Chicken Little. What I think I’m seeing, however, is a situation where the problem isn’t that we’re drowning in books; it’s that we’re parched for readers, and we’re fighting a battle of attrition. There are plenty of books out there worth reading. For every book I read there is at least one, often more, that I don’t get to and that winds up on my “someday” list. That’s not the problem, as I see it. The difficulty is that for everyone one of me, and you, there are, it seems, five or six who just don’t care. They’d rather watch reality television or something like that.

Am I wrong here? Or am I pointing out the 800 pound gorilla in the room that we’re all trying to studiously ignore?

How Things Have Changed

A new Stephen King book hit the bookstores this week. It’s titled JOYLAND, and it’s much more like THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON than THE STAND or MISERY or DESPERATION or the Tower series or any of a couple dozen books that I could name. It’s published under the wonderful, indispensable, and at this point venerable Hard Case Crime imprint. The book’s appearance made some major news in those places where books are still news because if you want to buy the book, you’re going to have to buy The Book. There will not be an e-book version of JOYLAND for the foreseeable  future; yes, you’ll be able to obtain an audiobook, but something for your Kindle or Nook or other e-reader isn’t going to happen for awhile, unless you want to buy a copy of the book, tear out each page, paste it on Your Precious and…of course, you are not going to do that. 
There is a bit of irony here, given that one of the first e-books by a mainstream writer to be published solely as an ebook  — not as we know them now, but it was an ebook nonetheless — was a novella entitled “Riding the Bullet,” a chilling little ten-finger exercise that was written by, uh, Stephen King. You had to download some (free) software called “SoftLock” in order to read it. This occurred way back in 2000. There were other ebooks published, including a pay-as-you-go serial by King titled “The Plant,” but the format never really caught on until some smart folks at Amazon came up with what they came up with. King, however, was there at the beginning. There accordingly have been some who have now taken King to task over what they perceive to be his apparent one-eighty, somehow finding him to blame for the popularity of the electronic format since he was one of the first to embrace it with the same fervor that Jack Torrance embraced that rotting corpse in THE SHINING. I would disagree. King has made quite clear that his reason for limiting the format of JOYLAND to physical form isn’t to disown the child he midwifed at the turn of the century; he is doing it to help physical booksellers. This is not something new for King; those of us of some age will recall that King did an unapologetic tour of indy stores in 1994 to promote INSOMNIA, riding his motorcycle from city to city and making appearances to yes, mobs of people. There’s also a more recent model for this. A growing number of musicians are occasionally releasing some new songs only on vinyl, to support independent record stores.  Is he taking a risk financially, by limiting the format to physical books, and cutting out the impulse buyer? Possibly. Is Hard Case Crime? Almost certainly. JOYLAND won’t be available at the press of a button; it’s going to take some effort, and yes, some waiting to get it, maybe even some inconvenience. Some folks may feel it’s not worth the hassle.
But can I tell you something, as someone who loves his Kindle? JOYLAND is worth whatever it takes for you to get it. Let me go further than that: this is a book that should only see the light of day as an actual book. It’s a coming of age novel, with some mystery and romance and a bit of the supernatural thrown in, and it works as a physical book. JOYLAND is set in 1973, at a downheel amusement park on the coast of North Carolina, and I swear that as I turned the pages I could smell — very faintly — popcorn and taffy and ocean water and hear ferris wheel music rising up from between the pages. Am I given to imagining things? Maybe. But isn’t that what reading is all about? I don’t think it would be quite the same on an e-reader.
Let me now ask you: what was the last physical book (and we’ll count audio books in the mix) that you purchased? How long ago was it? And what do you think of what King and Hard Case Crime are doing with JOYLAND? Do you think that limiting its format to a physical product is a good idea or a huge mistake?

Last Lines

By John Gilstrap
Over the years, we’ve devoted a lot of space here at The Killzone to the importance of first lines, but in the grand scheme of things, I spend far more time in my own writing fretting over the last line.  I’ve lost track of the books that have held me solidly in their spell all the way till the last couple of pages, only to betray my devotion by short-changing me on the ending.  I vow never to do that.

As a writer of thrillers, I think it’s my job to give my readers a wild ride, filled with exciting twists.  I work hard to make my characters seem alive to readers, and I’m often harder on the good guys than I am on the bad guys–at least for a while.  I owe it to my readers to bring the story to a satisfying ending.  That doesn’t mean that I promise a “happy ending” necessarily, but I do guarantee a sense of peace when the journey is over.  It’s the kind of commitment that I think breeds trust between a writer and his readers.

Now that I’m writing a series, I face the additional challenge of leaving enough of a cliffhanger to compel readers to look forward to the next book without also incurring their wrath by making them feel baited and switched.  To pull all of that off within the time constraints of my contract, I have to know the point to which I am writing the story.

All too often these days, I read books by brand name authors who seem to end their books by running out of words.  The plot develops, climaxes and then . . . I’m at the back cover.  One of the most egregious examples in recent years is John Grisham’s A Painted House.  I actually wondered if I had picked up a defective book where the last chapter had been removed.  Don’t get me wrong: I think Grisham is a great story teller, and as I read it, I thought that House was one of his best.  And then . . . thud.

An even more famous example is Stephen King’s The Stand.  There I was plowing through hundreds of thousands of words, loving it, loving it, loving it, and . . . what are you kidding me??

Here’s the thing about this three-act structure most of us adopt in our writing: A story had a beginning, a middle and an end, and each part is equally important.  There’s no room for laziness.  Every component of every scene needs to pull the reader forward.  The last scene is most important of all, I think, because that’s what the reader will remember forever.

I haven’t always gotten it right, either–at least not if you read some of the letters I’ve gotten over the years.  Nathan’s Run in particular has generated a number of letters from fans who wanted one more chapter.  In fact, the chapter they craved was in my original draft.  I took it out and reinserted it four or five times before I decided to leave it in the drawer.  Without giving too much away, I thought–and I still think, but am less sure–that the story ended when the action ended, and that the final feel-good knot-tying chapter was a step too far.

Of course, I’m the curmudgeon who believes that JK Rowling’s biggest misstep in the largely-wonderful Harry Potter saga is the final chapter–the coda, really–of The Deathly Hallows.  I would rather have imagined the future instead of having it spelled out for me.  It didn’t ruin anything for me; it just felt like one too many bits of storytelling.

What do y’all think?  Any favorite endings out there?  Terrible ones?

For me, the best closing line ever written, bar none, comes from To Kill A Mockingbird: “And he’d be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”  It tells us everything we need to know, and let’s us just float on the satisfaction of time well spent.