Learning from Stephen King

Last month I had the great pleasure of reading Stephen King’s Misery to my 15-year-old son. Actually, I read only about a quarter of the novel to him; he read most of it on his own, devouring the chapters while he rode the subway to his cross-country team practices. I’d never read Misery before. I saw the movie when it came out in 1990 and loved it. In fact, that’s why I didn’t read the novel for almost a quarter-century. I doubted it could be better than the movie.
But the book is better. It’s even more disturbing and gruesome. In the movie, the insane nurse Annie Wilkes (played so wonderfully by Kathy Bates) punishes her bedridden captive Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) by breaking his ankles with a sledgehammer. But in the book she chops off his left foot with an ax and cauterizes the stump with a blowtorch. Then, for good measure, she cuts off his thumb with an electric carving knife. But she’s also careful enough to apply a coat of Betadine antiseptic to both the knife and the ax blade. One of the most memorable parts of the novel is the image of the carving knife in motion, flinging drops of Betadine every which way as it saws back and forth. As my son put it: “That picture really stays with you.”
What’s more, King uses the novel to make several interesting points about writing. Paul, the narrator, is a bestselling novelist (like King) who’s loved by millions of readers but disliked by many reviewers (again like King, at least back in the 1980s). Annie is Paul’s deranged “number one fan.” At the start of the novel, before all the torture and amputations, Paul tries to explain some of the techniques of fiction to Annie, but she has no interest in them — she’s strictly a reader, not a writer. And yet she’s passionate about the books she reads and gets furiously upset at implausible plot twists. (“HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCKADOODIE CAR!”)
King explores the issue of plausibility by having Paul recall a childhood memory. He remembers a grade-school class where the teacher encouraged Paul and the other students to play a game called “Can you?” The students would collectively tell a story, with each boy or girl contributing a few twists and turns, and when the story reached a point where the hero faced an impossible dilemma, the teacher would challenge the students to come up with a way out of the fix. She would ask, “Can you?” and the student who accepted the challenge would propose a solution, and then the other students would vote on whether it seemed plausible.
This reminded me of a different game my wife and I still play with our kids during long car rides: the Fortunately/Unfortunately game. The kid playing the Unfortunate role thinks up terrible disasters while the Fortunate kid thinks of ways to escape death and ruin. Both of these games are good exercises for budding novelists. (In our family’s case, though, the games usually go downhill fast. We don’t do well on long car rides.)
Halfway through Misery’s plot, Paul realizes that only writing can save him from his own impossible dilemma. He starts writing a novel that rivets Annie, preventing her from killing him until he finishes the book. King’s descriptions of the writing process are spot-on. Paul talks about seeing a hole in the piece of paper he’s typing on, and through the hole he can see what’s going to happen next in his book. On some days the hole is big, on other days it’s tiny. He also talks about ideas that pop up from the unconscious mind, which he refers to as “the boys in the sweatshop.” Just the other day I was having some trouble with the book I’m working on — I was out of ideas, I didn’t know what would happen next — and my son reassured me by quoting from Misery: “Don’t worry, Dad. Sooner or later the boys in the sweatshop will send up a flare.”

After my son and I finished the book, we rented the movie (he’d never seen it before). The screenwriter (William Goldman) and director (Rob Reiner) made a few smart tweaks to the plot, and Kathy Bates’s performance was just as good as I remembered, but I missed the intimacy of being inside Paul Sheldon’s head and seeing all the fear and despair and cleverness in there. That’s the picture that really stays with you, the one that can’t be filmed.
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It’s No Longer an Either/Or Publishing World and Other Notes from ThrillerFest


Last week I had the honor of being the first author to final for an International Thriller Writers Award for a self-published work, One More Lie. ITW has been forward thinking in this new era, recognizing that the future is now and a thrilling story works no matter what the delivery system.
Although I didn’t take home the top prize, it was cool to be there (along with former blogmate John Gilstrap and others) and to be confirmed in this: it’s no longer an either/or publishing world, but a both/and and why-the-heck not?

Mrs. B and I had our usual wonderful time in New York, where I used to pound the boards as an actor. We had dinner with my agent, Donald Maass, at a nice bistro in the Meatpacking District (really hopping these days). We talked about the craft, natch, and something Don said in passing I had to write down (this happens a lot when you listen to The Man): “Backstory is not just for plot motivation, but deep character need.”
Chew on that one for awhile.
Dear wife and I saw a hysterical Broadway show, One Man, Two Guvnors.It’s hard to describe, but suffice to say the Tony Award winning lead, James Corden, is a comedic genius.
Also saw about two hours of the amazing 24-hour film on time called The Clock.
And I got to teach at CraftFest. The room was packed! Then I realized Lee Child was teaching right after me….still, a good time was had by all.
The most interesting talk at the Fest, for me at least, came from Jamie Raab, senior vice president and publisher at Grand Central Publishing. Some notes:
Ms. Raab stated that, of course, the industry is in flux. Mass market paperbacks, for instance, are in steep decline as a category. Ms. Raab did not see any way for that format to come back to what it once was. Just what this means to the industry is not known at this time (like so many other things!)
Hardcovers, too, are heading south, simply because they have to be priced too high to cover costs of production. But, as we all know, prices are trending downward as more and more ebooks become available at consumer-friendly price points. Consumers are getting used to certain levels, and there’s no way to fight that. Consumers are co-regents with content in the marketplace.
Ms. Raab spoke about the thrillers she’s read over the years that were “game changers.” Not merely good books or great reads, but books that did something so amazingly original or compelling they actually changed the way the books after them were done.
The titles she mentioned:
Marathon Man by William Goldman
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
The Firm by John Grisham
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Absolute Power by David Baldacci
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Each of these titles did something “more.” Marathon Man, for example, had one utterly unforgettable scene. You all know what it is. If you’ve ever been to the dentist, that is.
Absolute Power begins with another unforgettable moment, a burglar hiding himself in a swanky house, witnesses the murder of a young woman by the President of the United States. That scene, and book, changed the course of political thrillers.
So here is what you ought to consider as you write: what are you doing that is “more” than what you’ve read before? What is it about the idea, the scenes, the characters, the plot itself that comes from the deepest part of you?
Here’s the nice thing, as Leonard Bishop once put it. “If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.”
Splendid isn’t a bad place to be.
Are you reaching for “more” in your writing? 

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