“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:
read a lot and write a lot.”
This past month, after much hesitating, I read Stephen King’s novel, Billy Summers. I looked up which books of his have sold the most copies and it looks like The Shining leads the list, followed by Carrie, Salem’s Lot, Misery, Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot, The Dark Tower series, and The Green Mile. Of those, I have read one and seen movie versions of three. I don’t think that qualifies me as a fan and certainly not as a King fanatic.
As you’ll see, my favorite Stephen King is not the famous mystery, horror writer that people know. Not that Stephen King. If you asked me what are my favorites by him, my short list would include the short stories “Stand By Me” and “The Shawshank Redemption” which are two that many people would not know were written by him. Both became quite beloved films.
From the top 10 list, The Green Mile is the only one I have read and I only read it after seeing the movie. I recall when it was originally published in 1996 that it came out in six self-contained monthly installments. That seemed like a Charles Dickens experiment or a publishing gimmick which I found unappealing. I read the volume that combines all six parts, but in 1966 the individual volumes were all on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously, so I guess it was a good idea. The movie came out three years later directed by Frank Darabont who was known for some horror-ish films but also directed The Shawshank Redemption. The performances by Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan were excellent and so it sent me to the book, which returned to the bestseller list with the movie’s release.
I was able to borrow the audiobook of Billy Summers. I prefer that medium for most of my book reading these days. I used to listen to books on tape or on CDs during my car commuting days. Now, I listen on walks and while working outside in the garden.
I was first interested in King after I found out that he had been an English teacher like myself and was writing in his free time. I had seen a story or interview years ago that said he was frustrated and blamed teaching time for his lack of getting published. I did that too back in the day. His wife made a deal with him that he could take a year off from teaching to write and submit his manuscript. If he succeeded, great. If not, he would go back to teaching. Carrie was published. Goodbye to teaching. I searched for that origin story a bit online and didn’t find it, so maybe I imagined it.
Carrie is a horror and supernatural novel and I think qualifies as gothic fiction. He originally meant it to be a short story since that was all he was getting published. He wrote a longer novella version that he didn’t think was good. When he was writing this novel, he was living in a trailer in Hermon, Maine with his wife Tabitha and two children. He was teaching at Hampden Academy. He had published short stories in some “men’s magazines.” His wife and others rescued the manuscript by making suggestions for changes. It became an epistolary novel with “official” reports and has a framing device consisting of multiple narrators. The book sold so-so in hardcover but much better in paperback editions and much much better when the film came out in 1976. That’s when I discovered King.
The last King novel I read before Billy Summers was 11/22/63. A friend who is a big King fan recommended it because he knows 1) I love time travel stories 2) I’m still fascinated by the Kennedy assassination. This is a book King apparently thought about a long time ago but he didn’t feel he was ready to write. The short description is that it is about a man who goes back in time to save JFK. Of course, it is way more complicated than that. (I wrote about the book in an earlier post.) It is a love story too. To travel in time here is easy but to actually get to 11/22/63 and stop the assassination is not easy.
It’s a long book and I always think his long novels need some cutting. The love story of Jake, Sadie, and her ex-husband could be a novel by itself. I wasn’t a fan of the ending, but overall I did like the book. That’s my mixed recommendation, but I would recommend it if you meet one or both of my time travel and JFK interests.
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story.
When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
But my favorite King book isn’t fiction. It is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This short book (right there not typical of King) is, as the title says, both a memoir and a craft book. His advice comes from his life, starting with childhood and into his established writing time. King had a near-fatal accident in 1999 and it is very much linked to his writing which is linked to his recovery.
This book got great reviews and I would add my own recommendation to those reviews. As King was recovering (and at first he could not physically do any writing), he did a lot of thinking about writing and his life. That’s why the book is a memoir about writing. It does have a lot of advice in “toolkits” about writing and even about a good life.
Is it worth reading if you don’t consider yourself a writer? I think so. I think it can be inspiring, even if all you plan to write is a journal for yourself. Can we all be “writers?” He says “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”