Tag Archives: Stephen King

Books Read in 2014

2014 was a light year for me. I usually strive to read at least 25 books a year. During the past year, I read only 15. That was due in large part to the time I spent finishing my work-in-progress, A Prayer for Maura. I am happy to report I am nearly done with the edits on Maura, and I will announce the book launch soon. If anyone wants an Advance Review Copy (ARC) please email me at cblake55@comcast.net.

Back to books. Here are the books I read in 2014:

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt.

We Are Water, Wally Lamb

On the Wild Coast, PJ Lee

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert

This is how you lose her, Junot Diaz

The Moon Sisters, Therese Walsh

Lifeform Three, Roz Morris

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling

Bad Monkey, Carl Hiaasen

11/22/63, Stephen King

Lifeboat Series (books four and five), Jamie Beckett

The Devil’s Star, Jo Nesbit

The Emotion Thesaurus, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg

So here’s a New Year’s resolution: I promise to read more books in 2015.

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Book Review: 11/22/63, by Stephen King

Stephen King’s novel, 11/22/63, delves into a question that has haunted America for decades: how would the nation’s recent history have been different if President John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated? It also considers a deeper question: can we, or should we, mess with the past?

Jake Epping, the time traveling protagonist of 11/22/63, learns repeatedly the hard lesson that the past does not want to be changed. And Jake also learns that when somebody changes even minor events in the past there is a “butterfly effect,” meaning a small change can have far-reaching and disastrous impacts.

A recently divorced high school teacher living in a small town in Maine, Epping is handpicked by Al Templeton, owner of a local diner, to finish the job that he started. Templeton had passed through a portal located in the pantry of his diner back in time to September 9, 1958. After a number of trips back in time, Templeton decided he would try to prevent the assassination of JFK. Before he could do it, though, he was ravaged with cancer and was too sick to continue. So he returned to 2011 and he tapped Epping for the mission.

Intrigued by the challenge, Epping assumed a new identity as George Amberson and stepped back into time. After preventing a couple of local crimes, he set off for Florida and then for Dallas, where he assumed a double life. Amberson secured a job as a teacher in the friendly suburb of Jodie, Texas, but he rented dingy digs first in Fort Worth and then in Dallas, where he stalked Lee Harvey Oswald.

King’s research into Oswald’s life and marriage is impressive and he offers specific details of Oswald’s movements leading up to that fateful day in 1963. While the teaching job was merely a means to pass time and earn some money, Eppng/Amberson fell in love with school librarian Sadie Dunhill. His love for Sadie was so deep that he decided he would marry her after he stopped the assassination.

I believe King’s main point is that the world exists in a delicate balance, and the slightest change can upset that balance. Epping/Amberson experiences a moment of clarity during a charity dance in Jodie. “For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life.”

This is really two parallel stories: the idyllic life Amberson led in the pleasant small-town world of Jodie and the ugly, violent city he witnessed in Dallas. King clearly has a liking for the 1950s and early 1960s, when life was simpler, but this story drives home the point that, for better or worse, we cannot go back to the past.

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Genre-Bending: What are the Rules?

I recently enjoyed a concert by the Spampinato Brothers, an ensemble that featured Joey Spampinato, bass guitarist and a founding member of the fabulous eclectic band NRBQ. If you’ve never heard the music of NRBQ you’re missing something special. If you didn’t get a chance to see the line-up of the band that featured Spampinato on bass, Al Anderson on lead guitar, Terry Adams on keyboards and Tom Ardolino on drums, you really missed something special.

NRBQ, which is the acronym for the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, has drawn the attention of prominent fans, including Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello and Keith Richards, who invited Spampinato to play bass guitar on one of his solo projects. Bonnie Raitt has reportedly called NRBQ the best live band she’s ever seen.

What does all this have to do with fiction writing? Music critics have described NRBQ is a genre-bending band, a gifted ensemble that could move effortlessly from rockabilly to jazz to Beach Boys-style pop, to R&B and even country music. Fiction writing gurus warn aspiring authors to stick to one genre. There are solid reasons for this advice. Your genre is your brand. When you think about JK Rowling, Young Adult/fantasy comes to mind. Robert B. Parker? Crime stories. John Grisham? Legal thrillers. You get the picture.

This subject is on my mind lately because my latest project is a radical departure from the genre in which I normally write. My genre is family sagas. That’s what I like to read (though I read widely from a number of genres) and that’s where my comfort zone is as a writer. My self-published novel, Small Change, is the story of two families in the Midwest who become intertwined after meeting each summer at a lake resort in Wisconsin. My three unfinished drafts are likewise family sagas, though one includes a murder-mystery.

Earlier this year, the urge hit me to do something totally outside my genre. I wanted to leave what was familiar and try something totally different. At the time I had been working on a political novella that I eventually abandoned. However, the main character stayed with me. I just had to develop him. The original story was the wrong vehicle, but there was a minor scene in it that had the potential to take this character in a new direction. So I pursued it.

That wasn’t the only leap outside the comfort zone. My good friend, Jamie Beckett, another self-published author, told me he had embarked on a serialized science fiction story consisting of multiple parts that he was going to release, one at a time, on Amazon.com. Another writing colleague was doing the same thing. I was intrigued, especially since I wasn’t sure my new project had the potential as a full-blown novel. So I approached it as a trilogy: three short stories, the succeeding one picking up where the last one left off.

That mature voice in the back of my mind keeps telling me, “This is a bad idea. Stick to what you know.” I usually listen to that voice, but my heart is telling me to plunge forward. I can’t think of a good reason why not. What’s the risk? If I don’t like it, I don’t have to publish it. If I publish it and it takes off, it makes me a much more versatile writer.

Though the conventional wisdom is to stick to a single genre, there are exceptions. Stephen King is one shining example of an author who has branched out. King’s stock-in-trade was horror, but he has expanded his horizons into science fiction and even historical speculative work with his 2011 novel, 11/22/63 about a time traveler who tries to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Of course, King is a huge name. He can afford to do genre-hopping. It’s a much riskier strategy for an unknown author looking to break into publishing. I’ve never advised genre-jumping, but I do believe a writer must follow what’s in his heart. A writer must write about that which stirs him. A writer must follow his passion and if that means writing in a different genre, so what? But a writer must also have the judgment to evaluate his work in other genres. Is it as strong as the work in the writer’s best genre? If so, go with it. If not, every writing experience is a growth opportunity.

What about you? Have you stuck to a single genre? Did you ever have the urge to write outside your genre?

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Books Read in 2012

Stephen King, in his classic craft of fiction memoir, On Writing, urges all writers to read widely. Writers must take the time to read across all genres to understand and grasp the basics of storytelling and character development. I set a goal to read 25 books a year. This year I read 26 books. I try to read a mix of popular fiction, classics, some nonfiction, and a few craft of fiction books. Sometimes I will choose to read a book to help me with what I am writing at the time. For instance, when I am having trouble exploring complex relationships in my story, I will turn to an author who is adept at doing that.

Here is my list of books read in 2012:

Broken Irish by Edward J. Delaney

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass

Family Graces by Kathryn Magendie

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Canada by Richard Ford

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The Bone Blade Girl by A.D. Bloom

Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers

The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh

Secret Graces by Kathryn Magendie

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

To the Lifeboats by Jamie Beckett

Defending Jacob, by William Landay

Writer’s Conference Guide: Getting the Most of Your Time and Money by Bob Mayer and Jennifer Talty

In my next post, I will write about my favorite book of 2012.

 

 

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Changing My Work Space

The place where a writer chooses to write is crucial to success. An ideal work space for writing must have four things. It must be free of distraction, quiet, comfortable, and isolated.

I recently changed my work space. My previous work space was located in our finished basement on the other side of the family room. It was fairly isolated, but there was no wall between the family room and the place where I wrote. This never posed a huge problem. I usually selected a time to write when nobody was in the family room.

That has become more difficult, so I recently moved to a separate room in the house and set up my laptop there. It affords more seclusion and I can write whenever I want.

Where you write is a matter of personal taste and preference. JK Rowling famously wrote much of the early Harry Potter series in a crowded café because the only way she managed to get her young daughter to sleep was by going outside of her flat. She claimed the story that made the rounds that she wrote there because she lived in an unheated flat was bogus.

Stephen King, in his craft book, On Writing, discussed the writing room. “Your writing room doesn’t have to sport a Playboy Philosophy décor, and you don’t need an Early American rolltop in which to house your writing implements,” King wrote.

“The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business, you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

King maintained there should be no telephone, TV, videogames, or other distractions in your writing room, though he does admit he works to loud music—hard rock like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses and Metallica, to name a few of his favorites.

Since the writer is creating her own world, King likens it to creative sleep. “Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream…In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”

I like to think of it as an intense concentration. When I sit down to write, I block out everything else. It takes a few minutes for me to get into the story. My mind has to be totally immersed in it. I always read over the last few pages of what I wrote in my previous session. That helps me to get into the right frame of mind. It’s difficult for people who don’t write fiction to understand the energy that goes into shifting into that mood of complete focus on your work. It’s not just a switch one can turn on and off. I realize I’ve digressed here but a writing space that is quiet and free of distraction is vital to the process of getting into the mood that King calls “creative sleep.”

What does your work space look like? Can you work with outside noise around you?

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You’ve Finished Your First Draft. Now What?

I finally finished the first draft of my novella, Life of the Party: A Tale of Politics, Rap Music and Social Media. This one took only seven months, but it was a novella.

A writer who finishes a first draft may experience a giddy desire to dive right in and begin revising the manuscript. After all, the writer should keep the momentum going, right? No. Writers must resist this urge. Take a break from your first draft. Walk away. Really. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Stephen King advised in his classic craft book, On Writing:

“How long you let your book rest—sort of like bread dough between kneading—is entirely up to you,” King wrote, “but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks.” The layoff gives the writer distance and perspective.

“With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development…It’s amazing how some of these things can elude the writer while he or she is occupied with the daily work of composition.” For King, the most glaring errors have to do with character motivation. For every writer it will be different.

Here’s what James Scott Bell wrote about first drafts in his classic craft book, Plot & Structure: “Your first draft needs a cooling-off period. So forget all about your novel and do something else…All the while, your first draft is cooling in the recesses of your brain, where a lot of good stuff happens, unnoticed.”

When a writer finishes a first draft, it’s a cause for celebration. It’s a milestone. The writer should give himself a round of applause. Have some chocolate or a glass of your favorite beverage. There’s no empirical data to support this, but I would assert that most novice writers never get through the first draft. It’s an achievement.

Here’s what I do after finishing a first draft:

  • Do something nice. Give yourself a reward. Buy a new book or a CD.
  • Work on something completely different for the next four to six weeks. Try a short story. Try something in a different genre. Consult your ideas folder.
  • Read that bestseller you’ve been meaning to check out. Read it again with an attention to how the author told the story.

When the writer comes back to the first draft after an extended break, she will see the work in a new light. The writer will instantly spot all the flaws and the brilliant passages. The writer will see elements of the story that don’t work, scenes that don’t sing, or perhaps characters that don’t come alive. The writer may well discover the story starts in the wrong place. That dramatic scene on page 75 is the real beginning. The stuff that came before is just back story. The writer may see a character she loved when she created her, but after review, this character just gets in the way of the core story.

The good news is that in most cases, a writer will finish the first draft of her next book sooner than the first. Here’s how long it has taken me to finish my first drafts:

First novel: Small Change, 12 months, 126,000 words (final draft was 103,000 words)

Second novel: Color Him Father, 8 months, 117,000 words (still in draft)

Third novel: Bonus Baby (National Novel Writing Month novel), 30 days, 53,000 words (still in draft).

Fourth novel, Life of the Party, 7 months, 56,300 words.

How long does it take you to finish a first draft? Do you gain speed with each novel?

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Break the Rules at Your Own Risk

A couple of bloggers recently posted essays about the need for writers to be flexible in adhering to some of the rules of the craft of fiction. These posts raise a key question: when is it acceptable for writers to break the rules?

Anna Elliot, in a post on Writer Unboxed, put it this way: “When I’m wrestling with plot, I don’t consciously follow any of the ‘approved’ basic plot structures.

“I suppose I’d have to say that in my own writing I tend to rely on something closer to basic, gut-level instinct. I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then…instinct takes over.”

Writers should read every good craft book they can. Some of the best are: Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass, On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

Before they can break the rules, writers must understand them. Writers must know the various types of structures, character development, theme, tone, setting, and plotting.

Which rules should writers consider breaking?

Structure. Writers can select from a number of tried-and-true structures: three-act story, hero’s quest, journey. They’re popular because they work, but these structures may not be appropriate for the story you are writing. Examples of award-winning novels with unusual structures include Jennifer Eagan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Eagan’s novel is a series of loosely related short stories with some common characters and a thematic thread that runs through the work. Niffenegger’s novel features a non-linear narrative and a main character who travels through time. It’s at first a little confusing, but the story quickly grabs the reader.

Characters. Does the narrator always have to be the main character? In William Stryon’s Sophie’s Choice, the narrator, Stingo, is not the character who undergoes the most dramatic change; he is the reliable lens through whom the story of Sophie and Nathan is told. This can work, but it’s a risky strategy.

Narrative point-of-view: Some stories have multiple point-of-view characters. This is usually done because the author needs to tell specific scenes from a specific character’s point-of-view, or when there is a complex plot involving multiple characters. Some stories alternate between first and third person. I’m not a fan of this technique, but it can work.

Genre-crossing. Some stories just don’t fit into one genre. Agents and publishers advise against mixing genres in the same story and for good reason. It’s difficult to market a book that doesn’t fall within a single, defined genre. But your story may not fit into one genre. That shouldn’t stop a writer from writing the story she needs to write.

Which rules should writers never break?

Grammar, sentence structure. Some people are fans of incomplete sentences. Use them sparingly, for dramatic effect. Bad grammar in dialogue is okay, but not in a narrative, unless it’s part of a character’s tone.

Character development. The main character must be complex, interesting and a person for whom the reader can make an emotional connection. Writers should never strive for flat, one-dimensional characters.

Tension and conflict: Boredom and tranquility are never a good substitute for tension and conflict, which are essential for propelling the story forward.

Clarity. As a reader, I don’t want to work to figure out where the story is in terms of time and place. Unclear, muddled writing and overly complicated plots will cause me to put down a book every time.

Anna Elliot’s advises writers to read all genres and “with a critical eye. Try to peel back the story to its bones and understand why the author made the choices they did. Identify what worked for you in the story and what didn’t.”

While writers can bend some rules, they should always be mindful of them. Writers can experiment during the drafting process, but when it comes to the editing process, get those craft books out.

What kind of rules should writers break? What are the rules that should never be broken?

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