Stephen King Books

I’ve mentioned it before: I am one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers. Ever since discovering his books as a young teenager, I’ve devoured them. At least, his horror and science fiction and fantasy books—not so much the crime thrillers that he’s taken to writing of late.

Despite counting him amongst my favourite authors, I don’t love everything about his stories. For instance, the endings are sometimes a bit of a let-down. Yet this doesn’t detract much from my enjoyment. The pleasure with King is in going along for the ride—if the destination occasionally disappoints, the journey is nearly always a blast.

Here are some of my favourites among his books, along with a few not-so-favourites.

Let’s start with two novellas from the collection Different Seasons, published in 1982, the year I turned eighteen. Both are a little unusual in that they resulted in that rarest of things—a superb screen adaptation of a Stephen King story. The Body is a small-town tale (like so many of King’s) about a trio of friends who go off in search of a dead body they’ve heard is lying alongside a set of rail tracks. It’s a joy (as is the film version, called Stand By Me and starring the tragic River Phoenix), a perfect slice of childhood, something that King does so well. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (the Rita Hayworth part of the title was dropped for the film version) is a tale set in a prison with an unforeseen and wholly satisfying ending.

Different Seasons

Next, Insomnia, which King describes as a ‘stiff, trying-too-hard’ novel. It’s where we first encounter The Crimson King, who would feature in other King works, most notably The Dark Tower series. More on that later. Also good reads are The Green Mile, the tale of death row inmate John Coffey (whose initials are probably not coincidental), and 11/22/63. I’ve long been fascinated with the Kennedy assassination and time travel—this was a great way to combine the two.

The Green Mile

Here’s a selection of what I call Meh books—they were okay, but lacked something that might have made them appeal more to my tastes. (As always, my tastes are likely to be different from yours so it’s perfectly fine to disagree with me.) Cujo, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne, Christine, Needful Things and Sleeping Beauties all had something going for them that made them enjoyable to a point, but that ultimately left me feeling a little dissatisfied, a little meh. I was enjoying Revival, when the most interesting character in the story fades out of sight. When we encounter him again much later, he has changed in ways that feel unrealistic. And the ending—hugely disappointing and nowhere near as scary as I’d been hoping. Finally for the Meh books, Under the Dome. Loved the concept and the opening. No spoilers, but after such a promising start, it descends into a bit of a mess—it’s probably been eight or nine years since I read it and I couldn’t even tell you how it ends. If not for the concept and intriguing opening, this one is unlikely to have even made it onto my list of Meh books.

Some of his earliest books are amongst my favourites. The following three were published in the 1970s. Salem’s Lot is a tale of vampire infestation of a small town and presses all the right buttons. I’ve long been fascinated with the blood-sucking fiends since first reading Dracula as a young teenager—the recent trend for sparkly, prance-about-in-full-sunlight lotharios (my younger daughter made me watch a certain series of films with her; by the end of the first one, I was pleading, “Bite her, already.” It took another two or three angst-ridden films before he did) hasn’t put me off—and King’s tale resonated as strongly with me as its classic predecessor. The Stand is an apocalyptic tale that I’ve spoken about in other posts. Suffice to say here, it’s a ripping yarn about good versus evil in a world that’s gone to hell. The Long Walk was published (among others) under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It’s a dystopian tale about an annual contest involving one hundred teenage boys. The contest is simple enough—they all set off together walking southwards from Maine and the winner will be the last boy standing. However, any boy whose walking pace drops below 4 mph receives a warning; three warnings and, well, let’s just say that nobody is allowed to retire alive from this contest.

Salem’s Lot

Another of the ‘Bachman books’ is The Running Man. (It was made into a film starring Arnie, which bears only a passing resemblance to the novel and is far inferior.) This is also set in a dystopian futuristic America and is a tale that doesn’t let up. King apparently wrote it in a week and I think it shows in that it doesn’t pause for breath. I doubt my next pick will make it onto everyone’s favourite list, but there’s something about The Tommyknockers that I love. Maybe it’s the concept of someone tripping over a tiny protruding piece of metal in the woods that turns out to be the tip of a spacecraft a mile wide, or the 50s B-movie feel of the second half of the book, but it’s a novel I’ve returned to more than once. The most recent book on my favourite list is Cell, published in 2006. It’s another tale carried by a great concept and a fun journey that makes up for a lukewarm ending.

The Tommyknockers

How about one or two that I positively disliked? The first is Gerald’s Game. I can say, without having to think about it much, that this is my least favourite of any King book I’ve read. There’s one genuinely creepy moment, but it couldn’t make up for the drudgery of trying to get through the rest of it—the only time I’ve been relieved to reach the end of one of his books, shove it back onto the shelf and forget about it. The other is the seventh novel in The Dark Tower series. I’d worked my way through the preceding six instalments with varying degrees of pleasure and I was keen to see how the series would play out—to find out, at last, after more than a million words, what Roland would discover at the end of his mission… quest… thing. (Sorry—can’t resist a LOTR reference when the opportunity arises.) Well, before reaching that point, Mr King engages in a moment of such self-indulgent author intrusion that it completely threw me out of the story and made me hesitate about continuing. I don’t want to be critical of someone whom I hold in such high regard, but I felt it was a mistake. I imagine he must have deliberated hard before deciding to do it, but I wonder whether he’s ever regretted it. Anyway, I pressed on and eventually Roland reaches the top of the Dark Tower where awaits a door with his name on it. I won’t say what happens next but it was enough to make me swear in disbelief and want to throw the book at the wall.

I’ll finish on a positive note with a mention of three more favourites. The Talisman, co-authored with another writer I admire, Peter Straub, is a fantasy tale about a boy’s search for a magical amulet that will save his dying mother. Flitting between this world and ‘the Territories’, it’s a fun-filled, dark ride. Pet Sematary contains a scene that scared me more than any other King book. It has made me go back and read it again more than once, and I don’t think I’ve finished with it yet. And, finally, the book if pressed I’d name as my favourite of all Stephen King books. IT takes place in two timelines—late-1950s and mid-1980s—because the eponymous monster feeds on a 27-year cycle. The 50s sequences, when the group of heroes and heroine are aged around eleven or twelve, once again display King’s talents at evoking childhood; downtrodden childhoods, at that, for each of our children is at some disadvantage, perhaps from an abusive parent or speech impediment or obesity. They call themselves the Losers. The 80s sequences take place when the Losers are all grown up, though not all have shaken the self-appointed loser tag. Despite a scene that many readers find, to put it mildly, disconcerting, and an ending that disappoints a little, IT is a nostalgic, horror-filled feast. There are nods to classic villains like Frankenstein’s monster and the werewolf, and it’s a book, despite its brick-like size, I’ve returned to again and again.

The Talisman

I recently did an interview (for another author’s blog) where I was asked to name one person, dead or alive, I’d like to meet. Almost impossible to pick only one from our entire history. In the end, I plumped for Stephen King. Well, I would love to sit and discuss books and writing and films with him over a beer or coffee. Since that’s never likely to happen, at least I still have his books.

Till next time… 

Editing – Part 2

If you’re a writer and anything like me, when you finish the first draft of your latest work you’ll type the words ‘THE END’ and feel a curious blend of euphoria and sadness. Although I know those two little words won’t make it into the published version, I type them every time; it’s a form of closure on my least favourite part of the writing process, producing that first draft.

But what then? Unless you’re unusually gifted, or have painstakingly edited as you’ve gone along, chances are that the manuscript will need some work—some spit and polish—before it’s in a fit state to be released into the world.

Whether you’re just starting out and haven’t the funds to spend on editing, or whether you intend sending the manuscript off to a professional editor, there are various steps you can take yourself to improve the work to make it more publishable or in a better state to present to an editor.

There are various methods of self-editing. I’m going to set out what I do for my longer works, which might be helpful to someone who doesn’t know where to begin. (For shorter works, especially short stories, some of the following steps might be truncated or missed out altogether.) Like writing itself, this is not the only way of doing it; it’s not the best or recommended way—it’s simply my way. Each writer must find what works best for him (or, as ever, her).

So, I’ve typed the two magic words ‘THE END’. What next?

Step 1: Let it Rest

After saving and backing up the Word document, I close it. Then I try to forget it about for a minimum of four weeks. Longer, where possible. Two months is better, three perfect, but I don’t have that much will power.

Step 2: The Bigger Picture

When I can’t stand ignoring the manuscript any longer, I’ll read it through from beginning to end. This is where the importance of Step 1 comes in—it’s as though I’m reading a novel someone else has written. Obviously, I know the story and recognise the style of writing, but I will come across entire passages I can’t recall drafting.

The main purpose of this step is to make sure the story works on the broadest level. It isn’t to make corrections, although I usually can’t stop myself changing any typing errors I come across. While I’m reading, I’ll keep at the back of my mind questions like:

  • is the opening interesting enough to draw the reader in?
  • does the plot flow?
  • do the characters act, um, in character?
  • are all sub-plots resolved?
  • does the story ever lag?
  • is the ending satisfying?
  • are there any themes that could be better developed or emphasised?

There are other questions, but that should give a flavour. Essentially, I’m looking at the bigger picture during this step.

Step 2A: Major Revisions

If I identified a need to rewrite part(s) of the work during Step 2, this is when I’ll do it. I’ve been lucky—only once have I needed to do a major rewrite after the first read-through. This was with the final instalment of the Earth Haven trilogy.

Even as I was writing the original ending, I knew it was too easy: the characters weren’t having to sacrifice much to achieve their ends and it lacked a final face-off between the two main groups of protagonists. In short, it was unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I let the manuscript sit for a few weeks before embarking on Step 2.

It confirmed what I already knew. I discarded the last few chapters and rewrote the ending, adding another chapter or two in the process. I knew immediately it was better, a much more satisfying end to a 300,000-word trilogy.

Then I returned to Step 1. After I’d let it rest for another four weeks or so, I embarked on Step 2 once more. This time, the bigger picture looked complete.

Step 3: Snagging

Now I’m happy with the overall structure, I’ll start the fine-tuning process. During this second read-through, I’m looking for passages of narrative or dialogue that don’t flow as well as they could, and correcting them as I go, or that don’t add value to the tale. This might involve rewording paragraphs or sentences to make the writing clearer, and deleting words, phrases, sentences or entire paragraphs that are superfluous.

Step 4: Eradicating Clunkiness and Repetition

During this third read-through, I’m looking at individual sentences and revising any that are awkward or contain unnecessary repetition. I find that when writing the first draft, I often use the same word repeatedly in places when there are perfectly good alternatives that freshen up the prose.

I will search for how many times words I tend to overuse appear, like ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘the’, together with certain swear words, and either delete some instances or substitute alternatives. It’s about removing clunkiness and repetition to make the reading experience more pleasurable.

I’m looking, too, for inconsistencies such as referring to ‘Jenny’ as ‘Jill’, or (true example) saying a character comes from Hull when earlier in the novel he came from Grimsby.

Also, at this stage, I’ll check any facts or references are correct.

Step 4A: Rinse and Repeat

Whether I repeat Step 4 depends on how many alterations I made the first time around. If not many, I’ll move on to Step 5. If there were a lot of changes, I usually feel I have to repeat Step 4 in case the changes themselves have introduced more clunkiness or repetition. 

Step 5: The Nitty Gritty

The final read-through. The proofread. For this, I reformat the Word document into a mobi file and transfer it to my Kindle. It’s surprising how many simple errors I spot on the Kindle that I missed on the computer screen. Reading it in this different format seems to make typos jump out at me. I keep my laptop close at hand so I can change the master Word document as I find errors.

Step 6: Spellcheck

Having corrected all errors I noticed during the proofread, I’m almost ready to publish. Before I do, I run the manuscript through Word’s spell-checker. What I’m mainly looking for are any final spelling errors I missed during the proofread and things like double spaces, which sometimes go unnoticed, especially if they occur at the edge of the page.

These steps are broadly equivalent to the various types of editing mentioned in Part 1: Step 2 – developmental edit, Step 3 – line edit, Step 4 – copy edit, Step 5 – proofread. 

In theory, I should now be ready to publish a book filled with flowing narrative and sharp dialogue, free of spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and other blemishes, polished and shining like a new pin. In practice, of course, I’m unlikely to have caught every single tiny error in a ninety-thousand word novel. The aim is to achieve perfection, whilst recognising that I’m only human and am certain to have missed something.

It’s accepting that I’m not perfect which enables me to publish anything. Otherwise, I’d never get past Step 4. I could read through a draft novel a hundred times and find something to change on each occasion, though after a while it’s only because this time I prefer a particular sentence construction over another, or a particular word over the one I used, when either do the job perfectly well. We have to draw the line somewhere, say to ourselves, “Enough’s enough. Publish and be damned.”

Here are some other methods I’ve heard writers say they use. I’ve tried some of them and they’re not for me. But try them and find what works best for you.

– change the font size and/or type (this is of similar effect to what I do when transferring the book onto my Kindle, and should be useful for those who don’t own an e-reader)

– print the manuscript onto paper and edit/proofread the hard copy

– read the text, particularly the dialogue, aloud

– have someone (or the voice function, if present, on your word processing program) read it to you

– read sections of the work backwards (useful, I imagine, for proofreading rather than editing)

If there are any novice writers looking in who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to self-editing, I hope you’ve found this to be of some use. Don’t forget: this isn’t ‘one size fits all’. You’ll need to try various methods and combinations until you find what works best for you.

Good luck!