trying my hand at a steampunk novel, here's what I have so far
Baron von Steamburg pumped up his revolver chamber and turned the corner. He flicked on his flashlight, causing a cone of luminescent steam to light up the dark corridor. “I have a bad steam-feeling about this,” he steamed.
Stephen King is an All-Time Great, arguably one of the most popular novelists the world has ever seen. And there’s a good chance that he’s inspired more people to start writing than any other living writer. So, as the Guardian and King’s UK publisher Hodder launch a short story competition – to be judged by the master himself – here are the ten most important lessons to learn from his work.
1. Write whatever the hell you like
King might be best known – or, rather, best regarded – as a writer of horror novels, but really, his back catalogue is crammed with every genre you can think of. There are thrillers (Misery, Gerald’s Game), literary novels (Bag Of Bones, Different Seasons), crime procedurals (Mr Mercedes), apocalypse narratives (The Stand), fantasy (Eyes Of The Dragon, The Dark Tower series) … He’s even written what I think of as being one of the greatest Young Adult novels of all time: The Long Walk. Perhaps the only genre or audience he hasn’t really touched so far is comedy, but most of his work features moments that show his deft touch with humour. It’s clear that King does what he wants, when he wants, and his constant readers – the term he calls his, well, constant readers – will follow him wherever he goes.
2. The scariest thing isn’t necessarily what’s underneath the bed
Horror is a curious thing. What scares one person won’t necessarily scare another. And while there might be moments in his horror novels that tread towards the more conventional ideas of what some find terrifying, for the most part, the truly scary aspects are those that deal with humanity itself. Ghosts drive people to madness, telekinetic girls destroy whole towns with their powers, clowns … well, clowns are just bloody terrifying full stop. But the true crux of King’s ability to scare is finding the thing that his readers are actually worried about, and bringing that to the fore. If you’re writing horror, don’t just think about what goes bump in the night; think about what that bump might drive people to do afterwards.
3. Don’t be scared of transparency
One of my favourite things about King’s short story collections are the little notes about each tale that he puts into the text. The history of them, the context for the idea, how the writing process actually worked. They’re not only invaluable material for aspiring writers – because exactly how many drafts does it take to reach a decent story? King knows! – but they’re also brilliant nuggets of insight into King himself. Some people might think that it’s better off knowing nothing about authors when they read their work, but for King, his heart is on his sleeve. In his latest collection, The Bazaar of Broken Dreams, King gets more in-depth than ever, talking about what inspired the stories in such an honest way that it couldn’t have come from another writer’s pen. Which brings us to …
4. Write what you know. Sort of. Sometimes
Write what you know is the most common writing tip you’ll find anywhere. It’s nonsense, really, because if we all did that we’d end up with terribly boring novels about writers staring out of windows waiting for inspiration to hit. (If you like those, incidentally, head straight for the literary fiction section of your nearest bookshop.) But King understands that experience is something which can be channelled into your work, and should be at every opportunity. Aspects of his life – addiction, teaching, his near-fatal car accident, rock and roll, ageing – have cropped up in his work over and over, in ways that aren’t always obvious, but often help to drive the story. That’s something every writer can use, because it’s through these truths that real emotions can be writ large on the page.
5. Aim big. Or small
King’s written some mammoth books, and they’re often about mammoth things. The Stand takes readers into an apocalypse, with every stage of it laid out on the page until the final fantastical showdown. It deals with a horror that hits a group of characters twice in their lives, showing us how years and years of experience can change people. And The Dark Tower is a seven (or eight, or more, if you count the short stories set in its world) part series that takes in so many different genres of writing it’s dizzying. When he needs to, King aims really big, and sometimes that’s what you have to do to tell a story. At the other end of the spectrum, some of King’s most enduring stories – Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption, The Mist – have come from his shorter works. He traps small groups of characters in single locations and lets the story play out how it will. The length of the story you’re telling should dictate the size of the book. Doesn’t matter if it’s forty thousand words or two hundred, King doesn’t waste a word.
6. Write all the time. And write a lot
King’s published – wait for it – 55 novels, 11 collections of stories, 5 non-fiction works, 7 novellas and 9 assorted other pieces (including illustrated works and comic books). That’s over a period of 41 years. That’s an average of two books a year. Which is, I must admit, a pretty giddying amount. That’s years of reading (or rereading, if you’re as foolishly in awe of him as I am). But he’s barely stopped for breath. This year has seen three books published by him, which makes me feel a little ashamed. Still, at my current rate of writing, I might catch up with him sometime next century. And while not every book has found the same critical and commercial success, they’ve all got their fans.
7. Voice is just as important as content
King’s a writer who understands that a story needs to begin before it’s actually told. It begins in the voice of the novel: is it first person, or third? Is it past or present tense? Is it told through multiple narrators, or just the one? He’s a master at understanding exactly why each story is told the way it’s told. Sure, he might dress it up as something simple – the story finding the voice it needs, or vice versa – but through his books you can see that he’s tried pretty much everything, and can see why each voice worked with the story he was telling.
8. And Form is just as important as voice
King isn’t really thought of as an experimental novelist, which is grossly unfair. Some of King’s more daring novels have taken on really interesting forms. Be it The Green Mile’s fragmented, serialised narrative; or the dual publication of The Regulators and Desperation – novels which featured the same characters in very different situations, with unsettling parallels between the stories that unfolded for them; or even Carrie’s mixed-media narrative, with sections of the story told as interview or newspaper extract. All of these novels have played with the way they’re presented on the page to find the perfect medium for telling those stories. Really, the lesson here from King is to not be afraid to play.
9. You don’t have to be yourself
Some of King’s greatest works in the early years of his career weren’t published by King himself. They were in the name of Richard Bachman, his slightly grislier pseudonym. The Long Walk, Thinner, The Running Man – these are books that dealt with a nastier side of things than King did in his properly attributed work. Because, maybe it’s good to have a voice that allows us to let the real darkness out, with no judgments. (And then maybe, as King eventually did in The Dark Half, it’s good to kill that voice on the page … )
10. Read On Writing. Now
This is the most important tip in the list. In 2000, King published On Writing, a book that sits in the halfway space between autobiography and writing manual. It’s full of details about his process, about how he wrote his books, channelled his demons and overcame his challenges. It’s one of the few books about writing that are actually worth their salt, mainly because it understands that it’s about a personal experience, and readers might find that useful. There’s no universal truths when it comes to writing. One person’s process would be a nightmare for somebody else. Some people spend years labouring on nearly perfect first drafts; some people get a first draft written in six weeks, and then spend the next year destroying it and rebuilding it. On Writing tells you how King does it, to help you to find your own. Even if you’re not a fan of his books, it’s invaluable to the in-development writer. Heck, it’s invaluable to all writers.
Image: Henry Holt and
Company; Hodder & Stoughton; Hamish Hamilton; Penguin Random House; Random
House; Atlantic Monthly Press
The Man Booker Prize rolled out its 2017 shortlist on
Wednesday, delivering a list of six nominees showcasing a hefty dose of
literary heavyweights and a pair of newcomers. Of the six novels on the list,
just one will go on to win this year’s prestigious literary prize at gala
ceremony next month in London.
So I get what you mean about being tired of people ragging on romances that have a happy ending to imply that it's somehow cliche or lazy, but there is an argument to be made for subverting genre tropes. Otherwise we don't get any new stories? Yes, conventions are great for a reason, but they also suck sometimes. Otherwise all chosen ones would be whiny white dudes. I'm here for not denigrating people for enjoying romances with happy endings, but sometimes stories demand alternative resolutions.
This isn’t about subverting tropes. If you want to talk about subverting tropes in romance fiction, let’s talk about sexually dominant female partners, or letting male characters be the more emotional partner. Let’s talk about having romances between two non-binary people. Let’s talk about having the big alien barbarian be a total softie sweetheart, or the bookish heroine be the one who knows how to wield a sword. Let’s talk about setting up a marriage of convenience, but making the romantic hero be the guy who lives next door, not the husband. There are a million tropes that can be - and have been, in a wide variety of books - subverted. My point is that, for the actual marketing-type genre of romance, the happy ending is not a trope, it’s an integral part of the package.
You can write a romantic story without a happy ending. You can write a damned good romantic story without a happy ending. But that’s not subverting a romance trope, that’s just writing a romantic story without a happy ending. Any more than writing a story in which the mystery is solved in the first chapter, and then goes on to be a character study would be something you would market as a mystery. Or writing a story about two characters being friendly coworkers would be marketed as a romance - that’s not “subverting a trope,” that’s just writing in a different genre.
Genres are entirely meant to be marketing tools - to tell a reader very basic ideas about what they can expect in a book. Science Fiction/Fantasy tells a person that they can expect some kind of world-building element that doesn’t currently exist in our real world. Mystery tells a person that some mysterious event will happen that the protagonist must figure out by the end of the book. Horror tells a person that a monster/monstrous person or personification thereof will cause terror to the protagonists. And romance tells a person that two (or more) people will interact in a romantic way and be in love by the end of the story.
You can write a romantic story that demands one of your “alternative resolutions.” It may be wonderful, incredibly romantic, an incredibly powerful and moving story! But for marketing purposes, for genre purposes, it is not a romance.
I recently got asked about podcasts dedicated to YA lit, so I scoured the internet and compiled a handy list for your listening pleasure. I haven’t listened to them, so I don’t know if they’re good or not…let me know which are!
And correct me if any of these aren’t YA dedicated and tell me about any I’ve missed so I can add them. Enjoy!
Adventures in YA -
A podcast about all things young adult literature. (Still running)
Adventures With Words (YA episode monthly) -
Rob and Kate host a fortnightly podcast looking at fiction, poetry, non-fiction and much more. (Still running)
Authors are ROCKSTARS! - Features interviews with young adult authors, book picks from the hosts, as well as rockin’ music that relates to the books spoken about on that month’s program. (Ended)
Book Jawn (Not YA dedicated, but reads more YA books than adult) -
Hosted by booksellers Sarah Sawyers-Lovett and Grace Gordon, Book Jawn Podcast explores new releases and old favorites in literature with plenty of laughter, criticism, and puns. (Still running)
Clear Eyes, Full Shelves - A blog for readers featuring book reviews, television snark, opinions and other nerdiness. (Still running)
A weekly discussion and review of books for children, tweens, and teens by librarians. (Still running)
First Draft with Sarah Enni -
Podcast interview series featuring authors, an epic road trip, music, bookstores, tall tales & more, hosted by Sarah Enni. (Still running)
“ A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are”
This website doesn’t flip out about Agatha Christie nearly as much as it needs to. She aided and nursed WW1 soldiers while writing cold blooded muder for kicks, formed an all girl theatre group with her pals, went on to write the longest running play and once vanished, throwing the whole nation into panic-mode and they couldn’t find her for ages because she had lodged under the name of the woman her husband wanted to dump her for.
you said you were working on reading 10 trans and wlw books this year but you didn't mention what they were!
THAT WAS REMISS OF ME, because so far they’ve been mostly friggin’ awesome:
The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie ♥ (wlw 1/10) – light sci-fi, light dystopian, LESBIAN MOTHERFUCKING PIRATES!!!!!!!!
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel ♥ (trans 1/10) – this is what I was reading when I made that post, and it ended up being the borderline-literary, adult fiction, family + trans kid saga of my dreams
Luna by Julie Anne Peters (trans 2/10) – old enough to be considered a Classic of the very small, very niche genre, but is now suuuuper dated compared to everything else on this list (that possibly makes it required reading, tbh)
Beast by Brie Spangler ♥ (trans 3/10) – I absolutely loved this book! it’s ANOTHER boy meets girl ~*~with a secret~*~ (i.e. she’s trans) book but actually really refreshing and lovely
Coffee Boy by Austin Chant (trans 4/10) – this is more of a novella than a novel and also NOTHING HAPPENS but it was still cute
Peter Darling by Austin Chant ♥ (trans 5/10) – PETER PAN SEQUEL IN WHICH PETER IS TRANS AND COMES BACK TO NEVERLAND AS A GROWN UP AND FALLS IN LOVE WITH HOOK, A.K.A. MY DREAM BOOK
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (wlw 2/10) – a lovely, quiet, sad-but-hopeful book (in which the protagonist just happens to be gay)
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (trans) – I’m not counting this towards my goal of 10 because it’s a memoir by someone who’s married to a trans man rather than A Novel About A Trans Person, but it was a really great read!
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry ♥ (trans 6/10) – one of the most fulfilling Book Surprises of my life was realising that Thomas is trans!!! the cherry on top of an already stunningly beautiful and moving novel
This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp (wlw 3/10) – I wasn’t mad about this book, but two of the POV characters are lesbians who’re in a relationship with each other (and iirc they’re the only relationship in the book) so it counts I guess
Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest (trans) – this poem is trans in a THE GODS HATH TVRNED ME INTO A WOMAN way rather than a regular trans way, so I’m not counting it, but it was ELECTRIFYING and I loved it