All posts in 2011 Stephen King Challenge

Review – Firestarter by Stephen King

The background: I’m reading all of Stephen King’s work in publication order, for the first time, starting with Carrie. I’ve just finished Firestarter, which is the first of his 80s novels.

I’m not entirely sure what to say about Firestarter. King’s writing is, as always, excellent… but for the first time, its almost like he knows it and uses his mastery of character to sidestep the fact that there is hardly any story. Firestarter is 567 pages of beautifully written nothing.

I don’t mind that, in principle. The journey is often more interesting or even important than the ending, and King’s talent at characterisation is breathtaking.

But 567 pages, you start to need something more. Characterisation will take you a long way, but eventually something has to happen. In Firestarter, Andy McGee and his daughter Charlie are on the run, and then they get captured, and then they escape. That’s it.

Which is fine. Everything is painted vividly, and we really explore the thoughts and motivations of everyone involved. That’s characterisation.

But this book took me two months to read. I rattled through King’s previous book, The Dead Zone, in two weeks. Firestarter, I’m sorry to say, was a real chore.

There’s something else, too. Apart from a lack of plot, I had the real feeling that I’d heard it all before. A girl with a terrible psychic power? Carrie. Psychic powers in general? Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone. And the fact that The Dead Zone came directly prior to Firestarter doesn’t do the latter any favours, as The Dead Zone is a masterpiece.

Firestarter was a huge disappointment. Despite coining the term “pyrokinesis”, and despite being made into a well known film starring Drew Barrymore, this is, alas, a rather dull book. I did enjoy the technical aspects of the writing, and I’m sure (as always with King) I learnt a great deal about the craft. That’s reason enough to read it once in your life, I think. But for me, Firestarter is even worse than The Shining, which so far is the only other King novel I haven’t liked. The Shining at least is original, and despite a flabby middle section kicks into high gear towards the last quarter.

Firestarter feels like a retread of old ground and never quite hits top speed. The climactic sequence of Charlie’s escape from The Shop is a brilliantly written action piece, but it’s too little, too late.

Chalk this one up to experience.

30th March, 2011: Reading ennui

Ack. The end of March approaches and I haven’t finished Firestarter by Stephen King. I started this back at the end of January, took a break for about a week in February to read Fight Club, and now it’s April on Friday and I’ve still got maybe 200 pages to go.

I’m envious of people that read a lot of books. Several friends are taking various challenges – 50 books a year, or maybe 52 (one a week). Even 100 books a year. I wish them luck… although I do think when it starts to get too high, you’re not really ‘reading’, as such, you’re just looking at words on a page. But I don’t think that kicks in until you cross the 100 books/year mark, or maybe higher. Of course, book reviewers and book bloggers may read even more than that – they have to, the volume of material that needs to be covered – but reading for enjoyment, that’s different.

I was hoping to hit 24 books this year. January was a good start, as I got through The Long Walk by Richard Bachman (Stephen King), Death’s Disciples by J. Robert King, and The Dead Zone by Stephen King. Erm… that’s three books by two authors that share a surname. Huh. Anyway, February saw Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and the start of Firestarter. March was All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufmann, and more of Firestarter. I had hoped to finish Firestarter by the end of March, but that doesn’t look likely.

And it’s not that I don’t like Firestarter – while it was slow to start, it picked up and I’m enjoying it. And it’s not like it’s the biggest Stephen King doorstop there is. I rattled through 600 pages of The Dead Zone in two weeks, although I think that’s one of King’s best novels.

But… I’m being slow. This annoys me. I’m not a slow reader, it’s just that making the time to read every day is sometimes difficult. When I worked in an office, I could vanish for an hour at lunchtime with a book. Now I work from home, which is great, but suddenly division of time into discernable blocks becomes pretty difficult. A year and a half after I quit the office, I’m still working on time management. Plus, I read other things – comics, mostly – which takes up time.

I’m reading a lot of Stephen King as I had challenged myself to read his entire back catalogue in publication order. I did this after reading Under the Dome in 2009 – this was, amazingly, the first King novel I’d ever read, and I was hooked. Going back to the beginning has been a fascinating experience, even though I’ve hit a couple of speedbumps. The Shining was the first one – nothing happens for much of that book, and things only really get interesting until the final quarter. It looks like Firestarter is the second. But I’ll save any more thoughts on that until my review.

To save myself from King burnout, once Firestarter is done I’ll take a break and read three non-King novels. I have a house full of books to read – I’ve never actually counted by to-be-read pile, but it must be several years long.

The reason for this morning’s patch of reading angst is that reading is an essential part of writing. As I mentioned before, when I’m enjoying reading, I enjoy writing. Reading teaches you about writing, and should go hand-in-hand with the writing process. These last three months have been slow progress on Hang Wire, and maybe that’s because Firestarter has been slow progress. There’s no way to really measure any of this kind of thing short of keeping a more detailed reading/writing diary, but it’s an interesting parallel.

Project: Hang Wire (serial killers and superheroes in San Francisco)
Words yesterday: 1,722
Words total: 61,177/100,000 (61%)
Total words for 2011: 91,125

Review: The Dead Zone

The Dead Zone is one Stephen King book I’d been looking forward to – as one not so familiar with his work (until recently, that is), I must admit I hadn’t heard of this particular novel. I know a film and a TV series were based on it, but I never made the connection that it was one of his novels (and I haven’t seen either yet). But King talks about it a fair bit in On Writing, so when my Kingathon hit The Dead Zone I felt a certain familiarity with it.

And it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I think it’s King’s strongest novel since ‘Salem’s Lot (which still occupies the top spot for me). The novels between these two have their share of problems – The Shining lacks direction and The Stand is brilliant but too long – but with The Dead Zone, King is back on top form.

High school teacher Johnny Smith is involved in a car accident and stays in a coma for four years. When he wakes up, he apparently has the gift of psychometry, being able to discern details about people and objects by touching them, even being able to see glimpses of the future. What he sees about red-neck conservative politician Greg Stillson – and how the future will pan out with Stillson in the White House – fills him with terror, and forces him to take drastic action.

With Johnny’s four-year coma, and the rise of Greg Stillson, The Dead Zone takes place over a very long period of time. This is common to all of King’s early novels – Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand each take place over weeks, months or years, but not since ‘Salem’s Lot have I had a real sense of the passage of time. The world moves on and the characters in The Dead Zone get on with their lives as best they can, with the main plot coming into (and out of) their lives periodically until the crisis point is reached.

I was surprised a little to find the main plot of The Dead Zone – the central story idea which King describes in On Writing – does not come into the book until nearly the three-quarter mark, but this is no bad thing. The characters and their lives are so vividly written that I actually thought the book could have been much longer. I also would have liked Sarah Bracknell to have had a larger role, and knowing King’s writing method I wonder if he expected her to as well, but it just didn’t turn out that way. But that’s a minor quibble – her relationship to Johnny is poignant and adds a melancholic air to the book which I enjoyed, not to mention a very moving epilogue.

The Dead Zone was the last Stephen King novel published in the 1970s, which saw four books published under his name plus one short story collection and two novels as Richard Bachman. Although I complain about The Shining, these seven books are rock-solid. Do they represent King’s best work? I have no idea, as I still have a very large number of novels to get through. At the back of my mind I’m trying to pinpoint the period when the drink and drugs began to take their toll and his writing suffered (as people say it did), but so far I haven’t been able to detect any changes.

5/5

The Dead Zone was reviewed as part of Book Chick City’s 2011 Stephen King Challenge; for more information and book reviews from other participants, click here and here.

31st January, 2011

Coming up at the end of this week is the SFX Weekender, a two-day SF convention being held at Camber Sands Holiday Park on the south coast. I managed to win four tickets, so myself, the Mrs, writerly friend Jen (@sennydreadful) and her partner Marty (@boxroom) will be heading down to enjoy the company of George Takei, Sir Terry Pratchett, Keely Hawes, and a number of other guests. There is also going to be a sizeable book/writing contingent (not quite sure how to describe it!) so while this isn’t a literary SF convention I’m sure we’ll be mostly talking about writing and books and the like. I’m also going to be manning the Angry Robot Books sales table in the dealer’s room for a spell on both Friday and Saturday, so swing by and say hello. And then buy lots of books.

We’ve never been to a British holiday camp (although I have watched plenty of Hi-de-hi), and while the online reviews of the accomodation terrify me, I’m sure it’ll be a hoot. I’m expecting the worst (facilities-wise) and we’re coming prepared, and it’s only two nights anyway. I’m going to try to keep up with the blogging and writing/editing while I’m away (thanks to the ultra-portability of my Macbook Air). But… we’ll see how it goes.

Writing
No words yesterday. I’m sensing a pattern here, but editing has to come first at the moment as the deadline for The Wasp in the Lotus is fast approaching. Yesterday I did do a spot of beta-reading for one of my favourite authors, and there is more of that today, which is pretty gosh-darned cool.

Project: <none selected>
Words today: 0
Total words for 2011: 45,701

Editing
Good progress on Wasp. If I can get the second draft done today, I’ll be pleased. The plan, such as it is, is to have the novella ready to send off to my beta-readers before we leave for the SFX Weekender on Thursday.

Reading
Firestarter by Stephen King showed up in the post yesterday, and I made a start on it although I only read a couple of pages as I need to review The Dead Zone first as part of the 2011 Stephen King Challenge. Once that’s done (a job for today), then I can dive right in.

Books: A page or two of Firestarter by Stephen King.
Comics: On hold until February. Wait, February is today! Okay… time to dig out my comics hat and get reading.

30th January, 2011

There’s one classic question that non-writers ask writers: where do you get your ideas from? Although nobody has levelled that one at me yet (aside from family members, I think), I’ve heard it asked of some very famous names at conventions and book signings. I once heard an interview with Kevin J. Anderson (author of more than 100 novels) in which he provided quite a simple answer: a writer has more ideas than he or she will ever be able to write in their lifetime; the real question is how to pick which idea to work on.

I completely agree with that. Since putting my 16 initial index cards on the corkboard on my office wall last week, I’ve added another three cards, and am about to stick a fourth on. Ideas are cheap and easy. It’s putting them into an order you want to write them in that’s the hard part.

But sometimes I get surprised at where inspiration can strike. Yesterday I was chuckling over a blog post by Chuck Wendig, in which he analysed some of the more bizarre search terms that people have used to find his website. One in particular caught my eye, and we joked over Twitter about how that would be a great book.

Later that night, I was preparing dinner and I remembered the conversation. I was happily laughing to myself when part of my brain said “Yeah, that’s ridiculous, but then when X happens you get Y story and Z follows.” I stopped dead. There it was, the seeds of a story. More importantly, the seeds of a story for something that I’ve been invited to pitch for and had been struggling with ever since my original concept didn’t quite fit the requirements. Over the next hour or so, while I was pottering about doing other things, more pieces of the puzzle fell into place. This could happen, and that could happen, and these characters will do that but these characters will try and oppose them.

An important distinction to make is that an idea is not a story. I remember a con panel once where an audience member asked why, whenever they try and write a novel, they start with real enthusiasm and blast out three pages before it all comes to a crashing halt. The suggested answer was that they were confusing an idea with a story. Take some Stephen King books (just as an example, as I’ve read a few lately): Dracula arrives in rural New England (‘Salem’s Lot); after a car accident, a guy wakes up and can see the future (The Dead Zone); a girl with psychic powers gets her revenge on her high school bullies (Carrie); a giant impenetrable dome falls over a small town (Under the Dome).

These are ideas, but they are not stories. Ideas cannot fill the pages of a book, that’s what you need story for (and with story you get plot and character). Under the Dome is 1,100 pages long. ‘Salem’s Lot is 700, but it’s not 700 pages of vampires invading New England. Well, in a way it is that, but that’s just the backbone.

So you might have the best idea in the world, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got a story or a book. You’ve got to take that idea and let it grow – I’ve found my subconscious does most of the work, and that’s why my corkboard is important. My corkboard has twenty ideas on it, and all through the day I can see the cards on the wall. Some of them do have full outlines. Some of them have a list of events and characters. Others are just a title and a vague notion. But my subconscious is slowly filling in the blanks, slotting bits of story around, creating characters. Seeing the ideas on my board constantly keeps them fresh in my mind.

Card number 20 on my board is my idea from yesterday. It’s a title and a tag-line, and in the back of my mind a loose collection of events, characters and concepts. When it comes to actually sitting down and starting to take some notes, I should have a lot of data, and I might even have a story.

Writing
No words again. But I have a plan. That sounds like another excuse, but I really do. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.

Project: <none selected>
Words today: 0
Total words for 2011: 45,701

Editing
So let’s call Sunday an unexpected day off. And I wasn’t even playing Mass Effect 2.

Reading
But I did manage to finish Death’s Disciples. What a book – action-packed, highly original, and very strange indeed. Nothing at all what I expected, and that’s a good thing.

Time now to continue my Stephen King journey, and next up is Firestarter. That’s one of his more popular/well-known novels I think, and I can’t wait to get stuck in.

Also, I seem to have read three books in January – The Long Walk, The Dead Zone, Death’s Disciples. If I can keep that pace up I’m looking at 36 for the year, which might be a record for me.

Books: finished Death’s Disciples by J. Robert King.
Comics: On hold until February.

20th January, 2011

It’s Friday and the sun is shining, so just a quick note before the weekend. Tonight the final episode of my voodoo steampunk horror novella The Devil in Chains goes live on Dark Fiction Magazine, so check it out. All feedback is welcome!

Writing
Project: The Wasp in the Lotus (steampunk/clockpunk novella)
Words today: 1,139
Words total: 11,675/20,000 (47%)
Total words for 2011: 36,156

Yet another sub-2k day, but I did spend a lot of it planning a couple of other projects. One is the sample I need to work up for a post-apocalyptic novel called The Last of the Outlaw Truckers (I’ll eschew a codename here as I love the real title), and the other is for the book after that. I wasn’t thinking much about that book until last night when a giant slab of the plot just arrived in my head, along with a title. Which was nice. The title is Ride, and it’s about a motorcycle gang and an alien invasion. It’ll be a while before I get to it, but in the meantime here’s the song that partially inspired it:

Reading
I finished The Dead Zone, and it was quite, quite brilliant. I found the end very moving, in fact the whole book was quite emotional. Definitely the best King novel since ‘Salem’s Lot, I think, which is evidenced by the speed at which I read it (585 pages in about two weeks, which is super-fast for me). As per the requirements of the 2011 Stephen King Challenge I’ll be posting a review shortly. Next up is a break from King with some post-apocalyptic action.

Books: Finished The Dead Zone by Stephen King.
Comics: On hold until February.

Review: The Long Walk

The Long Walk is one of a batch of novels that Stephen King wrote sometime in the early-to-mid 1970s, before the novel that would eventually be published as his debut, Carrie. Some of these earlier works were later published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, for reasons that even he can’t quite explain. Apparently as soon as the first so-called “Bachman Book” was published (Rage, in 1977), King started receiving letters asking if he was Bachman. While the King-Bachman connection is not quite so obvious with Rage, which has a certain “edge” to the writing which King’s writing usually lacks, The Long Walk is very clearly Stepken King. It is exceptionally well written, as to be expected, but it also features a number of “Kingisms” which I suspect might be a New England thing – for instance, the use of “it was ten of four” to indicate ten minutes to four, and one of his favourite little proverbs: “Hail Mary, full of grace, help me win this stock car race”. As far as my memory serves, this first appears (in publication order anyway) in ‘Salem’s Lot, and then is reused in both The Shining and The Stand (twice there, I think). If this his one of his signature lines (and as I’m only halfway through The Dead Zone now, I can’t tell; I don’t recall it being in Under the Dome either), then it is a clear indication that The Long Walk is one of his. Not that it requires any particular signature – King’s voice is loud and clear in this book.

The Long Walk is remarkable in its simplicity. Set in an odd, apparently totalitarian America of the near future, it tells the story of Ray Garraty, one of one hundred teenage boys taking part in the Long Walk, a bizarre national sport which involves the participants walking at no less than four miles per hour until there is only one boy left standing. Any participant who falls below the required speed gets three warnings before being shot by soliders accompanying the walk in half-track vehicles. The Long Walk is a brutal and horrific event, but the prize for the winner is, it seems, anything he may desire. Participants are selected by means of a voluntary lottery, and those ‘lucky’ enough to get in become celebrities. Bets are placed and the roads are lined with thousands of spectators cheering the walkers on and, hopefully, to see some unfortunate boys buy the farm. The Long Walk is like some kind of non-combatitive gladatorial contest, a gruesome spectacle appealing to the very base instincts of humanity.

The novel is fairly linear, beginning with Garraty setting off with confidence somewhere near the Canadian border and heading south, through his hom states of New England (another King giveaway). The book ends when there is only one walker left, and I won’t discuss the plot any further without the risk of spoilers. Suffice to say what could be a very dull, padded book (and at 384 pages its not as typical King doorstop, but it’s not short either) is a superb character study. Character is what King does best, and in a way I’m surprised that he chose this book to go out under the Bachman name. It’s a very worthy addition to the main King canon, much better I think than The Shining, published a couple of years earlier. The Long Walk was published in July 1979, and just one month later The Dead Zone came out under King’s real name, so perhaps market saturation was a consideration.

The Long Walk is dark, disturbing, and quite horrific, and grinds towards the inevitable conclusion which still manages to surprise. It’s an essential read for any fan of psychological horror, and in a way it is a shame that the most widely available edition at the moment is as part of The Bachman Books collection. To me this implies it is somehow a lesser work, even a long short story or novella rather than a proper novel. But it is a powerful, standalone book, and one I think I will return to many times in the future.

5/5

The Long Walk was reviewed as part of Book Chick City’s 2011 Stephen King Challenge; for more information and book reviews from other participants, click here and here.