As I’ve mentioned endlessly, I’m trying to write fiction. Well, actually, that’s not true; I am writing fiction, practically every day; what I’m trying to do is get it noticed, read, and (one hopes) published.
What I’ve noticed is that as I’m listening to podcasts, or driving around, or reading books, I have a bunch of ideas about what to write about or what to include in my stuff or how to make it better, which I take down and try to integrate into my work. So say if I’m listening to an SF writer on the “Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy” podcast and he renders some advice that I think is valuable, I make a note (mental or physical).
I’ve also been re-reading writing advice from various writers I like–the introductory comments Dan Simmons has to many of his short stories in his short story collections; Neal Stephenson’s pieces in “Some Remarks”; Steven King’s thoughts in “On Writing”.
I realize I’ve buried the lede here, but this is all a roundabout introduction to the fact that I just finished King’s book “Doctor Sleep”, and I thought it was simply tremendous.
King himself, in 1982’s collection “Different Seasons”, has said that his writing is “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonald’s.” Only King knows what he is trying to say by that, but I’ve always felt he meant that he meant his stuff to be horked down, that it was tasty (and hopefully filling) if not particularly nutritious, enjoyable, targeted for your mythical Middle American, and wasn’t to be put in the same category with Graham Greene or Gunter Grass or Alice Munro.
OK, fair enough. But you as I read through a passage in “Doctor Sleep”, where the main character is helping another character to make the crossing from life into death–as cliched a topic as you can possibly imagine, really; how many thousands of writers have taken a hack at that one?–I found myself crying. Now, I’m an emotional slob; Sami will tell you that. I still cry in Star Trek II when Spock dies, even knowing he’s got many more years, TV appearances, and several movies still to go. But it’s not often. And here I was, sobbing at a piece of fiction, and staying up until after 3am to finish it. (I’ll admit my emotional resources were at low ebb, but still.)
This is not McDonald’s McLiterature, and I’m sure King knows that, or at least hopes that it’s true. No. King is hit or miss, no doubt about it; you don’t crank out “The Stand” or “The Shining” on every try. But this is a winner. And as I struggle to incorporate the lessons I learned about style, pace, timing, and the like while reading this book (see how I brought it back to my lengthy intro there?), a better analogy occurred to me.
In Santa Cruz, there is a breakfast and brunch place called Zachary’s. The food at Zachary’s is middle-american breakfast food with a California funky twist. Bacon, but applewood-smoked bacon; eggs; pancakes, but whole-grain (if you want them); oatmeal molasses toast instead of white bread; that kind of thing. But in the main, solid American breakfast food. Eggs, coffee, juice, bacon, home fries, pancakes; stuff like that. The coffee is horrible. I mean, really horrible; the kind of horrible that you absolutely, positively want when you’re desperately hung-over and need coffee more than anything to wake you up in the morning. It has always been remarkable to me how consistently awful Zachary’s coffee has been across the years; burnt, bitter, and probably capable of removing engine grease from locomotive diesels. But somehow, with the excellent (and slightly California off-beat) breakfast food, it’s perfect, absolutely perfect. I never have less than two cups.
And that’s what Stephen King’s writing is like. Stephen King’s writing is like that awesome diner breakfast you had that one time in that podunk town that you absolutely didn’t expect, where somehow the awful coffee or the slightly crisped bacon or the too-sugary “maple” syrup (that wasn’t maple) made it even better, more filling, more perfect. You know what I mean? Where you walked out of there sated, totally full, feeling fine, feeling like, hey, the world ain’t so bad, I got some solid fuel in the tank finally and I’m ready to face life. That’s the kind of breakfast I’m talking about. That’s the kind of writer Stephen King, at his best, can be. That’s the kind of writer I hope I am, or can be.
And that’s why you should read “Doctor Sleep” if you like solid, filling, American-style breakfast food horror/sf fiction. You’ll feel full and satisfied. And that’s saying a lot, don’t you think?