What I learned about writing crime fiction from reading Stephen King’s The Outsider

the outsider

 

 

Adverbs may be our enemies, but adjectives, action verbs, and similes are our friends.

 
Kill off characters we’ve learned to identify with.  I think this is what King really meant when he advocated killing your little darlings.

 
Threaten to kill off other characters we’ve learned to identify with or care about.

 
There’s no end to the universe. It goes on and on forever, much like some Stephen King stories.

 
Generate doubt and suspicion by demonstrating—show, don’t tell—how everything we believe to have happened in the story thus far may be untrue. Only the willing suspension of disbelief can provide the proper perspective to help set things right. There really are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

 

 
Must and can’t are dangerous words. Psychologist Albert Ellis termed internalizing such words “mental musterbation.”

 
Show that kernels of the truth lay buried—hidden amongst all that chaff that mucks up human perception—and would surely have been evident if only we’d paid closer attention from the very beginning, if only we hadn’t allowed personal bias to color our perceptions. If only Terry Maitland hadn’t shown our son how to bunt. If only we’d never loved eating cantaloupe as a child. If only . . .

 
The keys to good story-telling, like the keys to producing memorable poems and songs, are repetition and rhythm.  Play it again, Steve. And again and again and again. For old time’s sake.

 
“He thinks that if we all tell the same story, everything will be okay . . .If we all tell the same story.” King tells the same story over and over again as different viewpoint characters relate events from their own perspectives. Then he repeats, as often as needed. Soon the familiar world disappears, and a fictional world–a world that resembles the real world but isn’t the same–replaces it with a world that feels equally familiar.

 

Now that you’ve willingly suspended disbelief, anything is possible.

 

Getting lost in a King story is sort of like taking drugs. “Everything still hurts, but you don’t give a shit.” All you want is more of that old familiar feeling you know so well.

 

The Outsider by Stephen King (Scribner, May 2018) will give readers a few sleepless nights worth remembering. Highly recommended.

 

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Pain and Suffering: A True Story

When I tried to get out of bed this morning, I discovered I could not straighten my back.

Don’t worry, this morning wasn’t the first time this has happened. Slightly more than thirty years ago, I was hit by a moving car while walking across the street. The car’s grill struck my left hip, propelling me up onto the hood and into the windshield. When the car slowed, I rolled off the hood and fell to the ground beneath the still-moving car. I heard Gretta scream before I lost consciousness.

I came to in a Fire Department ambulance on the way to a hospital emergency room. My neck and back were strapped to separate braces that kept me immobile. I was wheeled into x-ray where they took a full set of 8 x 10 glossies.

My head had cracked open where it had collided with the windshield (Gretta told me later that she saw my hard head actually shatter the shatter-proof glass in that windshield). I received a half-dozen stitches and a shot for the pain. Three doctors examined me and let Gretta drive me home with a brace around my neck, stitches and bandages on my head, and a handful of pills that included prescription muscle relaxants and pain killers.

Long story short: I was lucky to be alive.

When I went to see a doctor again the next day for follow-up, she told me I had hairline fractures in my cheek, jaw, and left hip. She said they would eventually mend. The muscle in my left hip was severely swollen and badly distended. She said she doubted it would ever heal properly.

It didn’t.

I had no medical insurance at the time because I was a free-lance writer barely eking out a meager living selling an occasional short story, a work-for-hire novel, or a magazine article. I managed to pay the rent, purchase pipe tobacco, feed the cats, and put food in my own stomach, but I sure as hell couldn’t afford medical insurance. Fortunately, the driver of that car had insurance. The driver felt terrible about hitting a pedestrian, the insurance adjuster said. I agreed to sign a waver forfeiting the right to sue for future pain and suffering if the insurance company paid for my current medical bills and the cost of replacing the three-piece suit I had worn that was ruined by blood and rips in both the pants and the jacket.

I wish now that I had sued. My hip never did heal. That muscle is still distended and if I turn over the wrong way in my sleep I awake in terrible pain and can’t straighten my back.

I also walk lopsided, like the way an automobile drives when the frame is knocked out of kilter by a collision.

But I consider myself lucky to be alive. Not only did my head shatter that windshield instead of the windshield shattering my head, when I rolled off the hood one of the front wheels missed pancaking my head by less than an inch. That, according to Gretta, was what made her scream. She was certain I was road kill.

It’s now 8 PM, thirty-some years after the accident, and I haven’t been able to straighten my back since yesterday. I have to walk hunched over like Igor or Lon Chaney. I’m in pain as I write this. As I said, this isn’t the first time this has happened. I should be back to normal in a week or so.

Until the next time I strain my back and this happens again.

It’s always nice to know that I have friends who worry about me. When I don’t post for a while on various social media sites like Facebook or one of my multiple blogsites, I get e-mails or phone calls wondering why. If I don’t appear at a con where I’m normally a fixture, plenty of people wonder why. If I haven’t been my usual prolific self with new stories and novels and book reviews appearing in print, you probably wonder why yourself.

Here’s why:

1. I am carefully crafting a breakthrough novel that’s dynamite. My agent asked to have the novel polished for submission by the end of August. It’s now whittled down from 140,000 words to 95,000 fast-paced words and almost ready to fly.

2. I’ve been invited to submit to four anthologies, one of which is a shared-world, and those deadlines are also approaching.

3. After neglecting personal self-care for five years, natural aging finally caught up with me. My eyes, knees, and teeth cried out for attention. I may not yet be the Six Million Dollar Man, but I’m getting real close.

4. Lizza and I are coordinating our fall convention wardrobes during cook-outs and dinners in area restaurants.

5. Daily deluges turned my front and back yards into virtual rainforests that require constant cutting, chopping, and decluttering before my humble abode completely disappears and I turn into the Swamp Thing.

6. You already know about my hip and the pain I’m in.

Stephen King, like many of the characters in his stories and novels, is the kid next door. We all knew him when he ran around the neighborhood with poopy diapers and a silly shit-eating grin on his face.

We watched him grow up, go away to the nearly-local state university, fall in love, get married, have a handful of kids, and bury a beloved, but possessed, dog or two. We watched him struggle to make a success of himself. We watched him fall down once or twice and pick himself up. He was a lot like us, we figured. He looked familiar. He sounded familiar. He had similar addictions. When he was good, he was very good. When he was bad, he was very bad.

We could easily identify with all that

He loved books and he loved to read or hear a good story as much he loved to tell one. He still does. Everyone I know can certainly identify with that.

Steve, too, was a pedestrian hit by a moving vehicle. Not everyone can identify with that. But, on days like today, I certainly can.

Priceless

I learned something very important today while reading American Gothic, Amy Gentry’s haunting review of Shirley Jackson’s life and newest book, in the Chicago Tribune’s weekly Printers Row. “Like James, Jackson was a master of understatement, not subtlety,” Gentry writes. “Her stories telegraph every nuance with a crispness, giving them an accessibility that accounts for their ubiquity in mid-century magazines and high school syllabi; by withholding the final piece of the puzzle, she made sure she would never have to write her own punchlines. Agonized readers wrote them in for her, or, if they couldn’t, wrote to the New Yorker in anguish.”

I tried to write like Jackson in each of the 20 very short stories of The Devil Made Me Do It: Twenty Contemporary Tales of Subtle Horror. Unlike my novels and later stories which tend to be more explicit (heh heh), I revealed the gun hanging on the wall over the mantle in the first scene but never let you hear the shot when the gun was finally fired. I would reveal the knife in the murderer’s hand, but never the cruelest cuts. Those scenes were left to the reader’s imagination to supply. That worked incredibly well in some stories, not so well in others.

Stephen King builds up his reveals slowly over time, and when he finally does reveal the face of the monster hiding in the closet or under the bed he lets you hear the gun going off, feel the blade penetrating flesh, taste the blood. He doesn’t hold his punches. Or, rather, he does hold his punches until the knockout round. And then he lets you have it with both fists and both barrels. By the time he goes for the gross-out, readers are ready for it, hungry for it. Steve has readers hanging on his every sentence as he drags out the excruciating anguish. He knows how to build expectation, and he always delivers on his promises.

We writers study the works of other writers with a combination of gratefulness and envy. Gratefulness that they showed us how it’s done; envy at the seemingly effortless way they did it.

But mastery of the craft is far from effortless. Everyone who writes realizes that writers we admire anguish over words the same way we do. Stories are a dime a dozen, but the right word in the right place at the right time is priceless.

Subtlety and understatement have their place in horror. The written works that stay with us longest are not the ones that hit us over the head but that gnaw away at us from inside. Like Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Or like King’s The Green Mile. There are hidden universal truths in great literature that endure long after the last word is written or read. Stephen King hinted at that in Finders Keepers, King’s latest novel. He has hinted at it in other works, too, if you bother to look.

William Faulkner is the writer who has probably influenced me most. Like Jackson and King, Faulkner knew the old universal truths and embedded them in his writing. When I read, I mine for hidden nuggets. Reading and writing has made me a rich man. Like Pete Saubers in King’s Finders Keepers, when I discover hidden gold buried in my backyard, my life becomes changed forever.

Thank you Amy Gentry for giving me insight today. Thank you Shirley Jackson, William Faulkner, and Stephen King for giving me insight that lasts a lifetime.