Go Stuff Your Stocking, We Want Stephen King

Other than leaving the 24 hour marathon of A Christmas Story running all day Christmas Eve, flipping to a midnight showing of Gremlins while I wrap the presents, and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special with my brothers at least once, I am not a huge consumer of Christmas specials and made-for-TV movies. In fact, I find it pretty annoying that they are all but dominating the TV landscape as early as three weeks out (I have a brother with an early December birthday and we never even decorate until after it).

This morning with great glee I read an io9 article  promising a brand-new Stephen King miniseries, airing at 9 pm Sunday on A&E.  The miniseries is based on King’s 2008 novel Bag of Bones. In light of the upcoming “A&E move event” I have decided to review it.

Bag of Bones, Stephen King, Published 2008

At 560 pages, Bag of Bones clocks in on the shorter side for a King novel. It is all the better for its relative brevity. The pacing is tight and the plot gripping, without missing out on any of the horror or spookiness one would expect from a King novel. The book centers around a widowed writer, Mike Noonan, who is suffering from grief-induced writer’s block four years after his wife’s death. Noonan had a habit of stockpiling extra manuscripts in the good times, but his store is running dry so he retreats to the vacation home he shared with his wife in hopes of finding inspiration.

 His Maine vacation home, Sarah Laughs, brings more than inspiration. It brings several new women into his life (one big, one small, one spectral) and interlinking mysteries that are more personal than he realizes. King weaves several plotlines together throughout the narrative, spitting the reader out fully-informed and thoroughly frightened on the shores of one of his most thrilling endings. There is something for everyone here: mystery, gore, revenge, mythos, love, and even adorable children (though sometimes, as in any King novel) bad things happen to them). King is in fine form combining the horror of the supernatural with the inescapable intimacy of small towns and the smallness of people.

King has been known to struggle with endings and with female characters, but no such struggle is evident here. The conclusion is a barn-burner that grabs you a full hundred pages before the last, and keeps you turning them no matter the horror they contain. Mattie and Kyla Devore are engaging and fully realized female characters, as is the spectral female. Max Devore makes a sublime villain, engaged in both plots as he tries to take Kyla from Mattie but can’t escape his past.     

The true horror of this book is that it is so deeply sad. There is gore, there are terrifying moments and heart-pounding fights for survival, but the book is suffused with love denied. Love used as a weapon, even. This is one that will stay with you long after you finish.

Incidentally, Bag of Bones also includes my favortie description of a writer ever. Mike Noonan often refers to himself as “V.C. Andrews with a prick”.

Sound off: Have you read the book? Will you read it, or watch the miniseries?

Like a Fine Roux, the Plot Thickens

In case you don’t fanatically read the (four) comments left on this blog, I will re-post the one that inspired this entry:

“You won? Just like that? Tell me more! Congrats. Do you write sci fi? Too many questions for such a celebrity, I know, I know. But could you give me advice on plotline techniques?”

Perhaps I should address these points in order to make sure I don’t miss anything.

1. Yes, I did win. No, not quite “just like that”. I became aware of NaNoWriMo in 2010 when various friends-of-friends were involved, and it sounded interesting. It should be noted here that nearly impossible challenges are my favorite kind, I find them almost irresistible, much like Marty McFly finds any dare in which he is called “chicken”. However, as I said before, I didn’t think of myself as a writer so the idea of participating floated through my brain and out, never to be thought of again.

Until the next year.

Cut to October of this year, in which I had both an idea and a nudge. The idea came in the shower, the nudge came from a very popular YA Fiction writer: in the form of a blog she wrote about NaNoWriMo and why it isn’t for her, and a couple of comments she made in response to my own. So on October 31st, I went on over to the NaNo website and signed up an hour before it began.  

2. There was definitely more to it than Idea, Register, Win. Signing up at the last minute meant that I hadn’t done any character sketches, research, or outlining on paper. I dove in that first day and wrote three thousand words, then discovered the second day that I had only saved half of them. I started over writing my story from the end, which worked much better for me as it turned out. I discovered that when I write forward I fall into a pattern of describing things minute-by-minute. This is very boring. Writing backward from major event to major event, then filling in more character-building scenes in between kept things humming along.

3. Thank you.

4. As I mentioned before, this novel was YA Fantasy. Since it was my first, I cannot really say that I write sci-fi. I did have an idea for a sci-fi novel that I was pretty excited about, but as I did research and thought about the plot it turned into Fantasy. I love sci-fi, I hope that writing some awesome and interesting sci-fi lies somewhere in my future, but it hasn’t happened yet.

5. There is no such thing as too many questions. I love them, I ask them endlessly, life is richer for locating the answers. This is why two-year-olds are some of my favorite people. So curious, and never self-conscious about it.

6. I am not sure how useful my advice on plotting techniques will be, given that this is my first novel,  but I will tell you what I learned in writing it. I mentioned that I pretty much didn’t prepare to write this novel ahead of time at all, other than brainstorming sessions in the shower. That works for me, I have a good memory and just outlining things in my head leaves me flexibility. Sometimes if I commit an outline to paper I get married to it and everything becomes very dry and formulaic, following all the bullet points. One helpful thing about this particular novel is that the ending came to me first, I always knew where it was going. The overall plot developed from the ending, with three specific events dictated by the calendar. This was probably what got me over the finish line.

Three major events is a convenient number for plotting, in this case it corresponded with the beginning, middle, and end of an experience the main character was having. There are chapters before the first event and after the third, but the plot is divided by them into sections. Before the first event, the scene is being set, but only a little. The reader is given a basic idea of the main players and where they are, socially and mentally.

The first event acts as a catalyst, the characters are in new and unfamiliar territory, requiring them to make choices that show the reader more about who they are. For inert characters, it may spur them into action. Between the first and second events the world and characters become more three dimensional, in hopes that the reader will be immersed by the second event.

The second event is the game-changer, characters are thrown thoroughly off-balance and they will either find their way back to center or fall completely.The action between the second and third events develops which course each character is taking. When I say each, I mean your main characters. Focusing on each and every character could become unwieldy, and boring.

The third event is the beginning of the end. Realizations are made, big mistakes are made, secrets may be revealed. Characters may part ways for good (or they may think they are parting ways for good). Everything between the third event and the ending will seem momentous. Not much room for fluff, everything should be speeding up to slam the reader home at the climax.

The ending, the big reveal (if there is one), whatever you have been leading up to all this time. I am a fan of books that continue a bit after the ending, because in life the curtain doesn’t come down right after the big event. There is an aftermath, maybe a fallout, or a return to daily life (or not, both can be interesting). Ending at the climax feels gimmicky and unsatisfying, save it for romantic comedies.

So there it is, how I plotted and won my first NaNoWriMo. I started with the tasty melted butter of humor and character interaction, whisked in the hearty thickening flour of world-building, then went to town with the spice of conflict. One delicious novel (or roux, if you only follow the food-based portion of that analogy).

The Blog With No Name

So NaNoWriMo is over. I won. I wrote a 51k word novel in one month. It is being read and critiqued as I write this. I have no idea what I will do with it once I get the notes, but I do know one thing:

This blog needs a new name.

For better or worse I heaved myself from the figurative armchair and wrote a novel. It was difficult, and slow, and I hung out with a lot of really weird people at the weekly meetings that I would be alarmed to associate with on a regular basis. It was also the first piece of creative fiction I have written since maybe high school. I have always been a reader, but I never aspired to be a writer.

What you can look forward to (and I know you will) in the future of this blog:  A double review of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and Shipbreaker. Exploration of some of Stephen King’s advice on writing from my fresh-off-NaNo perspective, reviews of classic Heinlein novels, and a review of the 1971 sci-fi anthology Mind to Mind. Probably a catch-all review of Scott Westerfeld’s oeuvre from Peeps and Uglies to the Leviathan trilogy. I am also open to requests.