There is much to be said about this delightful little book. For now, I'll focus on the most wonderful thing about it, IMHO: it got published!
At about 30,000 words, it is half the length of Stephen King's Carrie. It is also around half the length of most of Agatha Christie's novels. Though it is labelled "a novel" above the author's name, a work of this length has traditionally been called a novella.
For instance, Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is about the same length. It was first published in Liberty magazine and then in a book entitled Three of a Kind, containing three novellas.
In a previous blog post, I wondered why traditional publishers currently demand longer books. My guess: big books justify big prices.
So how did Elevation get published? Stephen King has earned a large following. He sells lots of books. Even if this one is less profitable than, say, The Outsider, the publisher will do just fine.
And that's wonderful! Short books are enjoyable in their own special way, and anything that delivers an enjoyable experience for the reader is good.
Can an author who is not a superstar write and publish a novella? Yes! Look for them wherever ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks are sold.
In Joyland, a narrator in his 60s tells about the year he turned twenty-one. It's a bitter-sweet story of innocence and experience made bearable by the knowledge that the young man obviously survived it all since he lived to tell the tale. It's full of the aches that come from foolish decisions and opportunities missed. As a guy in his 60s, I can relate.
It's tempting to think the narrator is Stephen King himself, especially when he reflects on his present circumstances, saying, "I make a pretty good living as a writer." That one made me laugh. But this is not a memoir. That becomes clear when the narrator clarifies that he is editor of an in-flight magazine.
Along with the ode to youth, there's a good murder mystery thrown in. Contrary to conventional wisdom it takes the main character a while to get around to asking whodunnit? He has other business to attend to first.
I didn't mind the delayed attention to solving the crime mostly because the genuine feel of a man telling his story was so engaging. In his book, On Writing, King stresses writing honestly about the world as you see it.
That narrator's voice makes Joyland a worthy reply to a line from a song that was popular in my youth. In "What Have They Done to My Song," the artist known as Melanie said, "Wish I could find a good book to live in." I kept coming back to Joyland, not for the suspense, but because it was a good place to live for a few days.
SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss one aspect of this very suspenseful book, leaving out as much detail as possible.
Stephen King’s The Outsider starts out as a heck of a murder mystery. He convinces us the murder suspect and the man who arrests him are bitter enemies and makes us care about both. We find ourselves pulling for both sides in a struggle for justice. This is a remarkable accomplishment.
In doing so, it seems to me, King demonstrates the power of focusing on situation rather than plot. This is an approach he describes in On Writing: a memoir of the craft. Rather than outlining, he suggests the writer develop a detailed description of the situation the characters are in at the beginning of the book.
As an example, he shows how a news story about a man getting out of prison can be turned into something more intriguing. What if it’s a woman getting out of prison? What if she escapes? What if her husband doesn’t know she has escaped?
Once the enhanced situation is in hand, King suggests the writer begin with what the main character would do to get out of a painful situation and then imagine what new obstacle the character would face as a result. The writer then repeats the process until the main issue set up at the beginning has been resolved.
Working this way lets the writer discover possibilities that are not obvious when developing a simple cause-and-effect outline. That’s what King has done in The Outsider. It is nothing like a routine police procedural.
Last Friday, we had lunch with some friends we hadn't seen in almost a year. We talked about what each of us had been up to, and I admitted I was ready to start publishing the mysteries I've written. One friend asked what the books are about. Another asked to be informed when they are available.
Another said Stephen King's On Writing is really a good book. Some others agreed. I think this was the only time I've heard a book on the craft of writing mentioned and discussed by people who aren't writers.
On Writing might be widely read because King's fiction is so popular and because the first 90 pages is about how he grew up and became a writer. But I think people are also reading the 140 pages that make up the middle of the book in which he lays out how to write fiction.
These pages are practical and inspirational for the writer, but also, I would imagine, entertaining for anyone to read. For instance, King says the room in which you write needs only one thing, "a door which you are willing to shut." That's bound to raise a smile.
A writer I know found it perplexing that King devotes about 100 pages of the book to autobiography, although the subtitle of On Writing is A Memoir of the Craft. But another of my favorite books on craft, Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, illustrates many of its practical points with anecdotes from the author's career.
I also like the way King says, "I have written because it fulfills me." This reminds me of how Patricia Highsmith in her how-to book says, "Writing is a way of organizing experience and life itself . . ." Ultimately, it's as much personal as practical.
Taking a break from crime fiction, I picked up Stephen King's Carrie, his first novel, the one that transformed him from an English teacher sending short stories to men's magazines into a novelist with a brilliant career ahead.
I missed Carrie and Brian de Palma's film version when they came out because in 1974 I was transforming myself from a graduate student into an assistant professor. The job market was brutal and I had no time for pop culture.
I really enjoyed Carrie. Mostly, I think, because King is writing about real people in real situations as he observed them (he describes this process in On Writing, pp. 77-82). I cared about the characters, what they did, and what happened to them.
I was also fascinated by his narrative technique. His use of scenes told in the third person from different characters' points of view is conventional, but he interrupts the flow of scenes with texts from reports written after the climactic event: an academic study, a memoir, news accounts, letters.
These parallel texts do many things: foreshadowing, backstory, commentary. They do lots of things that are often hard to write and hard to read when they come from the principal narrator. King wisely keeps each inserted text brief.
Another novel that does this brilliantly is Dracula by Bram Stoker, also of course a horror story. The first page describes the novel as a collection of documents. Later in the book one of the characters sits down to transcribe a collection of letters, telegrams, diary entries, and news reports and thus we learn how the novel we are reading came to be . . . supposedly.