So you can read my books

Friday, May 28, 2010


There's a scene in Stephen King's SALEM'S LOT that I've used as a counseling illustration for years.

At least I hope that scene is there in the book. It's been awhile since I last read it. But if it isn't there, it ought to be.

SALEM'S LOT was King's second published novel, and he wanted it called SECOND COMING. But the publishers thought that sounded too religious. And even then, publishers didn't want to scare off a major portion of the reading audience by implying there were spiritual themes in the book.

And before we rail against the publishers, think of how many people yawning in church pews you've seen. Being preached at is all too often boring. It is what it is.

The publishers also did a last minute price cut from $8.95 to $7.95 {yes, those were the prices for hardcovers back in 1976}, producing an "unholy grail" for collectors. Only 4 copies of the unchanged dust covers are known to exist. eBay anyone?

Anyway, on to the illustration :

Ben Mears, our author/hero, has persuaded the sheriff to sit in the morgue with him. If at sundown the 3 day old dead do not rise, Ben will happily be led to the looney bin. The sheriff, plagued with deaths and disappearances, does not need an addled author making his life harder. And so the sheriff agrees, thinking that at sundown, his life will be made just a little easier.

Shows you how plans unravel. Sundown comes. The shelves of the morgue fly open, the newly awakened vampires rise from the cold steel. The sheriff turns horrified to Ben.

"I believe. I believe! Now what?"

But that was just it. Ben had worked so hard to get the sheriff to believe, he had thought no further than this point. He had made no plans at what to do next. Because King needed him alive for the rest of the book, Ben did indeed come up speedily with a plan.

But we are so often like Ben Mears. We struggle, labor, and work for a goal, only to surprisingly achieve it, not knowing what to do next. We haven't planned for "What now?"

We writers work, polish, edit, revise, then finally mail off our query to agent after agent. Submit. Get rejected. Get nothing. Submit again. And again. And yet again.

Then : the agent asks to see a partial or a full. What?! And then we discover what we should have been doing all along as we queried. Which is, you ask?

Thinking why an agent would say no to a partial or a full and fixing those problems BEFORE we send our dream novel out the door.

And why would an agent say no?

Janet Reid gave us some reasons earlier in my posts. Rachelle Gardner gave us some more in February :

1. The story falls apart after the first 2-3 chapters.

We polish that first chapter, those first 30 pages. But do we go any further? We ought to. As we're waiting for those replies to our queries, we should slowly go over the first six chapters, trying to see them through the jaded, weary eyes of an agent. Then, the next six. And the six after that. Until the whole novel gleams.

What flaw might a weary agent see? The monster called BackStory gobbling up the momentum and suspense of your novel. Is your hero in some form of jeopardy each chapter? Do things slowly worsen for him/her?

Go to the middle of your novel. Read with an agent's eye for pacing, suspense, and action. Do snails race past your Hamlet hero? If so, your novel is in trouble.

Go to the the last chapter. Compare it to your first. Are they like those before and after pictures in those diet ads? They better be. There should be growth in the problems and perceptions of your hero that were introduced in the first chapter. If not, your novel is adrift with no sense of direction or destination.

Without that, the agent will not put down your novel with a smile and the words, "Now that was a great read!"

2. The manuscript doesn't pass the "put it down" test.

An agent has a life outside your manuscript. I know that's a shock. But there it is. She has to put your manuscript down to live that life. Look at the adventures, the one-liners, the thrills, the suspense in your novel. If there isn't much of any of those things I've just mentioned -- how eager do you think she'll really be to pick it back up?

And if she isn't, how is she going to convince a jaded editor that there will be lots of readers who won't be able to lay your novel down?

Think of the illusion of victory in history.

I have a scene in FRENCH QUARTER NOCTURNE where Samuel is meeting Colonel Strasser fresh from Casablanca in Sam's club, where all times meet in the year 2005. Strasser asks Sam, "You know how the war ends, don't you?"

"Yes," said Samuel. "Everybody loses."

Use the illusion of victory in your novel. The hero only thinks she's won. It was a hollow victory. She struggles as everything becomes storm around her. The antagonist wins. Laughs and leaves our heroine on her knees. The heroine discovers there is a difference between defeat and losing. Defeat only teaches us what to do better in order to win. And the antagonist discovers her victory was illusion.

Every chapter should end with things doing an about-face or worsening. Each chapter should begin with the hero dodging and evading certain defeat to continue on.

3. The mysterious Nazca Lines For Writers :

I wrote a post that might help you in polishing your entire novel so that it will not be rejected from an agent who has asked to see a partial or a full. Rather than repeat it here, I'll give you the link :

And since we started this post with SALEM'S LOT, here is an excerpt that might give you an idea why it was snapped up by an agent :

In the fall, the sun loses its thin grip on the air first, turning it cold, making it remember that winter is coming and winter will be long.

Thin clouds form, and the shadows lengthen out. They have no breadth, as summer shadows have; there are no leaves on the trees or fat clouds in the sky to make them thick.

They are gaunt, mean shadows that bite the ground like teeth.
Now, can you see why that agent snatched his book up? I end with one of my favorite movie scenes. Two men of different faiths, one a poet, the other a poisoned Viking, both pray as they face the advance of an overwhelming horde and certain death.


  1. Hail yeaaaahhh! *warrior shout*
    Feeling like brave heart right now lol =)
    Thanks for this!

  2. 13th Warrior is one of my top five favorite movies of all time. Rock on. This was an excellent post, as always. I do the same thing with my stories. Each chapter is a new adventure, and ends with needing to know what happens next.

  3. I chapterized my last book like that. Each chapter was a self-contained short story, but with the undercurrent of advancing the plot.

    It seemed to work well, and sure helped when I revised. In fact, the revision process was much faster because of the modular structure of the book.

    Good post. Salem's Lot scared the hell out of me when I was a kid.

    - Eric

  4. The man can write!! Although I gotta say - his stuff scares me to pieces so I don't read it anymore :)

  5. Stephen King's a genius, so scary good I no longer read him.

  6. Thanks for the good advice, once again. I'm designing my novel in a kind of stair-step pattern in which at the end of each chapter, the MC thinks her biggest problem has been solved, only to discover that a new one, worse than before, has arisen.

  7. Clara : Yes, 13th Warrior does get your blood rocking, doesn't it?

    Christi : Glad to know I'm not alone in liking 13th Warrior and writing cliff-hangers for ending.

    Eric : Yes, it does help in revising the novel. Episodic TV has taken to doing the same thing. And when I was a kid, Salem's Lot scared the snot out of me, too.

    Jemi & Kittie : How odd. Salem's Lot did the same thing to me ... until DUMA KEY. I read that, drawn by the friendship of the two damaged, good-hearted, witty men. It was still scary as all get out but the bond between the narrator and his daughter and his friends pulled me through. And it was told in first person so I knew he at least would make it to the end. UNDER THE DOME I'm told is too long and too many of the good people die.

    Genie : I think of novel writing as a triangle, narrowing in focus and crises until all is drawn down to the fulcrum of a flash point of resolution. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Stephen King is a man of many writing talents. Keeping his readers involved with the story is one of them.

    Great post!

  9. That's what I've been attempting to do with "Broken." Each chapter is its own short story, hopefully clingy enough to keep its readers flipping pages.

    Loved 13th Warrior. Until I read "It," "Salem's Lot" was my favorite King works.

    Hey Roland, whenever time serves, find a copy of Joe Hill's "Horns." Joe Hill, actually Joseph Hill King, Stephen's kid, is a writer you'd surely enjoy. "Horns" is a hoot:)

  10. I was the guy who had that morgue experience.Caught flat footed, indeed. Thanks for the links. Very helpful.

  11. Thank you for visiting and following my blog! :)

    These are some really great advice; I will definitely keep them in mind. Thank you. :)

  12. Great post. I still can't read Stephen King books without getting scared. The man is a legend.

  13. Kathi : Yes, Stephen King is an artist. DUMA KEY remains my favorite of his.

    Elliot : Thanks for the tip. I'll look to see if it is on Kindle.

    Sliding on the Edge : You were the guy? Who knew?
    I'm glad you found the links helpful.

    Sandy Shin : I found your blog lovely. Thanks for appreciating mine.

    Lindsay : As good as Duma Key is -- it is still rather intense. I was able to keep on because of the first person narrative. I knew the protagonist was going to get out things -- at least physically. Thanks for dropping by.

  14. more great stuff, thx roland :)

  15. Hey! Great post! I included this as part of my "Friday Five" over at Kate's Library.

    Have you read Stephen King's "On Writing"? I loved it! I loved reading about his early days as a writer, and about his approach to writing in general.