Strange Dreams, Koontz and (briefly) King – Part 2

Back to the review for Koontz’s most recent and another trend that puts pressure on some authors to write faster and publish more often. The Publishers Weekly reviewer compares Koontz’s novel What the Night Knows to the movie “Fallen.” I’d prefer reviewers of print to compare apples to apples, but I understand the reason for the film reference. Readers have come to expect suspense, horror, fantasy and science fiction novels to be as fast paced as the blockbuster movies we go to see—one of the signs of our changing tastes in literature that no writer of popular fiction can ignore. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s definitely tough to compete with films. Words on the printed page, no matter how visceral and dynamic the language, don’t have the slam bang factor of visual special effects, nor can they rely on musical scores to heighten the emotional reaction of the audience. A book is a different species of entertainment than a film. Each art form has its own strengths and limitations, so why expect one to follow the same rules as the other?

Where once there were two distinct markets, it’s not as easy to separate film goers from readers anymore. To entice more people to buy books, publishers must look for faster pacing and less description in the books they publish. In response, many writers adopt a style of shorter chapter length—sometimes as short as two or three pages, which doesn’t leave much room for in depth character exploration. Any hint of philosophic or moral dilemma must be shown in a few words, lines or details, akin to the close-ups and one-liners in a film. Quite a challenge for any writer—in novels or screenplays. Occasionally, restrictions on pacing and chapter length work for a writer, even define his or her style. Robert B. Parker, for example. As a fan of his Jesse Stone series, I’m in love with the way he marries the terse hero to the spare writing style. Result: easy books to make movies from and easy for the reader to feel like she’s seeing a film script as she reads. But that’s not a style that works for every writer or for every story. Good for fast-paced plots, bad for character driven stories or for novels where atmosphere, world building or large casts of characters are required.

On to Stephen King. Not one for short chapters or restricting anything where it comes to word count. Wikipedia credits him with 49 novels so far, but since they’re each usually long enough to count as two novels, let’s just say that for both he and Koontz, the word prolific is an understatement. (Maybe a new word: kingoontzic. Maybe not. Let’s just say both of them make me feel woefully lazy.) I’ve probably read less of King’s work than Koontz’s, but enough to know that what I said above goes for this writer, too, i.e. admiration, respect—enough to study his style and listen to what he says on the craft of writing. Oddly enough, I think I’ve seen more King than I’ve read. Maybe it’s just a habit I got into early on. Having heard how scary The Shining was from one of my friends in high school, I decided to see the movie before I read the book—using the film as a way to prepare for the longer scare. It’s also made me expect, perhaps more than with other authors, that there will be much more story to the book than the movies. I also have the benefit of the movie or mini-series visuals in my head to carry me through the many pages of a King mega-novel. (Visualizing Gary Sinise as Stu Redman went a long way to get me through the 1141 pages of the complete and uncut version of The Stand.)

Perhaps, in a way, I’ve been ahead of the curve in wanting a film experience from books. After all, the PBS series based on War and Peace is what helped me achieve my goal of reading Tolstoy’s Stephen-King length masterpiece. (At 1475 pages in the paperback version I read, it’s got only 334 on my copy of The Stand.) Should we start promoting novels as movies and mini-series in print? Crime novels with reoccurring protagonists could be advertised as print version episodes. That way people may have an easier time choosing books to read: “Gee, I don’t have time to read a Stephen King mini-series right now. I’ll read the Koontz TV movie instead.” Of course, that would only turn up the pressure on bestselling authors to churn out more novels faster.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to have the long run of King or Koontz and still have to face a critic or reader’s disappointment. (Although I’m sure massive sales make up for that in many ways.) Not to worry. I’ll never have a writing career or have deal with the problems of a Koontz or King. I simply don’t have enough time. No matter how hard I try, I can’t find enough hours in the evening after work or on the weekends to churn out the required word count. And, even if every submission I made from now on gets accepted, I got my first publishing credit much too late in life compared to those two. I should just enjoy my nightmare of the other night. Why complain if it means my muse is still spurring me on to write more, faster, and better?

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