11/22/63 by Stephen King

A writer’s book review

I don’t know about you, but for me, being a writer really limits my time for pleasure reading. After sitting behind my computer, writing for 4-6 hours per day, my eyes and mind are pretty tired of staring at words. But every now and then, a book’s synopsis strikes me as irresistible. That was the case for King’s latest, 11/22/63.

Science fiction has always been one of my favorite things. I’m a Star Trek geek. I loved (and still love) all of those series except Deep Space Nine, which I found, um, boring. The Star Wars moves are among my favorites. And the recent Battlestar Galactica series was, well, out of this world fantastic. None of these gems, however, managed to top my obsession with ABC’s LOST, which, while not science fiction, did make use of one of that genre’s most popular topics: time travel (albeit with a twist). And so, when I read a review of King’s 11/22/63, I knew had to indulge.

I’ve been a Stephen King fan for decades. Even back when critics used to pan his books and his writing skills. The Rule of Law for many critics seems to be, if a writer does genre writing, he’s a hack. I’m sure King had a good laugh about their conclusions while en route to the bank with another colossal check in hand. I could actually use this post to rant on and on about why I believe King is one of the best writers of our time, but for today, I’ll just move on to my review.

Katie sent me 11/22/63 for my birthday in mid-December. I knew it was a very lengthy affair along the lines of most King books, but looking at this mammoth in hardcover form, a staggering 849 pages, I decided to set aside a reading schedule of at least an hour per day every day, starting immediately after I finished working on my own book, which is usually about 3:00 p.m. This method actually worked very well, and I am happy to report I finished the book last week (I did take a week off over the holidays due to company, etc.).

I can’t recall the last time I’ve read any book, for writing-related purposes or just for fun, where I could stop myself from analyzing the author’s style and technique, and thus it seems fitting for me to center my review on those issues. (If you want to read a critical review centered on plot, I’m sure there are hundreds floating about the Internet to choose from.) King’s style hasn’t changed all that much over the years, but I did notice a few “wow” moments along those lines in 11/22/63. Most notable, he addresses the reader directly now and then. Phrases such as, “Now, I know what you’re thinking.” I had to read it a couple of times to make sure that’s what he was doing. And yes, it was. And I am totally impressed. He doesn’t do it all that much, but when he does, it just feels like the perfect moment for that slight author-to-reader interruption.

This is also the first King book I’ve read where he writes entirely in first person. I’ve written in third and first person, and I can say without pause that first person is much more difficult. It’s a point of view factor. If you start writing in first person, you have to stay that way all through the book, which can be quite a challenge when writing a mystery or suspense novel because your narrator can only be in one place at one time and cannot (I repeat cannot) know what other characters are thinking. There were a couple of spots where King took liberties on this, but only a couple so I will give him a pass. Overall grade of point of view: A-minus.

The next thing I look for is overall quality of the storyline. If there is one downside to most of King’s books, it’s that they always seem to stall in the middle. Perhaps this is because he usually has so many characters, and he wants to keep us up to speed with all of them, so he does. Too many characters isn’t an issue in 11/22/63 (probably a direct result of the first person narrative), yet the book still stalls a bit around the halfway point. That’s partly due to what’s going on plot-wise, but more so because (I believe) King just decided he was having fun throwing a romance into the middle of his book so he went with it. End result, there is too much Sadie for my taste, too much time spent on his relationship with both her and the small town where he takes up temporary residence while waiting for time to catch up to where it needs to be so he can carry out his plan, which, if you didn’t already know, is to stop Oswald from killing Kennedy. Nonetheless, the Sadie business is but one small pothole in the road on an otherwise smooth, A-plus journey.

The last point I always look for in a novel is whether the ending works, and if so, whether its theme stretches beyond the limits of the book itself. In other words, has the author hit on something that provokes a general discussion outside of what happened between the pages of his work? In the case of 11/22/63, that answer is a definitive yes. You know how in It’s A Wonderful Life we are encouraged to think about what the world what be like if we never existed. Well, with 11/22/63, the question to ponder is, would robbing the past of a horrendous event alter the future for better or worse? King’s book has an interesting answer to that, one I’m still thinking about. Well done, Mr. King. Very well done indeed.


Here comes the (writing) judge

When people learn I serve as a judge for an annual self publishing contest sponsored by a national writing magazine, they always want to know what it’s like.  My first response is that it’s a lot of work for very little pay. On average, I review 50 entries; the time involved probably works out to about $5.00 per hour. Each book must be evaluated in numerous categories: structure, plot, characterization, grammar, and book design. After those grades are calculated, I must write a couple hundred words on what the author did well and what needs improvement.

Grammar is the easiest category to stamp a grade on; either the writer knows the basics or she doesn’t. You’d be surprised how many people go through the time and expense of having a book self published without checking it for typos and grammatical errors. The most common mistakes I see are with punctuation:  no commas or too many commas, overuse of exclamation points, semi-colons where colons belong. Then there are those who overuse italic and/or bold print (often the same ones who abuse exclamation points). To me, these are gimmicks that signal a lack of faith in one’s ability. One of the most important rules writers must follow is to trust our readers. If we write in an intelligent, engaging manner, our readers will get it—no gimmicks necessary.

Characterization is pretty straightforward. Either dialogue is fresh and believable or stale and stilted. The protagonist is likable and/or interesting or plastic and forgettable. Secondary characters help move the plot forward or take up space.

Structure and plot are more difficult to assess, but when either or both is lacking, everything else about the book becomes pretty irrelevant. The most common mistakes in this area appear in non-fiction entries. A book on ice fishing that spends half the narrative talking about the author’s childhood in Maine (cold winters!). A memoir that devotes countless pages to everyday events (lunch, a favorite dress or toy, a mundane conversation). A marketing seminar masquerading as a self-improvement book. In fiction, a structural problem is usually related to overwriting—explaining every line of dialogue with a line of introspection, going into back story for pages on end, repeating the same event through different characters’ points of view, dwelling on too many sensory details. All of these methods do little but serve to slow the story. And guess what? When the story slows, readers lose interest—and fast.

Grading a book’s design is somewhat a matter of personal taste (What’s gaudy to some might be gorgeous to others). What’s important for the purpose of review is that the chosen cover art fits the book’s subject matter and the space on the back cover is utilized as a promotional tool—blurbs by other writers praising the book, a teaser or short synopsis (never give away the ending!), an author bio. What doesn’t belong in that space is a series of blurbs by the author himself, praising his own work (and yes, this is a common error, especially by professionals with PhDs and/or Masters.) Inside, the text itself must be sharp and easy to read. Fancy fonts don’t cut it. And size matters. If the text is too large, say 14 point and up, I get the feeling the author is trying to make the book appear as if it has more content than it does. If the font is less than 9, I’m guessing the author knows her book is too long and probably in need of a major edit.

By now you’ll probably agree with my initial assessment that judging is a lot of work for $5 an hour. So why do it? Because despite the majority of books that are filled with some, and often times many, of the errors noted above, I always come across a couple of gems. Books that deserve to be picked up by a conventional publisher so they can be enjoyed by a mainstream audience. If my recommendation (which is passed on to a finalist judge) helps even one of these authors fulfill his or her dream, I consider my effort time well spent.