Mr Stephen King, the legend himself, once said “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” I’m a huge believer in that principle. Everything I read is a lesson. Sometimes it’s a lesson in how not to do it. Either way, as a result of this principle I read widely, running a gauntlet of genre, style and author experience: I read brand new authors, self-published authors, series, pulp, classics, whatever shows up and appeals at any given point in time.
I recently enjoyed a most spectacular and epic read. Written by Stephen King, I highly recommend The Stand. Not only is this a lesson in reader patience (it literally took me three months to read), it’s a lesson in author patience.
The Stand is a long novel – it runs to around 1400 pages in paperback – and it’s not an easy read. There’s a lot packed into those pages.
The story is essentially a post-apocalyptic battle between good and evil. A flu-like illness sweeps the United States and wipes out millions of people. Over time the survivors find each other and are drawn together to form two factions. The Stand is ultimately about who will survive.
Sounds simple, right? But this is no Tolkienesque epic; there’s nothing so easily defined in The Stand as good and evil. In fact, King spends 1400 pages convincing you that the good guys aren’t so good, and the bad guys aren’t so different from the good guys. The characters are universally complex and internally conflicted. There is genuine personal growth and development in these characters. In fact, it’s easy to imagine them as existing somewhere out there in the world; there’s a song I heard while I was reading the book that I will forever associate with one of the characters because it’s just so her.
And that’s the lesson of this novel, at least it is for me: creating such complicated characters takes patience and sometimes you have to ask your reader for patience too because you need breadth. But ironically it’s also a lesson in being concise.
The Stand was first published in 1978 and ran to a mere 820 pages in hardcover. Although the novel was nominated for Best Novel in the 1979 World Fantasy Awards, it was not that well received. The publisher initially asked for cuts to be made to shorten the novel (by around a third) because they felt it would sell better and as such the story suffered. A ‘complete and uncut’ version was rereleased in 1990 and was far better regarded. So much so that I first came across it as a recommendation in an Open University writing course as an example of quality writing.
Now I don’t for a moment expect I will ever write anything this long, or fight a publisher over what they think will sell better. My personal take-away is to write with that same patience. If it takes a thousand words, it takes a thousand words, as long as they are a thousand necessary words. Length isn’t necessarily a good thing, but when I think back to my experience of The Stand I can’t imagine it without every word, character and event. If I were Stephen King in 1978, I honestly don’t know what I would’ve cut.
The Stand is a masterpiece. I aspire to King’s complexity of character and hope to create stories with such dense value in their words.
Have you read The Stand? What did you think? How has it enriched your writing or reading?