Hello readers and welcome to this update in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After working my way through Tim O’Brien’s masterly In the Lake of the Woods, I decided my “summer read” would be Stephen King’s gigantic 2009 novel Under the Dome. Those who have followed my work know this man has registered as my favorite author for a good chunk of my life. While I’m not sure that’s the case any longer, this book is one of his best and taught me a ton about writing. First let’s get to the major lessons:
Number of characters. You can get away with a massive novel filled with upwards of 50 characters. If you’re Stephen King. It’s not quite that severe, but it’s well worth time as a reader to see how he does this right, giving a handful of characters very memorable details and thoughts. “Big Jim” Rennie, the ostensible villain of the piece, will go down in history for me next to big King baddies of the past like Randall Flagg. It’s not quite as effective with the protagonists, but I was still rooting for them ‘til the end. Even characters who die early on are worth considering in light of later events. This book is full of examples of how to drop details into descriptions for your reader to keep them hooked on the story.
Use of omnipresent narrator in a few key spots. King to my knowledge hasn’t employed this technique in quite some time, if ever, and it really works in this book. During crucial events under the Dome, he takes a panoramic view of the entire city of Chester’s Mill and gives us a quick update on a bunch of the characters all at once before swooping back into their own lives for individual chapters. This gives a sense of connection, but it's best if used sparingly. An interesting technique to try out for yourself.
Using a novel to talk about society - and the darkness underneath. King has obviously employed this technique for decades, using his eery eye for New England culture to show the blackened underbelly of the world around us. This story, which takes place in roughly our time, is one in which the human drama takes center stage despite the bizarre instances all around them. Most of the older and wizened residents who may have a chance at calming things after the Dome falls are unfortunately killed right off the bat, leaving the manipulators and strugglers to figure out how to raise the structure. There are other, deeper elements too, including the rise of rural drug epidemics, and religion, which I’ve always felt King handles with a scary deft of ease. I won’t go much further for those who haven’t read this one.
You can come back to the same themes over and over. If you are Stephen King. I hate to keep using rules that apply only to this one guy, but his career would seem to bear me out. Under the Dome is a monstrosity of previous themes in his works: people placed in a very unordinary situation, the evil residing in the human heart, a town coming apart under stress, narration from almost every character’s viewpoint (even a dog a few times). And yet, this book read as fresh to me as anything he’s ever written, and I would go as far as to say its length places it alongside other epics such as The Stand and IT. I kept reading and thinking I knew where he was going, but I never did. That is the power of storytelling.
The importance of research. In an author’s note King mentions he’s had the germ of this idea in his noggin since the 70’s, but never had the time to appropriately research the technical aspects of it (pondering such lovely questions as: what would happen if a town was covered by an invisible alien structure and a massive explosion took place?). While many of us will never have the luxury of such time to work on a gigantic project like this, we should still plan our lives like we’re expecting it.
I wanted to get back to King as I hadn’t read anything he has produced in the last decade, while seeing his books continue to fly off the shelves ever since he claimed he was “retiring” all those years ago. But to go wider, I want to briefly discuss this author’s place of influence in my life.
I’ve tried using these experiments to veer both into literary history and popular fiction. The popular fiction I’ve come across has been mostly dreck, but I have always regarded Stephen King as firmly outside the banner of “popular” anything. To me, he’s an acquired taste, and I had nearly forgotten his penchant for over-the-top violence as I read this story, which was supposedly about an alien structure covering a small town but felt much closer. He has taught me so much as a writer, and a few of his books (Needful Things, Misery) will always be regarded as favorites. Hell, I basically wrote my second novel (Last Man on Campus) as a love-letter to the guy’s achievements, trying to appropriate his creepy stylings for my supernatural thriller.
And yet, over the past few years I’ve read some of the greatest books of my life, and have come to see the value of expanding our literary minds as far as possible. While I’m not sure I can definitively say I have an “all-time favorite” author I can finally admit that Stephen King does not reside in that place. Well, at least not alone. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading him, or trying to learn from him (I haven’t mentioned On Writing yet, but I’m assuming anyone reading this is probably aware of it). And I would recommend the same to anyone out there interested in this author and his tremendous body of work.
Up next, I’m going to revisit a classic I haven’t read since my schooldays: Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The edition I have also contains a few of his short stories, so I will be back here with a post about that as I segue into other collections (and attempt writing a dozen short stories of my own) in this second year of fiction. I hope to be back to reading novels and finishing another major rewrite of my own by the Fall/Winter.
As always, thanks for reading. (And thanks for your patience while I took a little break from the bloggy.) See you next time!
Well it’s Monday so once again time for another dispatch from your local author/journalist pal. So far I’ve written about the process of writing every day, why it’s important to “get away from it all,” my favorite books, and a long rambling post about satire that nobody (probably) read. While I still hope to use this space as a platform for advice on finding a publisher and to expand more on the actual process of writing and how to market yourself to the world (among other topics), I feel I must write a bit about my current employment status.
So as you know, I was laid off (or in a less kind manner, “terminated”) from my day job in July. Although legally I’m not supposed to discuss the terms of the dismissal, I will say that this came out of the blue and I was quite shocked by the decision. While not exactly a stellar employee around that place, I felt like I shared enough of the load in my department to warrant my sticking around for at least another few years. The folks running the show thought otherwise, and I was shown the door on a Friday afternoon. This entire situation threw a pretty big wrench in my plans for the rest of the year, but I’ve since learned to use such things as an opportunity. A month-plus out from being laid off, I also feel completely detached from my former workplace, and couldn’t be happier. While at first I had intense self-doubt about myself and my performance there, enough people told me otherwise (both inside and outside the organization) that I couldn’t feel all that bad. Still, I have never lost a job before, which I must admit is a bit of a shattering experience. I felt as if I’d let people down, not least of all my wonderful wife Mary, who has a great career working for the big red bullseye company up here and has been a rock for me to rely on for many years. She assured me that I wasn’t disappointing her, but it took a while to get to a place where I believed that myself. Then there were all the fun “grown-up” things that come along with getting canned, like losing your family health insurance, navigating the unemployment system and trying to figure out where to stash my 401K money. Plus all the fun of looking for a job, which I had been doing on-and-off throughout the years but never put enough effort into it. Well, I sure had a chance to give effort into it now!
I covered some of this ground in my previous post about becoming a full-time writer, so I just want to focus on what it meant for me to have “a job” after I was released from my current one. For one thing, I got to finally think of myself as an author/journalist first and foremost with everything else falling to the wayside to a certain extent. It also meant I had a lot more time during the day to write, which I attempted to do in different ways when I wasn’t searching for some place that would hire me. The weird thing was, once I started thinking that way I saw my whole life in a different light. I sent out quite a lot of resumes to various places, including retail outlets, grocery stores, offices, and even looked for some voice-over work (which proved futile for now - drat!). This contained echoes of my first attempts to make it in the Twin Cities area circa 2007. Except back then I had almost no idea what I wanted to do with my life. At this juncture I’ve started a life together with the woman I love and have already published my first novel. Things are slowly coming together, and that meant it was high time I started living like it. I took a few interviews at some menial positions, just like I did eight years ago, but this time I had the strange luxury of being able to turn them down if they didn’t fit my life. I also worked on getting my substitute teaching license, which while incredibly interesting and a possible side-career at some point in my future, ultimately isn’t looking like it will work out just yet. But what mattered was that I was trying something different, something that might actually fit my life. Which is what we should all strive to find in this era of the false-ringing “do what you love” appeals in the media and otherwise. But back to the job search.
I also applied at a bookstore one town over that my wife and I frequent quite a bit; it seemed like a perfect fit and I was very elated when the manager called. After a fascinating, half-hour long interview I was given the job and have been working there for almost a week. The pace is insane, the amount of books is terrifying, and I’ve already screwed up a ton of stuff. And I absolutely love it. Getting to work with books is truly a great place to be for an author, and it also gives me an opportunity to see the book business from a different perspective, to see the life of certain titles and what people purchase. Yes, it’s retail hours and has been taking up a lot of the time I’d had when unemployed that I used to write, but I think after I get the rhythm of the place down pat I’ll find a way to schedule everything accordingly and still be able to produce writing when I need it. The important thing is this place fits my life, way better than the other place did. And that’s the key. You have to find the place that fits your life, because then it slowly starts becoming less a job and just another part of your life. To my reading audience out there: “doing what you love” is great if you can get to that point, but given the state of our economy these days it sure looks like most of us are going to need some kind of a job just to make ends meet so we can then also pursue our life’s work. Make sure whatever you find fits your life. It will make all the difference in the world.
I’ll wrap up by mentioning a few things:
1) This will probably the the final post on the blog for a little while. I simply won’t always have the time to do these every Monday, but I certainly will make sure to post on here when I can. I have a wealth of topics to cover, but just can’t get to all of them right away due to the demands of this new job but also because…
2) My second novel is finally being published next week! Last Man on Campus officially releases Thursday, September 3rd at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis. For those of you in the Twin Cities area, the event starts at 7:00 with a reading at 7:30 and a discussion to follow. This kicks off a whole series of events/signings for the novel all through September, which will take up the rest of the time I’m not working at the book store. Click on the “Events” tab above to see what’s next!
And as always, thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy the new book.
Signing off for a while, at least for now.
Hello reading world.
This can be considered my "first step into a larger journey," to quote the great pre-prequel Lucas film Star Wars. While my previous forays into blogging/journalism have led to posting on WordPress (The Moderate), tumblr (Circling the Roundabout), Examiner.com, and now MinnyApple, this blog on my "official" website is an attempt to synthesize all of those various dialogues together and tie them all into my general writing universe, which includes two published novels and hopefully a few more to come.
I also am beginning this journey head-on as an author first and foremost, having recently gone through some employment difficulties that have led to me not having a job at the moment (more on that in a later post). Therefore I feel it's time to start blogging here from the perspective of the full-time writer, illuminating my daily struggles to find work and also success for my books and journalism.
To that end I hope to post here fairly regularly, as I take a break from the other locations to find my work and focus solely on promoting my new novel, which releases in September. Oh, didn't I mention that yet? Yeah it's going to be called Last Man on Campus, a supernatural horror story set on a university in Minnesota. It's a love letter to one of my favorite authors (Stephen King) and I hope to maybe even get some kind of series out of it. The book launches September 3rd and will be posting an excerpt soon, much as I did for Our Senior Year.
That's all I have to say right now in this establishment of a new era. I don't want to say that this blog will focus on a particular subject other than to say it will be a chronicle of my life as an author/freelance journalist and will probably encompass most of what passes through my mind each day. For those of you who have been following my work for a while, I hope you enjoy this new ride. And for those of you just tuning in, welcome to my world.
Thanks for reading.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.