Category Archives: IndieHorror

11.22.63 by Stephen King – a review

I think there was a point at which it was fashionable to say that Stephen King’s best words were long since typed – perhaps around the time when he announced his retirement.

Just like his retirement, the notion that King has lost his mojo has been proven false – and nothing underlines the calibre of King’s recent creativity as much as 11.22.63.

I’ve long held the belief that the fact that King is so easy to read often leads people to conclude that while he might be a commercial heavyweight, he’s a literary lightweight. Personally, I think this is about as true as the idea that he’s a spent force.

Delving into the first pages of 11.22.63 was like revisiting an old friend. That easy style was welcoming, like a firm handshake or even a hug. Welcome back, reader. Sit yourself down.

And then 11.22.63 does what any good book should do – it draws you in. Within a few pages, you’re part of the story, being carried along for the ride.

The premise is simple: if you could go back in time, would you stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? And, if you did, wouldn’t it make the world a better place? The proprietor of a local diner, Al Templeton, believes that this would be the case – and that he has the means to do it. But, for reasons better explained by King, he can’t – so he passes the baton to an initially reluctant English teacher, Jake Epping.

So Epping takes a trip or two back in time – the first to familiarise himself with the world of the past, a second to prove that the future can be changed. And then – the main mission.

The problem is that the doorway to the past lands you on the same day in 1958, so there’s some hanging around waiting to catch up with history. A few years when it’s important to stay out of history’s way, not make waves – and not change anything.

That’s enough in the way of spoilers. The book itself I’d describe as well-balanced – gripping when it needs to be, laid-back when life’s more normal. I’ve seen this described in other reviews as ‘sagging in the middle’ but I’d challenge that – King’s giving Epping time to grow, make friends, form relationships. And it’s this that I found more endearing than many of King’s other books. Sure, he writes great, believable characters, but I’ve not personally felt that the relationship between any come off so well – and be so moving – as that between Jake and Sadie in 11.22.63.

There’s also some lovely writing – sections which show King not just as a master of plot and character, but as someone who really can twist words to his will. But he’s not an indulgent showman – for the most part, he lets the story do the talking. He’s out to entertain, not impress.

There were a few parts – not many – where I felt things were a little overplayed, but these were brief and didn’t detract from what is a great read. 11.22.63 is entertaining from end to end, gripping, emotionally intelligent and at times moving.

Looking at things from a different angle

I’ve recently added website video production to what I do as part of my day job (developing websites).

I’ve always really loved to learn – and boy, this is one learning curve and a half. Or possibly two learning curves, who’s counting?

As with any new skill, it’s interesting to discover the parts of the job at which you do well – and the parts with which you struggle.

Video production breaks down into several – often quite difficult – tasks. Broadly, they are:

  • planning the shoot.
  • setting up the shots and equipment.
  • filming.
  • post-production and editing.

It was only after working on half a dozen or so videos that I began to realise the parallels with writing – and the differences.

Planning the shot is broadly the equivalent of plotting. There might be a storyboard, there might be a full script, there might be a shooting script – or there might be nothing, for those pantsers of you out there. There are pros and cons to each approach. Each can be successful and each can fail.

The reality I found was that no matter how much you plan, you will film something differently on the day. You just will. Opportunities will arise which are just too tempting to overlook. Barriers will be put in your way which are too solid to circumnavigate. Logistics will shift and you’ll have no option other than to accommodate them.

But, if you’re creative, these won’t blow your masterpiece out of the water. Frustrating they might be, but they’re likely to fuel your creativity in unexpected ways.

You’ll shoot far more footage than you expected, which will escalate the editing – but improve the product. Just because you shot more doesn’t mean you have to use it, you just use the best – even if the job of sifting through it is harder and longer.

Setting up the shots is like the research, combined with technical skills. I’m personally a big researcher. I’ve found if you “just check that later” a core assumption of your plot can be wildly wrong, leading to significant rewrites. Better to do as much as you can either upfront, or as you go.

There’s the technical as well as creative side to attend to. How far your lights are from a person affects the exposure. How far the microphone is from his or her mouth affects the sound. Plus there are settings for the lights, sound equipment and camera. These have to be managed diligently. If not, then you can be in for a lot, lot more editing and post-production. Or, worse still, a re-shoot.

The filming itself is enjoyable and usually less problematic than other aspects of production. That’s not to say it always runs smoothly – people say the wrong things and have to say them again, doors slam so you have to roll again or perhaps the battery in your camera or microphone runs out, but you don’t notice. But, with decent planning, this is more like the actual writing. You’re getting the stuff down.

Yet there’s always the story to attend to. As with a novel, we have to consider everything that’s going on around the shoot – from props in the room, to people in the background. We have to consider how using different camera angles of the primary subject can draw someone into the story we’re telling. Also, we need to look at how much more effective the story is when we’re cutting away to other places – things which illustrate what the primary subject is describing. Some of these will be considered during planning, others will happen on the day.

Finally, there’s the bit where it all comes together. Yet, it’s possibly the most time-consuming and difficult part of all. During the editing, the story is built up gradually,  using clips from different takes, adding different audio, using different camera angles – all of this modular construction is part of ‘telling the story’.

This may be the same story you set out to tell originally, it may differ slightly or it may differ enormously. The editor works with the footage and sound available and from it builds up the best story that he or she can. It takes a lot of time. A two-minute video, cut from three or four hours’ filming, can take eight hours to edit.

There can be happy accidents. For example, I’ve discovered footage that was shot on the off chance (and unknown to me, by an assistant). The footage might have been intended simply as a possible filler, or shot because something looked interesting – and this chance footage has been interesting enough to become a central part of the video narrative.

Interestingly, writing a book is a journey that’s most usually undertaken from first chapter to final – regardless of how/when you do the planning and editing. Filming is different; it can be a real jumble – you work in a way that’s time-efficient, often grabbing what you can, going with the flow and getting as much filmed as possible.

There’s no real reason that writing can’t be undertaken in this way; I’m sure many writers do – though mostly I don’t. I do often create ‘unplaced scenes’ in a manuscript. I may or may not use these later. They may become stories on their own. They may never be used. Sometimes, I write scenes for my own benefit – for example, what happened when two characters met for the first time. I may not want to use the scene, but I might want to have a deeper understanding of their meeting than I’d get from writing “Sarah met Jim, at firs they didn’t get on”, or whatever. When I write them, I may have no idea how they’re going to fit in.

What is especially interesting about the process of film-making is how much it encourages you to explore different angles, view close-ups and film others’ reactions to a primary character’s dialogue or actions. You’re working in 3D space – the real world – and experiencing the fourth dimension of time. You do this in a way that’s more intuitive and explorative than you would when writing the same scene – which is why a filmed version of a scene can be radically different from the script.

For me, the process of film-making encourages me to be braver and looser with the writing; to explore different viewpoints of the same event; to plan even more – and edit even more than that. The more you put in, the more you polish, the better the end result – and the more it looks as though the whole process was effortless.

When is a monologue not a monologue?

I was reflecting recently on the nature of interior monologues (yes, I know, that in itself is an interior monologue).

Setting aside for a later blog the question of whether it’s good for the narrative to expose thoughts of a character in a way that’s impossible in real life, it occurred to me that an interior monologue is frequently anything but a monologue.

True, in real life, much of our thinking takes place without us thinking in words. But this is written fiction, we need the words to be understood, so the interior monologue will be, for the sake of the medium, better constructed than our real-life thoughts.

A monologue, though, is literally the thoughts of one person – and true, when expressing thought in fiction, that’s entirely valid, as in: ‘Bitch, thought Gerald’.

Yet people aren’t comprised only of their own thoughts. We’re all the sum of our past, our surroundings, our family and our friends. When we reflect on an issue, we take it apart using our own views – but we also test it with the views of others. We consider how others would feel; what they would say. That’s one way, perhaps, that we reach a viewpoint that’s different to the one we previously held.

So a monologue can involve the thoughts and influences of more than one character. Not as a conversation (unless the character is schizophrenic – I’m thinking in particular of the excellent Gollum to Gollum monologue/dialogue in The Lord of the Rings film The Return of the King) but as a single voice, albeit a mental one.

It’s the nature of people to be multifaceted – and so should be the nature of fictional characters. Our views are seldom that black and white. Sometimes we do things which seem to be contradictory to our nature, at least as others understand it.

Thoughts in fiction, then, are where these different facets of our lives can crystallise. Where internal debate can become a force, like opposing waves crashing each other – or, more gently, like two different coloured paints meeting, to make a third colour. It’s where decisions are made, choices debated – and where even what others might assume is unthinkable can be considered.

If the only viewpoints in the interior monologue were those of the one character, then there’s less scope for that character to behave as a real person would, to change, to go on a journey, to grow apart from another character or perhaps grow closer to one.

Sure, the voice of the interior monologue will be one voice, but more than the single character holding that voice will shape it.

An unexpected gift

It’s always nice to get feedback from readers, but I was overwhelmed when I received this e-mail from reader Adam Hall yesterday: “Just finished reading The Well and I must say it was a brilliant book. So, in celebration of that fact, I drew you some fan art, which can be found either via the link below or on my website.”

Here’s the illustration:

Becca in The Well

Becca in The Well, by Adam Hall

I posted the drawing to my personal Facebook page, and comments from friends included: “Brilliant,” “That’s incredible,” “That’s awesome,” “What a fab illustration,” “Creepy and excellent,” “What a wonderful tribute” and, my favourite, “I propose a graphic novel of The Well”.

What can I say? I’m always grateful for comments, but for someone to spend so much time creating such a wonderful illustration – I’m literally overwhelmed. Thank you, Adam – you’re very talented. (For those who are interested, Adam says that it was drawn in Sketchbook Pro and Photoshop.)

The Well voted ‘best Halloween read’ by members of Goodreads

I’m somewhat blown away today, 31 October 2011, to find that The Well has been voted number one in a Goodreads poll for the ‘best books to read for Halloween’.

Goodreads best Halloween read poll 2011

It’s very humbling to be listed even on the same page as heroes of mine, such as Bram Stoker, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe – let alone be above them.

What’s also especially encouraging is that The Well has the highest average reader rating out of all of the top ten books on the list.

I’d like to sincerely thank everyone who voted – a wonderful Halloween present, in a month where The Well has also been in Amazon UK’s top-ten UK horror books.