David Kubicek

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Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon

It should not come as a surprise that a book of little literary quality (and I use the word “literary” in the loosest sense) should top the New York Times Best Seller List, but it is irritating when one considers all of the excellent novels that don’t even come within hailing distance of the hot 100.

I haven’t read the complete novel, but I did read the first several pages. Basically, I read it as an agent and editor would if it showed up their slush piles (i.e., “hook me in the first few pages or I pass on it.”) The opening didn’t hook me because the prose was not polished, the dialogue was wooden, and the scene did not interest me enough to continue reading. I didn’t even get to the porn, which seems to be the primary reason sales of this book are challenging sales figures of such authors as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, who actually are excellent writers.

Since I can’t speak to the content of Fifty Shades of Grey because I got bored, here’s a video of a an all-woman book club that did read the complete novel–apparently to the regret of some members in the group. The novel (and I use the word “novel” loosely) has already resulted in many parodies, one of which has been getting much press. Although I haven’t read Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, it certainly piques my interest more than the book at which it is poking fun.

Don’t Waste Time Dwelling on Bad Reviews

It is never pleasant to get a bad review. In fact, reading a review that savagely eviscerates the novel you’ve spent months nurturing is one of the most unpleasant experiences a writer can have.

This might help: Getting a bad review often means that you have missed your audience.

Even if you haven’t thought about writing to an audience, one exists for your book. If you’re successful at finding your readers—and assuming your book is well written—most of your reviews should range from 3 to 5 stars, which is where you want to be.

But every author who has collected lots of reviews has picked up some bad ones—even the most popular books by the most popular writers.

Try this experiment. Search Amazon for your favorite books. If they have enough total reviews, I guarantee that some reviewers will rip them apart. Most of the reviews may be 3, 4 or 5 stars, but there will be the inevitable handful of readers who rate the books as forgettable, a waste of time.

The bottom line is: You can’t please everyone. This also is true of “professional” reviewers,” those folks who get paid to review books and movies.

For example, one criticism of The Hunger Games is that the novel is not original, that a screwed up future world and a reality TV show where the contestants kill each other has been done before—the novel to which it usually is compared is Stephen King’s The Running Man.

Technically, everything has been done before. A fellow named Georges Polti analyzed lots and lots of literature and concluded that every story that has ever been written or will ever be written can fit into one of 36 dramatic situations, or plots. What makes each story fresh and different is what the author brings to the telling. Although The Hunger Games and The Running Man use the same basic plot elements, they are vastly different novels.

Does any of this make you feel better about getting bad reviews? Maybe the following chart will help. I’ve listed five popular novels and the reviews they’ve gotten on Amazon (as of 4:30 p.m. Central Time on July 22, 2012):

1-star 2-star 5-star Total Reviews
11/22/63 by Stephen King 88 80 1,268 1,871
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 96 76 787 1,505
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins 247 193 6,156 8,220
The Help by Kathryn Stockett 182 123 4,450 5,639
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain 17 19 256 455

Remember two things:

  • Don’t give much weight to ratings without reviews telling why the readers didn’t like your book.
  • Don’t give any weight to mean-spirited reviews in which readers seem more interested in attacking you and your book than in giving constructive reasons why they didn’t like it.

A review is just someone’s opinion, and as long as you’re getting mostly positive comments, don’t waste time dwelling on the bad ones.

This article was originally published April 16, 2012, as a guest post on Wise Words. I’ve updated the information in the table.

Under the Dome: Trapped in a Stephen King Nightmare

Under the DomeUnder the Dome by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put off reading this novel for more than a year because it is massive, 1,074 pages in hardcover. But I may have temporarily forgot that Under The Dome was written by Stephen King, who, in his own words, likes to write with “the pedal to the metal.”

Under The Dome has all the earmarks of a Stephen King novel: violence, massive destruction, sexuality (much of it perverted), and a deliciously depraved villain. It also has a cast of characters so large that King lists the main ones (in categories, no less) at the front of the book for easy reference. He also gives us a map of Chester’s Mill, Maine (the sock-shaped town, population 2,000, where the story takes place) showing the major landmarks in the novel.

The hero is Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a disillusioned ex-army officer (he has been the cook at the Sweetbriar Rose restaurant for the past few months) who is on his way out of town when the Dome comes down. I won’t tell you what the dome is or why it comes down. Suffice it to say that Barbie is trapped, which is inconvenient. He was leaving because of bad blood between him and some of the town’s young punks, particularly Junior Rennie, the son of Big Jim Rennie, used car dealer and one of the town’s three selectmen.

Big Jim uses the dome to assert his leadership. The town needs a leader to keep order now that it is cut off from the rest of the world, and why shouldn’t that leader be Big Jim? The only problem is that Barbie manages to get a call out to his former commander, Colonel Cox, who promotes him to Colonel and puts him in charge of the situation.

This doesn’t sit well with Big Jim as he embarks upon his mission to take over the town with the help of his “special” police officers. These are the town thugs who will do what Big Jim tells them, using whatever force is necessary (or even unnecessary) to keep the citizenry in line. Barbie and the friends he’s made since coming to town are the major obstacles in the way of Big Jim’s goal. They must be silenced, discredited, and/or killed to prevent them from interfering with Big Jim’s plans. He implements those plans through deceit, general skullduggery and even murder to turn the townspeople against Barbie and, as King calls them, the expatriates.

Under The Dome may be a massive novel, but it is a page-turner, right up though the electrifying climax and conclusion. I highly (double highly) recommend it.

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Full Dark, No Stars: Stephen King at his Best

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full DarFull Dark, No Starsk, No Stars is a collection of four novellas that delve into the darker regions of the human psyche.

  • In “1922,” Nebraska farmer Wilfred James murders his wife to prevent her from selling her land, which lies adjacent to their farm – and to carry out his brutal crime he enlists the help of his teenage son.
  • In “Big Driver,” Tess, a mild-mannered writer, is brutally attacked and left for dead, and she hatches a plot to seek revenge on those responsible.
  • “Fair Extension” is a deal with the devil story Stephen King style.
  • And in “A Good Marriage,” Darcy Anderson discovers, after 27 years of marriage and two children, that her accountant husband Bob has been a serial killer since before they met.

If you like Steven King’s novels, you’ll like Full Dark, No Stars. King is a master of the shorter form. I highly recommend this collection.

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Self-Publishing: Is it for You?

For perhaps as long as publishing has existed self-publishing has been stigmatized. The terms “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” often are used interchangeably. They are not interchangeable. We’ll get to that shortly. For now, here are a few writers, established writers, who have self-published some of their own work:

  • Willa Cather, author of such novels as My Antonia and the Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours, paid to publish her first book.
  • Early in his career, L. Frank Baum – author of  the Wizard of Oz books – self-published pamphlets on chicken farming.
  • Stephen King published the first installment of his novel The Plant on his Website (http://www.stephenking.com) on July 24, 2000 and the second installment a few weeks later.
  • Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs formed a publishing company which published a variety of books, some of which were his own.
  • Bestselling author Pat Conroy spent thousands of dollars to print and promote his first book, The Boo.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, paid to publish his first book.
  • Mark Twain grew tired of the “foolishness” of his publishers, so he self-published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Edgar Allen Poe – often called the father of the modern short story and the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” and many others – self-published some of his works.
  • Richard Paul Evans self-published 8,000 copies of The Christmas Box, which he later sold to Simon & Schuster for a $4.2 million advance (including the rights to a prequel). Evans even wrote a book about his incredible journey, The Christmas Box Miracle.
  • In 1901, Beatrix Potter self-published 250 copies of  The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The following year, publisher Frederick Warne, who had initially rejected the book, published a commercial edition with color illustrations. Since then, the book has sold more than 40 million copies.
  • Henry David Thoreau self-published Walden in 1854.
  • William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White self-published the writer’s Bible, The Elements of Style.
  • Other famous poets, authors, and playwrights who published some of their own works include:  T.S. Eliot, Lord ByronThomas Hardy, Louis L’Amour, Walt Whitman, Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County), Amanda Brown (Legally Blonde), Stephen Crane, Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw.

This list just scratches the surface.

The Pelican in the Desert

The Pelican in the Desert: And Other Stories of the Family Farm, edited by David Kubicek

I have, technically, published some of my own work. In 1988 I established Kubicek & Associates to publish an anthology of farm stories I had collected. The book contained one story I had written, about 3,50o words, and 13 stories by other writers. I thought publishing was cool, so I went on to publish three books by other writers and, in 1989, an anthology of horror stories which also contained one of my own stories (again, about 3,500 words) as well as 19 stories by other writers (including a classic story by Henry Kuttner, originally published in 1939).

October Dreams, edited by David Kubicek and Jeff Mason

October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror, edited by David Kubicek & Jeff Mason

Self-published books differ from vanity published books by being of a higher quality. They achieve that higher quality by going through a similar process as a traditionally published book. A vanity book, on the other hand, is a book that the author considers to be good enough to publish and pays to have it published – there are no checks and balances, no feedback from other reliable sources, and minimal – if any – revision or copy-editing.

Many years ago during my brief stint in publishing, a copy of a self-published novel came across my desk. The author was selling the thing door-to-door with the goal of making enough sales to impress a major publisher, who would then buy the rights and turn it into a bestseller. In the first place, he would have had to sell lots and lots of copies – we’re talking tens of thousands – to impress a major publisher. Second, the writing was horrid. It was the kind of manuscript the garbage collector would reject. That novel was an example of a vanity-published book;  the author thought his book was good, but others didn’t share his opinion.
Not everyone will like your book or your writing. This is true of every writer, including the likes of Stephen King; but whether you like King or not, he does know how to write and he does know how to tell a story that touches the readers’ emotions.
Here are some guidelines that will keep you from falling into the vanity publishing sludge heap, only a few, but they are important:
  • Make sure your work is well written and that others besides yourself like it. Give the manuscript to a few people you trust to give you honest feedback (don’t give it to friends or family members who will choke back their revulsion and tell you what you want to hear). Soon I will be self-publishing a collection of my short stories – some of them have been published previously, but others haven’t. My wife, Cheryl, is reading the manuscript. So far, she’s found two stories that “don’t do anything” for her. Those stories were immediately deleted, deep-sixed, sent to Mr. Recycle Bin.
  • The book must look and feel professional. It must have an attractive cover, well-written and provocative cover copy, and a bar code (if it is a physical book rather than an ebook), etc. You get the picture.
  • A blurb from a reviewer, author, or expert in your field – while not be essential – may lend credibility to your book and help it sell.
Today with inexpensive publishing services like iUniverse  and free services like those offered by Amazon and Barnes & Noble it is much  easier  to self-publish and sell a book than it used to be.
A self-published book is not the stigma it once was. A well-written book that looks profession will be able to hold its own with all of the traditionally published books that are released each year. Keep in mind that you must market your book (if no one hears about it, no one can buy it), and keep your expectations realistic – although you may sell some copies, possibly even a good number of copies, it’s highly unlikely that your self-published book will shoot immediately to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, or even come within rock-throwing distance of that list. Although such things have happened, the authors invested much blood, sweat, and tears to get there.

Death of the American Novel? Really?

I’ve always considered writers to be storytellers. If the story had what one of my college professors called “a deeper, hidden, secret meaning,” that was fine as long as it had a proper beginning, middle and ending, as long as it–warning: I’m about to use what some self-proclaimed  literati consider to be a dirty word–ENTERTAINED.

I’ve spent my career wedding entertainment with a “deeper, hidden, secret meaning.” Readers who pick up my stories to be entertained will be satisfied. So will readers who want to analyze them. The two conditions are not exclusive, as critic Harold Bloom seemed to suggest in 2003 when he scolded the National Book Foundation for giving a “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters” award to Stephen King because good literature could not be that popular.

The idea that a story can be meaningful and entertain is not new. Many of the classics, novels that are taught in our schools and universities, were popular.

Mark Twain made lots of money with his books (he had to because he also lost lots of money investing in inventions that tanked). Huckleberry Finn in particular can be read as an adventure story, but for those who want to delve deeper Twain is saying plenty about the human condition.

John Steinbeck had hit the best seller lists before he published The Grapes of Wrath, which not only was popular, but it also rocketed him to the top of many corporate America sh*t lists. In a nutshell, the story was about the crappy treatment of displaced Oklahoma farmers during the Great Depression. For those who want to delve deeper, though, there’s lots of stuff to think about.

For example, the Rev. Jim Casey is a Christ figure. Writers of literature like to put Christ figures into their stories.  When I first read this book for a college English class, I took it a step further. An angry mob beats Casey to death with pickax handles. Pickaxes, before they are separated from their handles resemble crosses…you can probably see where I’m going with this. It may be speculative bullsh*t, but my professor was pretty excited about my analysis.

Other popular novels which also encourage the reader to think are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an amazing novel considering that it was a first novel and its author was only 23 years old at the time of publication.What’s amazing is not that a 23-year-old could write a novel that is both popular and literary, but that one so young would have such a depth of understanding about the world.

Some more modern practitioners of literary fiction that also is popular are Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife)

A favorite phrase of many English teachers, particularly in high school, is: “What was the author trying to say?” Then they look meaningfully at the class as if expecting some student to pipe up with the “theme” of the novel in one or two sentences. I always hated that phrase. If you want meaning in one or two sentences, open a Twitter account.

The meaning in a story is in the characters, what they say and how they react in different situations. The meaning is in the conflict of the story and in its resolution. The meaning is in the emotions that the writer arouses in the reader.

It is possible for a novel to be both entertaining and meaningful, and some of the meaning will rub off on the reader whether he or she does a deeper analysis or not. For instance, many readers may not get all that business about the Rev. Jim Casey being a Christ figure, pickax handle theory and all, but they will be incensed at the crappy way an uncaring society treats the displaced Oklahomans.

The American novel is not dead, as critic Lee Siegel claimed in a New York Observer article. His reason: because the public no longer talks about books. This is not the Nineteenth Century. We have movies, TV, and video games to talk about as well. And even novels continue to be talked about, although probably not during the series finale of Lost. The Internet provides countless forums for literary discussion. You can also find book discussions on TV, and many communities have organized reads like my hometown’s One Book One Lincoln where a particular book is read and then discussed in small group settings around the city.

So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

For additional reading see: “Literary storm rages as critic Lee Siegel pronounces the American novel dead.”

Unconscious Writing: Putting the Subconscious to Work

There are two schools of thought about how writers write:

  • Some writers write complete, detailed scene plans before they put down a single word of first draft; they believe that they are  consciously in charge of every idea and every plot twist in their stories.
  • Others believe that a large part of their work rises up from the subconscious.

I’m a subconscious writer. I believe in letting my subconscious take an active part in my storytelling. This was not always so.

When I first started writing I thought I had total control of my stories. A story I wrote called Be a Man changed all of that. It was a simple story, I thought, about a kid who has an unpleasant experience in swimming class and becomes disillusioned about his teacher. I gave it to one of my former English professors, Bob Bergstrom, to read.

When Bob gave me his critique he launched into an in-depth analysis of the character and what was really happening in the story. I was shocked. I admitted that everything he said was true, but I hadn’t realized it was there. That was a lot of stuff to pack into a 2,300-word story.

I forget how long the idea for Be a Man gestated–tumbled around in my mind–before I put it down on paper. But I do remember that it was about two from idea to writing of Two Coffees. I was at Godfather’s Pizza with a friend. She indicated a table not to far from us and told me about the dude who she’d see when she was in with some of her friends the other night. He’d ordered four glasses of beer, set one in front of himself and the others around the table. Then he proceeded to carry on a conversation with the invisible buddies who, apparently, possessed the other three beers.

As you can see from the story a lot changed from conception to execution. This 900-word story is on my Website because it’s my favorite, particularly because my subconscious was deeply involved in the writing. I discovered this on re-reading the story a few years after I wrote it. I submitted the story three times, and it has been published twice–excluding its online publications.

I believe that even writers who believe in strictly outlining and scene-planning everything are influenced by their unconscious minds whether they know it–or like it–or not. But I don’t think they take full advantage of the powers of their subconscious.

The subconscious needs time to work. It cannot be forced, but it can be nudged. Here are some ways to nudge it:

  • If you’re working on a story problem, sleep on it. Turn it over in your mind, and your subconscious will work on while you’re sleeping.
  • Take a break, sometimes a long break. Your subconscious will continue working even while you are awake, engaged in other activities.
  • Be patient.

How do you know your subconscious is working? Because suddenly, out of nowhere, an idea will pop into your mind, and often it will be better than what you had been thinking of.

The patience part is the most annoying to me because things may not come together as quickly as I’d like, but when the ideas do come they are inevitably much cooler than if I had wracked my conscious mind for solutions. For example, I’m working on a young adult dystopian novel with the working title of Beyond the Wall. The story has changed dramatically in the last couple of months, so dramatically that the title will definitely have to be changed because the wall probably will not exist in a physical sense.

This also is why I have several projects going at the same time; if I need to prime my subconscious to work on one story, I switch to another while my subconscious takes its own sweet time, and I check back regularly to see if some new ideas are coming. I don’t have any trouble switching back and forth between projects. It’s not a bad ability for a writer  to try to develop.

I have always wanted to write a novel or short story fast, in white heat, like some writers (in his book On Writing, Stephen King says that he writes the first draft of every novel, no matter how long, in three months). That would be seriously cool. I’ve tried it on many occasions, but all I succeeded in doing was creating extra work for the garbage collector (or these days, to be politically correct, the recycling dudes).

If that works for you, great. But if you find yourself constantly getting stuck on story problems, instead of whacking at your conscious mind with a sledge-hammer, try gently consigning the challenges to your subconscious for a few days.

Writing Short Stories Teaches Discipline

During the first decade of my writing career I wrote short stories as if I had a patent on the form, about 200 of them, and that’s only the ones I have a record of. There were many more that I deemed unworthy of being submitted and took a direct route to obscurity–the trash can.

After that fairly prolific period, I moved into other areas, and my short story writing slowed to a trickle. I wrote two novels (unpublished), three screenplays (not produced), started a publishing company (published five books), and finally became a photojournalist (published more than 3 million words). When I again focused on fiction writing, I concentrated on the novel.

But the other day I came across an interview with a fellow named Stephen King, who is not only a prolific novelist but a prolific short story writer. King said that when writers concentrate too much on novels, they tend to lose interest in writing short fiction. I would add that the short story is a good laboratory for learning discipline.

Every story has a perfect length. College students often want to know how long their assignments are required to be. I had a writing teacher in college who, when asked what length a story must be, said “As long as it needs to be.” A story could be 1,000 words or 100,000 words, as long as it does what you intended it to do. That’s pretty much what King said.

If you are focusing only on novels, you may be missing lots of good ideas for shorter fiction.

For me there are a couple of obvious advantages, not in any particular order,  for writing novels over short fiction:

  • The pay is potentially better, and you will be paid a royalty per copy sold, whereas selling a short story to a magazine is a flat fee (although you may be able to pick up an occasional reprint fee if someone likes your tale well enough to include it in an anthology).
  • You can develop memorable characters in novels; this is the part I like–developing characters with depth and reading stories about characters with depth. In a 5,000-word short story this is an almost impossible task.
  • A novel may be easier to sell, and there are more markets for novels–although this is an arguable point.

Plenty of magazines (including some online mags) buy short stories. Start with Writer’s Digest, which publishes several Writer’s Market directories. You can even subscribe to Writer’s Market online. If you write in a particular category–science fiction, mystery/crime, literary, etc.–there are many magazines that publish those types of fiction. Glimmer Train is one magazine that not only pays well for fiction, but also has several contests each year.

Writing short fiction is more difficult  than writing novels.  You must focus on a single, defining event, and any wasted words or other mistakes will jump off the page. But for those of you who are starting out–and even for seasoned novel-writing pros–writing in the short form will teach you discipline.

In the past ten years I’ve written a total of three short stories, even though I’ve had plenty of ideas that I jotted down for future use. But  the Stephen King interview has inspired me to start writing some of those stories, although I certainly will not neglect my current novel.

To watch the Stephen King interview as well as comments from a couple of other prolific short story writers:

Stephen King

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Ray Bradbury

Rejections of Famous Authors Before they were Famous

I heard a speaker at a writing conference remark recently that many talented writers remain unpublished while the works of many marginal or bad writers find their way into print. Writers who keep sending their work out will eventually be published.

Among the rejection slips I’ve  received, my favorite was from a science fiction anthology: a full-page drawing of a dragon dabbing at his eyes with a kleenex as its tears flowed down.  It was much funnier than these meager words can describe. I once showed it to a friend, also a science fiction writer, who didn’t find it quite as amusing. It’s a matter of attitude; I couldn’t do anything about the rejection, and it was a change of pace from the usual, uninspired  form letter.

If you have trouble staying motivated in the face of an expanding  file of rejections, perhaps this list of the receptions of some famous authors and their work will help.

  • Crash by J.G. Ballard: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
  • Dr. Seuss: “Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
  • Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway: “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish this.”
  • The San Francisco Examiner, rejecting Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
  • Lust for Life, Irving Stone’s historical novel about Vincent Van Gogh: “A long, dull novel about an artist.” Sixteen publishers rejected the novel. When it finally saw print it sold more than 25 million copies.
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: “Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback.” The novel eventually sold to Avon Books and racked up sales of more than 7.25 million copies.
  • Tony Hillerman, best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels was advised by publishers to “Get rid of all that Indian stuff.”
  • The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells: “An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would ‘take’ … I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book.'”
  • Although Emily Dickinson published only seven poems in her lifetime, an early rejection advised her: “(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
  • So many publishers rejected The Tale of Peter Rabbit that Beatrix Potter published it herself.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
  • One publisher to another  on John le  Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: “You’re welcome to le Carre–he hasn’t got any future.”
  • The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel: “We are very impressed with the depth and scope of your research and the quality of your prose. Nevertheless … we don’t think we could distribute enough copies to satisfy you or ourselves.”
  • The Deer Park by Norman Mailer: “This will set publishing back 25 years.”
  • Carrie by Stephen King: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

And my favorite:

  • Sanctuary by William Faulkner: “Good God, I can’t publish this!”

Fiction editing is a subjective process. There will always be editors who think your writing is crap, but there are also editors who will be enthusiastic about it. You just have to find them. And the only way to find them is to keep sending out your work.

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