Misery (the novel)

In his “Learn Writing with Uncle Jim” thread on Absolute Write, James D. Macdonald recommended writers read Misery by Stephen King.  You can see his full explanation for why here.  (You can skip down to where it says, “Why did I recco Misery?” and start from there.)

I’m about 130 pages into the book and I agree with Macdonald that reading Misery gives a prospective author insight into the writing life and how to write.  For those who don’t know, the basic idea behind the book is that Paul Sheldon, a best-selling author, is kept captive by his “number one fan” who demands that he write her a new novel after killing off her favorite character in his last book.

I think this is also one of those novels you read where you wonder where the difference is between the author themselves and the characters in the novel.  For example, this paragraph is Sheldon thinking to himself, but could just as well be King’s views:

“Because I can, and it’s not something to apologize for, goddammit.  There are lots of guys out there who write a better prose line than I do and who have a better understanding of what people are really like and what humanity is supposed to mean — hell, I know that.  But when the counsellor asks Did he? about those guys, sometimes only a few people raise their hands.  But they raise their hands for me…or for Misery…and in the end I guess they’re both the same.  Can I?  Yeah.  You bet I can….if you want me to take you away, to scare you or involve you or make you cry or grin, yeah.  I can.  I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle.  I am able.  I CAN.”

It’s interesting, because King’s character is a man who struggles against the public’s demand for him to write one type of novel (the Misery novels) when he really wants to write something else (critically acclaimed novels).  I think King may in fact own the types of novels he writes, but that paragraph could be him speaking back to certain critics who denigrate his style or writing ability.  (At the end of the day, the man is massively successful – He Does.  Period.)

I just finished reading a section where the book explores the difference between what’s fair and realistic in a novel and how an author can’t cheat their readers by changing things later to make a story work.  It’s the whole inner consistency idea except presented by a psychopathic woman in a remote house in Colorado.  That’s some good learning there.

The lesson sticks if you can just imagine a crazy woman ready to pound you into the ground every time you try to cheat with your writing.  (I think another lesson of the book is that readers aren’t stupid.  They may not be highly educated or sophisticated, but they are not stupid and you can’t act as if they are, which the main character does at times.)

I still have two hundred pages left, but I already think Macdonald’s recommendation was worth it.  So, if anyone is looking for a book recommendation, I second Macdonald’s.

And, as an added bonus, I think the way the book is written is as much a lesson for writers as anything.  (Look at the chapter lengths.  Look at the point of view shifts.  Look at the way flashbacks are woven into scenes.  Look at the way thoughts are presented within the point of view.  Look at how he interweaves the character’s imagination into a scene.)  I think King does some things in this novel that other writers could not pull off.  And he does it in such a way that you don’t even notice it unless you really stop and look.

It’s a perfect example of the only true writing rule is that whatever you do needs to work.  If you need permission to just write your way, read this book, because that’s what King does.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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2 Responses to Misery (the novel)

  1. Misery is actually one of the few King novels that ended well. I never thought about making the connection between actual writers and what Sheldon went through when forced to re-write his latest Misery novel.

    • mhleewriter says:

      Interestingly enough, in On Writing he talks about how he originally wanted to end it with Annie using Paul’s skin to make the book cover, but “no one likes to root for a guy over the course of three hundred pages only to discover that between chapters sixteen and seventeen the pig ate him.” (p. 168) So, seems it was going to end poorly until he got into the writing bit.

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