Writing lessons from Salem’s Lot
I first read Salem’s Lot, Stephen King’s vampire novel, in the 1970s, and a couple of scenes—a little boy floating outside a window asking to come in, and a priest confronting his doubts in a kitchen—have stuck with me ever since. This week, I reread it in a version with a new introduction and afterword and a bunch of deleted scenes and early versions of published scenes.
From the 2005 Introduction:
Of course, the writer can impose control; it’s just a really shitty idea. Writing controlled fiction is called “plotting.” Buckling your seatbelt and letting the story take over, however…that is called “storytelling.” Storytelling is as natural as breathing; plotting is the literary version of artificial respiration.
Obviously, Stephen King knows more about plotting a page-turner than anyone, but it’s nice to have the vindication for those of us who’ve tried plotting in advance and failed miserably.
Everyone starts somewhere
This was King’s second published novel, after Carrie, and he was still mastering his craft. He started writing it in 1972, when he was about 25.
The published version isn’t as tightly pulled together as his later works. You can see the seams, the places where he wrote something and liked it and left it in when he probably should have taken it out—as a fellow pantser, I have a hundred things like that in my current project. It’s both a caution and a reassurance to see it here.
Deleted and early-version scenes illustrate other lessons about writing.
- Don’t overexplain. In several of these, the narrator or a character in dialogue explicitly states the novel’s message. The published version leaves it to the reader, who can read it as a straightforward adventure about vampires or think about what the story says about ordinary people, small New England towns, and the post-Vietnam era.
- Work on the reader’s emotions. Other scenes show how choices about the order of events, the way events are described—more or less detailed, more or less bloody—and the way characters respond to events affect the emotional impact of the story. That scene of the priest in the kitchen that’s stuck in my head for 40 years was different in an earllier version, for instance. As published, that scene kicks the hope right out from under you; the earlier version left some room for daylight.
- If you don’t need it, drop it. Some of the deleted scenes are just unnecessary, like the one that explains Ben’s financial situation: it’s something King needed to know as a writer, but it didn’t add anything to the story.
In his 2005 introduction, King says his ambition was to write The Great American Novel by combining the overlord-vampire myth from Bram Stoker’s Dracula with the naturalistic fiction of Frank Norris and the EC horror comics. He might be shelved in horror, but you can see his literary origins in his precise choice of words and images:
- a straw-dry whistle of air slipping from his mouth
- as though a special small slice had been cut from the cake of time
- The town hasn’t changed that much. Looking out on Jointner Avenue is like looking through a thin pane of ice—like the one you can pick off the top of the town cistern in November if you knock it around the edges first—looking through that at your childhood. It’s wavy and misty and in some places it trails off into nothing, but most of it is all still there
- he felt sixteen, a head-busting sixteen with everything in front of him six lanes wide and no hard traveling in sight
- the older people to whom funerals grow nearly compulsive as old age knits their shrouds up around them
It’s okay to take your time
As always, the last page of the book shows when King finished it, and this time it also tells when he started. He wrote Salem’s Lot from October 1972 to June 1975. I plan to remind myself of this whenever I’m tempted to compare my writing speed to, say, my middle-grade writer friend who can have a draft finished in three months or less.
What do you think? Have you found writing lessons in an old novel? Please let me know in the comments below!