Learning How to Write with Stephen King’s Night Shift
Thomas S. Flowers
Is this really such an odd statement to make? Learning to write with King?
To look upon a legendary talent such as Stephen King and boast of him as a mentor should not be too surprising. If you’re questioning the legendary side of things, I’ll probably ask if you’ve lived and breathed in the 21st century, because even if you are not a fan of the macabre, you should have at some point heard rumor or mention of at least one book, one story, one made for TV special or adaptation to the big screen, something that was once a part of Stephen King.
Now for talent? While some may not care for his work, especially his most recent undertakings, to deny his talent is to deny the evolution of modern pop culture.
Stop me if you’ve heard this: “Sometimes dead is better,” or “Redrum,” or “I’m your biggest fan,” or “We all float down here,” or “Get busy living or get busy dying,” or “Small towns have long memories and pass their horrors down from generation to generation,” or “Humor is almost always anger with its make-up on,” or “Wendy? Darling? Light of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in,” and so on and so forth.
Chances are, you’ve seen or heard at least one of the above quotes. Each being born first from a book which later branched out into either a made for TV special or movie, all becoming part of cinematic history, and there are many more not mentioned here, including some fifty-four novels, six non-fiction works, and two hundred short stories. So ya, the man’s got talent. He’s got what we call in the butcher shop, chops. So, what better mentor to learn from. As King is often quoted saying, and I’m paraphrasing here, “If you want to write, you have to read, and read a lot.”
Around this time last year, I had the great pleasure of finally sitting down to read Stephen King’s first published collection of short stories, Night Shift. First published, according to the copyright in 1976, though I think it was more like 1978 when it hit shelves, with stories that had been previously published in magazines, such as Cavalier, Maine, Penthouse, Cosmopolitan, and Gallery.
The stories included, of course, the introduction by John D. MacDonald, our first peek into Jerusalem’s Lot, Graveyard Shift, another first look at what would later evolve into The Stand with Night Surf, I Am the Doorway (a fantastic tale of cosmic horror), The Mangler, The Boogeyman, Gray Matter, Battleground, Trucks, Sometimes They Come Back, Strawberry Spring, The Ledge, The Lawnmower Man (not what you’re thinking), Quitters, Inc., I Know What You Need, Children of the Corn, The Last Rung on the Ladder (a really sad tale of suicide), The Man Who Loved Flowers, One for the Road, and The Woman in the Room.
Each of the above stories have taught me three important things when it comes to writing. Be imaginative. Take risks. And to hell with the rules. Allow me a moment to break these down.
Everyone, at some point or another, has read (I’m guessing) an anthology. Maybe not a collection, per say, but certainly an anthology. If you’ve ever taken an English literature class or even just basic English (not sure what the equivalent is overseas), but in those classes, those books contained a collection of sorts from various writers in which teachers believe would help in passing on some form of information, something of worth to budding minds. Style. Prose. Subject. Verbs. Adjectives. Setting. Theme. Form. Something. An anthology is a remarkable thing. We get little glimpses into all sorts of worlds and imaginations. However, a collection differs in the respect that the massed stories all come from one mind, one author. We get to spend more time indulging ourselves into the cosmos of one single writer and one imagination. Seeing things from differing angles. Sitting a spell, as my Memaw often told us grandchildren. This is why, sometimes, I’m more of a fan of collections, rather than anthologies. Getting to spend more time with one author from multiple perspectives is enlightening.
Being imaginative…goes without saying. Or at least it should. What I learned from Stephen King in his collection Night Shift regarding imagination is to allow myself to go into worlds I would never typically go. Consider our first look into the infamous town of Jerusalem’s Lot, which would later be known as Salem’s Lot. This is an eighteenth-ninetieth century story, molded or inspired no doubt from H.P. Lovecraft’s “Rats in the Walls,” written by an author who typically is known for modern stories. Similarly, consider “I Am the Doorway,” not so much as a futuristic story as it is a cosmic one. An astronaut comes home from a trip to Saturn with something inside him, something with eyes, something that eventually develops a will all its own. Talk about imaginative!
If we’re not taking risks, what are we doing? We should have no business in writing if we are not willing to put ourselves out there and bend the mold. Not every story, even from a talented man such as Stephen King will be what they call in the biz, a homerun. Consider his short in this collection called “Trucks.” During my first read through, I skimmed past it. On a second go around, I discovered a tale basically about technology, vehicles mostly and our ever growing need for fossil fuels, taking us over and turning humanity into slaves. The character contemplates running away, across the marshlands, back to the caves, so he could draw with coal on the rock walls and warn future generations of their folly. Talk about risks, whenever a story is shaped by culture and works to raise questions or awareness, it’s always a risk.
From a storytelling perspective, considering “Battleground,” a tale of green plastic army men coming to life and killing the assassin that murdered their maker. Risky because it’s a story about plastic army men! But, it was fantastic nevertheless, and written beautifully. And as King is quoted saying, “The most important things are the hardest to say.” When we write, we take that risk upon ourselves, the risk of what we write falling on deaf ears.
Maybe I’m paraphrasing King again, but it is certainly true that to break the rules, one must first know the rules. Don’t just do, do and read, and read a lot. Read what other, more talented, writers then yourselves are doing. And pay attention in those English classes. Learn the ropes. Understand why teachers warn budding minds of avoiding alliterations, prepositions, clichés, abbreviations, generalizations, comparisons, fragments, exaggerations, rhetorical questions, and parenthetical remarks. And once we understand why these things are what they are, then we can confidently say, “To hell with them!” King, and more than a few other legendary authors, have taught me as much. Certainly the collected work in Night Shift has taught me that it is okay to break the rules, especially when we’re trying to tell a story. To get a point across. And to be, above all, entertaining. After all, we’re not here to lecture, are we? We’re not here to make billions, are we?
In King’s story, “The Woman in the Room” I felt he broke a few rules.
Between inner monologues and normal dialogue, the stylization got a bit wompy, but I think it was intended to get wompy, because of the nature of the story, watching the character’s mother dying painfully slow of a terminal sickness and then watching the character struggle in deciding to end her life. In this case, the rule breaking, the risk, the quiet imagination, it all turned into something quite amazing. In the end, Night Shift has certainly taught me another of King’s famous quotes, and I’ll paraphrase here so you can make sense of my own inner voice, “I’m not here to get rich. I don’t write to be famous, or get laid or to make a ton of friends (though in the process of writing, I have made new friends, good friends). When I write, I want to enrich the lives of those who read my stories, and to enrich my own life as well. I want to wake up each day, knowing that at some point I’ll let my imagination loose, I’ll be risky, and I’ll break the rules, and because of that, and because of the people that fill the walls of my life, I’ll be happy.
Yes. I’ll be happy.”
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Thomas S Flowers was born in Walter Reed Medical Center, Maryland to a military family. He grew up in RAF Chicksands, England and then later Fort Meade, and finally Roanoke, Virginia. Thomas graduated high school in 2000 and on September 11, 2001, joined the U.S. Army. From 2001-2008, Thomas served in the military police corps, with one tour in South Korea and three tours serving in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. While stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, between deployments, Thomas met his wife and following his third and final tour to Iraq, decided to re-join the civilian ranks. Thomas was discharged honorably in February 2008 and moved to Houston, Texas where he found employment and attended night school. In 2014, Thomas graduated with a Bachelor in Arts in History from University of Houston-Clear Lake. Thomas blogs at www.machinemean.org, commenting and reviewing movies, books, shows, and historical content.
Thomas is living a rather simple and quite life with his beautiful wife and amazing daughter, just south of Houston, Texas.
And for more about Thomas, visit his site or find him on social media:
And for more about Thomas, visit his site or find him on social media: