What Can We Steal From Stephen King’s The Green Mile?

Title of Work and its Form: The Green Mile, novel
Author: Stephen King
Date of Work: The serialized parts were released monthly in 1996, with a collection published the following year.
Where the Work Can Be Found:  There are approximately eleven trillion copies of the book in print.  Why not pick one up at your local secondhand bookstore?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

Discussion:
The Green Mile began life as a serial novel.  Each month between March and August 1996, you could head to your local bookstore and pick up the next installment in the story of Paul Edgecombe, a former death row guard who is recounting his experiences decades later from a nursing home.  Edgecombe has spent those years thinking about John Coffey, an inmate who was convicted of killing two little girls.  Coffey has magic healing powers and doesn’t seem to be capable of incredible violence.  Still, the law is the law, right?  Coffey is executed.  Edgecombe seems to have picked up some of the Coffey magic and is pain-free and incredibly healthy for a 104-year-old man.

Anyone who has read a Stephen King knows that he has a masterful command of plot and has few peers when it comes to great characterization.  If you check out the Stephen King section in your local library, you’ll also realize how prolific the man is; he clearly loves the simple act of putting words on paper.  With The Green Mile, however, Mr. King tried something new…that is also old.  Believe it or not, many of the CLASSIC NOVELS that you’ve read—or resolved to read—were originally released serially.  Today, you can simply pluck a Charles Dickens novel from the shelf and read away.  A new section of Bleak House, for example, was released each month between March 1852 and September 1853.  This method of releasing a story has a lot of advantages; Dickens’ readers were left on tenterhooks for weeks, wondering what would happen to the characters.  The same effect can be seen today; how many of us would spend all week thinking about and debating the consequences of LOST?  Do you remember the large crowds that would gather at bookstores upon the release of each new Harry Potter book?

Serial publishing can do you a lot of good.  I remember reading the serial installments of the awesome Robert J. Sawyer novel Rollback that were published in the awesome science fiction magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact several years ago.  I simply couldn’t wait to get to the bookstore to buy the next issue; I needed to find out what happened in the story!  If you’ve never considered splitting your work up in such a fashion, why not?

One of the things that struck me most about The Green Mile is the confidence with which Mr. King wrote the book.  (Confidence that was deserved, of course.)  Mr. King did not hand the publisher a great big Green Mile manuscript and tell them which chunks to release and when.  No, Mr. King wrote the first part of the book and knew he had a pretty firm deadline for the next one.  Can you imagine the pressure?  Now, Mr. King doesn’t have much trouble getting himself to sit down and write, but he had hundreds of thousands of fans in the back of his mind, all of whom were demanding the next installment.

Writing a serial work can be a double-edged sword.  On one hand, you may loosen quality control somewhat.  After all, the material NEEDS TO GO OUT, so you might cut corners out of necessity.  On the other hand, a lot of us overthink things a lot, don’t we?  Having that big deadline hanging over your head may get your creative juices flowing.

What Should We Steal?

  • Release your work serially.  Your work should have internal suspense, but why not consider adding some external suspense to your work?  If you’re a poet who has completed a themed series of poems, you might try to publish one in subsequent issues of a literary journal or do so on your own web site.
  • Use a deadline to force you to write.  Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  What would you rather have on your list of publications?  A pretty good novel of which you can be proud or nothing at all because the absolutely perfect version of your work can never exist?

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