Why Stephen King’s The Stand Was Better the First Time

If you were lucky enough to be able to open a copy of the original 800+ page edition of The Stand, released in 1978, here’s what you would have read:

Hapscomb’s Texaco sat on US 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston.  Tonight the regulars were there, sitting by the cash register, drinking beer, talking idly, watching the bugs fly into the big lighted sign.

There’s some backstory on the town and we meet Stu Redman.  Three pages in:

Cars didn’t go by on 93 much now, which was one reason Hap had so many unpaid bills.  But there was a car coming now, Stu saw.

The Chevy weaves its way toward the gas station while the good ol’ boys jaw about the bad economy and Stu calmly turns off the gas pumps.  Turns out the driver, Campion, is majorly, disgustingly sick with some kind of superflu.  He gives hints in his fevered state of how he came to be there when he says he guesses he didn’t move quick enough after all…

Stu and the reader are mostly in the dark about what has just happened and what it portends, but it’s already ominous as anything.  It’s Chapter 4 before we visit the army lab where the deadly flu strain was engineered and accidentally released.  By then, we’re all in, solidly caught up in King’s world as everyone around the protagonists starts coughing and falling sick.

In 1990, King released a new version that he explains returns much of the material he was forced to cut at his publisher’s insistence.  At a Gone-With-the-Wind-sized 1150 pages, the book is now the only one available to purchase new.  The Stand Uncut In between the late 70s original and the restored longer version, King had become one of the bestselling novelists ever.  He could pretty much do what he wanted with his writing.  But should he have?

New version:

A mutter.
“Wake up now, Sally.”
A louder mutter: leeme lone.
He shook her harder. “Wake up. You got to wake up!”

Campion’s wife is awakened by her terrified husband who orders her to grab the baby and come on.  We learn they’re on an army base and something in a bio lab killed the other staff.  Campion got out just in time because of a faulty gate.  Is it a better story for this scene?

I maintain, no.  The concept of in media res (into the middle of things) is brillliantly demonstrated by King in the original version.  I remember reading that first scene and then fighting with my mom and sister over who got to read the book next.  I finished it in less than week.  We couldn’t put it down.  Start the story, start each scene, as late into the action as possible.  We were in the dark along with Stu–one of the great pleasures of the original version was discovering the mysteries along with the viewpoint characters.  It was a thrilling ride.

That’s not to say King shouldn’t have written that scene for himself.  There are things a writer needs to know for the story and things the readers need to know.  The scene at Haps gas station with the mysterious weaving car works as well as it does because King had already envisioned how Campion ended up there–the mad dash to pack up his already-dying family and drive east, away from the wind.  When the Campions appear for their brief, memorable appearance onstage, they’re fully-formed characters at the end of a harrowing story.  There the narrative passes to Stu and the others, who we’ll follow throughout the book.

Filling in the backstory doesn’t improve The Stand.  Reading the longer version can be interesting to see what was excised and to spend more time with the beloved characters in their dark world.  But that’s only after meeting them in their leaner, cleaner versions.  Left to his own devices, King overwrites. In addition to that 4-5 page opening scene, King restores over 400 pages of material that was removed without any harm to the readability and excitement of his story.  (He says he always regretted having to cut out The Kid, a character I could have gone my whole life without meeting and been the richer for it.)

No one will ever know what The Stand’s reception would have been if King had had access to self-publishing through online books.  Perhaps readers would have taken to it just the same.  Maybe I would have loved it as much.  But I suspect not, that I would have found it dragged in places and would have had a less vivid impression of the world of the plague.  Whether it was editorial considerations or the accounting department or some combination, the constraints of the publishing house made for a better book.

Whether you’re self-publishing because you want control of your own product or because you haven’t found a place in the traditional publishing world, it’s something to consider.   Be honest with yourself about your own book’s shortcomings.  Listen to others, whether it’s a critique group or family or contest judges.  Just because you can write long, or throw in as many gratuitous characters and scenes as takes your fancy, doesn’t mean it makes for a better book.  Now that we’re all facing the possibility of being the stewards of our own creative works, bear in mind that there are some plusses about the traditional publishing model.

When self-publishing an e-book, pretend like you still have to answer to an editorial department, just like in the old days, and murder your darlings.

This entry was posted in Commentary, E-Publishing, Marketing, Revision, Writing Craft and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why Stephen King’s The Stand Was Better the First Time

  1. Aw, c’mon, I’m just itching to write “War & Peace, Part II: The Vampire Years.” 😉

    On a recent Writers On The Brink post, I commented:
    One important possibility the new age of publishing brings us is that you can release more than one version of your novel. You could do a traditionally-published paper book edited to the 400 page range, released alongside a longer e-book version of the same title. This would also provide an incentive for those who enjoyed your physical book to purchase your e-book as well (for its extra content).
    I think the above is a perfect marketing strategy. Even if readers prefer the edited version, chances are the extended-version e-book will clarify at least one point of comprehension a reader may have had with the edited version.

    If you self-publish a physical paper book (ie: by CreateSpace), especially for your first novel, it would be wise to keep it in the 100,000 word maximum range (with notable exceptions for science fiction and fantasy). Another good reason to hone your internal editor. :mrgreen:


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