The premise of Highway to Hell is extremely clever. How does an author convince readers to care about people who are being tortured in Hell? If most of us think of Hell, at all, it is with the quiet conviction that we won't be going there. Hitler, people who commit heinous acts such as abusing, or murdering children--they all belong in Hell and we hope that it's uncomfortable, for a long, long time. Well, Laybourne takes these expectations and he turns them on their ear.
When Stephen King was struck by a van, out of the stark realization of his mortality, I started looking for new horror authors. King won't live forever. Long live the King. Alex Laybourne is one of the few authors that I've discovered, who can sate me, when I'm having a King craving.
I warn you to strap on your seatbelt because Highway to Hell is bumpy ride, and whatever you do, don't stick your hand out the window, or God forbid, your head. Hell is not for sissies, but this novel kept me totally engrossed for a full week. It provided well developed characters, compelling situations, and the type of horror that will leave you metaphorically weaving from lane to lane, hoping for a nearby exit. You're going to get car-sick reading this sincerely frightening masterpiece. I can't wait for part two of the series!
He presents the tortures of Hell (extremely graphic, equal in impact to Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of Christ') but, in a twist, his characters have been sent to Hell by some cosmic error. They didn't earn Hell, but they are unaware of this fact, for the majority of the novel. Laybourne's readers are forced to ponder the characters' assorted transgressions. Most will probably find at least one sin with which they also have in common. For me, it was probably the most innocent of the group, a woman who couldn't quite manage to like her in-laws. Really, I thought, this sends you to Hell? It's a brilliant plot devise and Laybourne milks it well.
When I read Stephen King's 11/22/63, it was both as a reader and a writer. I read for enjoyment, but I also looked for lessons on how to write. I found a great one in a relatively minor scene in the beginning of the novel.
The lead character, Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, takes on an adult GED class. He assigns an essay--the standard 'Day That Changed My Life.' If his students could string together a proper sentence, Jake would generally give them a B, without much thought.
He is shaken out of his complacency, however, when he receives one exceptional tale. It comes from a lowly janitor, a Mr. Harry Dunning, known as Hoptoad Harry. Jake shares the actual essay, word for word. It is filled with spelling and grammar errors, but it earns an A+ because, in Jake's words, it "evoked an emotional response."
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Stephen King is commenting on something that I wish was addressed more often by other authors/teachers/workshops. It is not enough to write a well constructed sentence and run spell check. Writing should emotionally involve the reader. A story is not only about formatting, grammar, or even spelling. It really isn't and Stephen King agrees with me.
I'm not claiming that he's advocating that we shouldn't edit our writing, but he is saying to keep our priorities straight. We need to aim to be great, not just average. Too many authors (and reviewers, for that point) think that editing is the only metric by which to judge a book.
There seems to be this misconception that editing is what makes a book successful. There are tons of blog articles out there on the importance of editing. Plus, we've all heard the often repeated lament that eBooks would be better, if only indie authors could afford editors, like traditional authors.
I firmly believe that people have focused upon editing only because it can be taught, where writing a great story that touches a reader's emotions is instinctual, involving a sort of elusive 'it' factor. You can break every grammar rule and still have a great story, while you can follow every grammar rule and have a story that sucks eggs.
As I have dived into this new digital world of indie authors, I have discovered authors that I love to read and they are often far from perfect. Invariably they have typos, formatting errors, crappy book covers, poor product descriptions and, in one case, even lacked an author photo. These are cardinal marketing sins that can earn them bad reviews, which is sincerely unfortunate.
People are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, but they are using the wrong metric. Ignore all this relatively unimportant editing stuff (it can all be fixed, easily), focus, instead, on how the writing made you feel. That's the true foundation of great writing. Did you love or hate the main characters? Did you want more? This is the measurement that everyone should cite.
This is why we read Stephen King, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and other authors who have experienced immense popularity with the general public over the centuries. Yes, there is a history lesson in 11/22/63, but I found the writing lesson much more relevant to my life!