He's gotten some love from the literary establishment in recent years, but he started out as a horror genre writer. His best works all incorporate some gruesome person or monster. However, he never quite repeats himself even if he does have favorite themes. Misery is a small, almost literary tale where The Stand aims at the modern epic where It aims for an updated monster extravaganza. He's written one long series (The Gunslinger or The Dark Tower, however you care to think of it), but most of his tales stand alone. More than one person has commented he'll be best remembered for his short stories, from which several memorable films have come (The Shawshank Redemption is the best). He had a tremendous amount of luck fall his way with well-timed, well-constructed movie adaptations of his novels, starting with Carrie.
We can't reproduce that kind of luck, but we can examine the career. As I've thought about his success over the years, I come away with a few key ideas:
- He recognized he could write whatever he wanted to write within the confines of "horror." He bent the genre to suit his interests rather than forcing a tale to be what passed for "horror." He was comfortable rewriting rules as it suited him.
- He published some books that were complete experiments and unlike anything he'd done before. Dolores Claiborne, first person, almost all in the main character's voice. Not sure he could have gotten someone to publish it if his name weren't Stephen King, but it's a great story, unconventionally told. He made the story work.
- He improved over the decades. A lot of books you read from multi-published authors don't get much better than the first book, which is often the best one (written over the course of years before the author breaks into a publishing contract and then finds himself on the book-a-year treadmill). King improved as he went. He learned from what he was doing and made better big books and even better small books. He learned the craft and told better stories.
We can't make lightning in a bottle, but we can do everything possible to set up the conditions just right.