My Writing Process – Blog Tour

I am almost perfectly one whole week late in answering these questions, which probably says more about me than anything that follows. I was asked to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour by Michael Cieslak of the Dragon’s Roost. If you get nothing else out of this post, at least check out the benefit anthology he’s just edited “Desolation: 21 Tales for Tails”. He and the other folks of the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers have given me great support over the past couple years as I’ve transitioned from calling myself a writer of “Literary Fiction” to “Dark Fantasy/Northern Gothic/New Weird /Speculative Fiction.” More aptly put, I now consider myself more a “horror” writer though I continue to write pretty much the same strange stuff I have always written. Meet the new genre; same as the old genre.

But I honestly can’t imagine that anyone would be really all THAT interested in how I write, even those people who like what I write. This isn’t modesty; it’s just a curiosity to me. We don’t assume that folks who like to eat eggs must necessarily like to look up the tail feathers of a chicken to see how they’re made. Evidently some folks must have that predilection, so here goes a look at my “Arse Poetica:”

1) What am I working on?
I have just completed a rousing good draft of a novella, titled “Rent-Beast.” It’s a heart-warming tale of a werewolf sex-worker with high ideals who strays into neo-pagan rituals, demonic possession and the corrosive effects of crappy jobs. And it IS quite heart-warming, because “Rent-Beast” is at its core a love story. Sort of.

I say this in full cognizance of the closing lines of the movie “Ed Wood” but this is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for. I realize I’m at that stage of composition where delusions of grandeur often occur, but I sincerely believe this is the work I was meant to write, my great work. It’s about aesthetic theory, identity and the place of art in society. I am also quite deeply horrified by this book. I have told my grown children I will never, ever let them read it, and I am rather happy both my parents are dead, for that matter. Writing “Rent-Beast” has taken more courage than just about anything else I’ve ever written. I sincerely thank David C. Hayes and in particular his deeply twisted little book “Pegged” for this achievement. You’ll scratch your head bald if you look for textual similarities. What David’s work gave me was a sense of permission, permission to follow the tale I had to tell to the darkest, weirdest, hardest places that it lead. You see, David C Hayes appeared to me in a dream, floating over my bed on wings made from the pages of his crazy, repulsive, obsessional stories. I’d fallen to sleep reading “Pegged” his story of a foot-fetishist who goes cold-turkey in the most extreme manner. I don’t recall that this levitating vision said anything, though he gave me a pursed-lip fart-face expression that communicated very clearly. This look asked: Do you want to write “pretty” or do you want to write “real?” For me, at least for “Rent-Beast,” that was a true revelation.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Since I am a relative new comer to dark fantasy/new weird, I’m afraid I track in a lot of the mud and guck of “literary” fiction since it’s stuck to my boots. To be clearest, I *think* I’m writing in whatever genre includes Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Caitlyn Kiernan, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, David Foster Wallace, Alan Moore, Carolyn Forche, Angela Carter, Thomas Pynchon and maybe that guy who wrote House of Leaves, which is the single most scary thing I’ve ever read. Naw, don’t include him; swap in Salman Rushdie. And William Burroughs. Can’t forget the late Burroughs (Cities of the Red Night, Place of the Dead Roads, The Western Lands.)

I also think I am particularly sensitive to location, to the “poetics of place” as I’ve heard it called. I suspect the weirdest, wildest worlds I imagine are all within driving distance of the Great Lakes, even if you might have to hop aboard an interstellar transport or soul-depth pathworking to get there. I am also fascinated by how “horror” reveals facets of the human condition, how these silly “escapist” tales might unexpectedly also provide the antidote for living our lives together through the day to day shit we encounter. And I am fully post-post-modern in that I despise irony, satire, camp… heck even comedy is a hard sell for me. You’ve got to step up to the line, unzipper your chest and put something vital, bloody and beating on the table, IMHO. Life’s too short for quaint, self-knowing winks to the audience.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I live a bi-polar existence, one torn between heart-wrenching beauty and nauseating atrocity. My brain chemistry allows me to notice how we humans are remarkably horrible to each other most of the time yet are also capable of moments of delicacy and grace.

4) How does your writing process work?
5:00 AM, every damned day, me, keyboard and words. Often coffee.

Though that probably doesn’t say enough. It starts with that first sentence, and I don’t mean that facetiously. I carry dozens of story ideas around with me at any given times like pockets of an old suit. Sometimes I’ll over hear a scrap of dialogue and I’ll tuck that away, knowing it’ll appear in the second act of some story or another. Or maybe I’ll squirrel away a particular sensation or some cool “what if” trick of world-building. In a sense, I’m always pickpocketing my life for these treasures. But it doesn’t matter how full my own pockets get, I don’t start writing, I mean REALLY writing until I have the first sentence. At that point, I can turn out my pockets and empty out all the cool trinkets I’ve gathered because I’ve got something to hang them on. There are a couple things I look for in that magical lightning bolt of a sentence too: main character, already beset with a problem, likely the core problem of the story and already making a mess of it. Maybe. Usually that sentence has to be rather pretty with words or intriguing with situation. And, though it only sounds obvious, that first sentence has to occur relatively near the beginning of the actual story. Most things I’ve written–I venture to say, most unpublished things that most people have ever written, don’t start close enough to the beginning of their actual story. Like making a bead necklace, I slip my trinkets on that sentence one after another after another until my magical snake comes to life and bites me.

Then I’ll set it aside at the back of a jewelry box maybe for a few weeks, a couple months and take the thing out, rap its head against the table to see if it’s still alive. If it is, I’ll get out the knives and start revising it. If it’s lucky, it’ll live long enough for me to submit it somewhere.

But that’s just how I write NOW. I went through a whole decade where all I wrote was drama and those suckers were meticulously plotted out in advance. I like to believe I have internalized that sense of structure but then again, I haven’t written for the stage in…

Sweet Merciful Thor, if I digress again, it’ll be ANOTHER week before I get this post up. There. You’ve probably learned more about my writing process than you want to know.

“You Cannot Feed us Beans and Expect Us Not to Fart”

This is my motto. At least, it’s been something I’ve said for the past few years in defense of what I write.

Lots of folks think mottos must be in Latin, especially if they’re using naughty words like “fart.” so I’ve asked friends to translate it and have received variously:

et non simus, ne comederemus et ne faba crepitum facere.

and

Nos autem non potest, et fabam, et expecta ad crepitum facere non

But I suppose if my scant knowledge of Latin can’t tell which is better, then I better stop putting on airs and leave the Latin to the Pope and the Romans.

I came across the real quotation accidentally today, that the motto sort of recalls, that is, Telemachus’ defense of Polemius in The Odyssey, Book One (Butler translation):

“Let the bard sing what he has a mind to;
bards do not make the ills they sing of;
it is Jove, not they, who makes them,
and who sends weal or woe upon mankind according to his own good pleasure…”

though Homer gets all cosmic and theological where my version is more socio-political and scatological.

But to the point, I get a degree of shit for writing horror, dark fantasy and pointing out uncomfortable realities. When we live in a world of lollipops and gumdrops, peace and justice, joy and fulfillment, maybe I won’t transcribe my nightmares.

WorkInProgress Breaks 42,000 Words

I’ve been tight-lipped about the current Work In Progress, a young adult novel about a haunted high school — and that description of it is so succinct that it’s absolutely mis-leading.

I’ve written long form works in the past but honestly, this novel has been a weird joy. Every time I think I’ve written myself into a corner, I’ve been able to stop, reflect on what I’ve already written and continue. I’m too much of a tough-minded pragmatist to give much credence to “The Muse” but my experience writing this book has given me an appreciation for what that kind of language might be expressing.

I’ve only had one instance where I realized that I’d actually made a “mistake” in an earlier chapter. The scene was correct, the setting, the action but it should have had a different teacher presiding. I recognized the error within two chapters. It’ll be a quick fix when I get to revise.

But I didn’t let myself make the change, not yet. I’m naturally dark-souled and critical so I’ve been trying to put off “editing” until I had a complete manuscript. I’m my own worst enemy at times and whenever I start editing while I’m trying to draft, the demons of my lower natures have a field day. Fortunately, I’m more or less on track to have a complete draft by May 1st (lordwilling, ifthecrickdontrise)

ROW Checkin: April 11, 2012

Writing is writing, right?

And I continue to put word after word, despite the unusual busy-ness of the past week so that’s a triumph. Right? Right? I am not as far along as I’d wished with the specifics of my ROW Goal, namely 1,000 words a day on prep work for my haunted high school novel. I also realized that I forgot to hit “publish” on last week’s update. D’oh.

• I did some non-novel writing. I wrote a nice sketch of a ghost story about a sleazy hotel near where I work. I figured out who the ghost was and captured a few choice exchanges beween my two investigators. It all was sparked by a chance peek into the “lobby” of the establishment as I walked by the other day — usually the drapes are closed but they were open to reveal a wonderfully cluttered office and a bullet-proof glass window. The opening scene just started to happen before my eyes and I had to transcribe it. When writing comes that easily, it’s hard for me to say no to such a gift. I also hammered out posts on several different blogs to which I contribute. I find it hard to consider posts to be “real” writing though, to be honest.

• I caught up on some serious reading over the holiday weekend and I don’t feel guilty about that at all. I finished The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Harry Potter/Narnia crossed with Catcher in the Rye) and, yes finally, I finished A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I want to add “Read More” to my goals, though that’s a rather slippery goal. I joined the “Sword and Laser” online book club /pocast ( http://www.swordandlaser.com/ )to help encourage me to read.

• I have also embarked on a new interest in fitness. It would be presumptuous to call it a “program” and “goal” sounds a bit too purposive. How about we leave it at “a newfound awareness” and leave it at that. I’ve walked to work a couple times. I’ve been using the iPhone app “Zombies, Run” — though using a stationary bike instead of running — and enjoying the heck out of it. I’ve also established an area in the basement where I can lift weights without feeling like a total dork-a-saurus. And I finally have a nice solid chair where I can meditate. Last year, I did a course in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (basically secularized Vipissana meditation) which definitely helps keep me sane. Until this week, the best place I’ve had to meditate is an overstuffed recliner where it’s far too easy to drift off to sleep.

 

ROW Checkin: April 4, 2012

Goal: 1,000 words a day on prep materials mostly for my “haunted high school” novel

Check In Status: So far so good.
• I have three good meaty character descriptions for my three major characters — though everything I write uncovers more I could note. These descriptions have lead to a nice collection of quotations and situations that I’ve saved in my “Trapper Keeper” file for when I actually start drafting;

• a good start on descriptions of a couple more characters and I realized that there are other folks who I need to know about so I’ve appended them to my to do list;

• I am most proud of the several fair to good iterations of an outline following the fractal / “Snowflake” method. I started with a one sentence overview that I re-wrote 4 or 5 times and am now up to my third revision of a 5 sentence paragraph outline. The backbone of the story is becoming clearer. I’m trying to allow space around this story for the rest of the “trilogy.”

I find it exciting to focus on “prep work” even though I have a NaNo sized draft of the work. I love the deep revelations that backstory can give and left to my own devices, I fear I would stagnate there. The NaNo draft allowed me to gain first hand familiarity with the story and it got me to just start writing. Granted NaNoWriMo is just a writing spring, but I needed that starter’s gun. Taking the analogy further, I am reminded of the motto of a famous tennis shoe company “Just Go Ahead, Stop Planning and Fidgeting For Cry It Out Loaud and… Just Put a Few Words After a Few Other Words.” I think the tennis shoe company puts it a bit more succinctly.

If all continues to go well, I might be able to start drafting even before this ROW is up.

Is There Texting in this Text?

With due respect to Stanley Fish whose title I’m aping in this post, I’m on the hunt for good examples of texting within contemporary literature. Know any? Pass ’em along. Texting is a fact of life at least for folks under, say, 30 but I don’t know if I can think of *any* good examples of how texting shows up as a practice reflected in fiction.

I’m not immediately interested in the mere format of how texts appear on the page. A different type face, perhaps or italics, indented like quotations. Having said that, what would the best conversational attribution for texts? “He/she said” doesn’t work. “He/she… typed?” “He/she… texted?” There’s a cool factor of anonymity with texts. On a phone, you can tell who’s talking far better than you can tell who’s texting. That’s got to be exploited.

The piece I’m writing now really has to have texting as an essential element and it’s emerging as an interesting formal challenge. In traditional narrative, folks have to be in proximity to interact. It once was easy to mix in a complication simply by physically isolating someone. But in the era of ubiquitous telephony, separation becomes a bit cliche. Seriously, it doesn’t take too many overly convenient “No signal” or “Out of battery” messages to strain my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Horror stories seem to be the worst at this, don’t they? — which is hard to admit since it’s one of my favorite genres.

Texting is something even more different than telephone calls. Phone calls even cel calls are relatively long coherent conversations. Texts are flashes, interruptive messages that necessarily disrupt the continuity of the rest of one’s life. To read a text, one’s consciousness has to fragment if just for an instant. One’s attention has to flicker back and forth — at least mine does — in a way that is really different than, say, a phone call. I can talk on the phone, receiving and responding to audio input, while I’m receiving and responding to other kinds of input on other sense channels, like sight or touch. I remember back in the 90’s when folks were trying to explain what “virtual reality” was. The best explanation I heard was “it’s the place where you ‘go’ whenever you talk on the phone.” That really hit the spot. That “virtual phone booth” wasn’t necessarily immersive or pre-emptive of other reality. We’re still able to walk, cook, drive a car while talking on the phone. But there *is* a sense that the phone conversation takes place somewhere else, in some kind of augmented reality. Texts burst into *this* reality.

Texting presents all sorts of opportunities for fiction. It’s an overlay of meaning that doesn’t depend upon physical proximity. Texts allow revelation but also mystery since one never knows exactly who is on the other end. I just wish I was able to experience more attempts to integrate texts into fiction. Know any?

The Rejection Counter

Hard truth: Manuscript submissions are sometimes rejected and not published. Based on my modest experience, rejections in fact outnumber publications by an noticeably wide ratio. In other equally shocking news, puppies and kittens, even the cute and cuddly ones, will grow old and die.

I risk breaking hearts with these hard truths because another publication informed me today that it will refrain from publishing a manuscript I submitted. Darn. I thought the tale was well written and a good fit for the publication but other circumstances must have gotten in the way, like a glut of stories about astrally traveling painters. Or I might have been wrong about the story or its appropriateness. When a slush reader includes comments with a rejection, I always re-read the story and often revise it with those insights in mind. I respect the perspective of someone whose had to read FAR more crappy stories than I have.

I want to have more stories published and as I see it there are three ways I can do that: 1) write better stories, 2) read publications sensitively and frequently enough that I know what market fits a given story and 3) keep submitting. Since I started keeping track a couple years ago, I’ve only made 36 submissions which resulted in 4 publications. A tolerable ratio but not a staggering acheivement to say the least. I really admire writers like Tobias Buckell who are very upfront about how many rejections they’ve received. I mean, a rejection isn’t a character flaw; it’s a fact of a writer’s life.

I set a goal for myself last Thanksgiving to make 100 submissions before Thanksgiving 2012. To mark my progress on this goal, I use the Submission Tracker on Duotrope.com which is also the same resource I use to discover new possible markets. So far, I have made 14 submissions toward this goal. And as of today, I have one more manuscript freed up to submit again.

Even if it still stings just a little bit.