An Excessive and Dangerous Hybridization

Mosaic of Bellerophon slaying the chimera

For some months I’ve been working on Draft Two of the novel. I’ve mentioned it here previously, talked a little about my hopes for it. As of today, it’s my third completed novel, and it’s currently sitting on a shelf from which it may, perhaps, eventually either land in inboxes or slide into the trunk. Here’s what happened.

Back in 2020, pre-pandemic, I was thinking about the many challenges I’d faced with publication. We’ll leave for another day whether I should have focused on that, rather than on my successes: translations, reprints, year’s best nods, adapted for podcasting, etc. In words of one syllable: I was a bit down in the dumps.

The folks I met in the later ’00s, back when I got serious, have variously gone on to success, succeeded and then failed, stopped writing entirely, developed happy niches, or─very occasionally─done like I have: not attained huge success, but kept writing. I am reminded here of John Gardner’s comments in On Becoming a Novelist about how writing takes childish tenacity. Because, o reader, there is no objective reason for me to keep going. I have no huge audience clamoring for my work, I have a career (a “day job”) that sees to my daily needs, and the market has moved on from where it was when I “got serious,” let alone when I started writing a very long time ago. The world does not clamor for my stories, and yet I keep storying.

Anyway.

Early in 2020, I looked around and realized that my short story collection had not sold. And that I have kept barking up the tree of getting stories into certain publications that have, in true Zeno’s Paradox fashion, offered often continually more encouraging feedback, but no publication. Sounds an awful lot like the visual arts anecdote from… Robert Henri? Thomas Hart Benton? one of those guys, about how he returned to visit an art school some years after leaving it, and found some of the same students laboring away at charcoal drawings, at which they’d gotten infinitesimally better, but who were destined to end their days without achieving their goals.

Now, goals can be hard to meet. By definition, some aren’t the sort of thing you have full control over, but I said to myself in 2020 that I needed to change gears. I felt overall much better about my last two completed novels (one never went out, one never landed) than about the hard drive of short stories that never landed. Telling long, complicated stories with room for digression, repetition, etc., etc. is apparently more pleasurable to me. So, I said, maybe I should head back to novel-land.

I told myself that it wouldn’t matter what I wrote, because stories X, Y, and Z had not sold, and in aggregate they had taken me at least a novel’s worth of time to write. I told myself that what mattered was letting go of my internal editor for a while.

It worked! I wrote a novel, and it’s now gone through two rounds of feedback, and a couple of core problems remain. One is a (comparatively small) structural issue that involves chopping out some fluff at the start. Standard problem for many writers, me included. The bigger issue is that the book is generically incoherent. As I wrote to a friend last week, it’s entirely a “me” book. To wit…

Sometimes this shows up here, sometimes not, but I do not read one thing. This is very much not common in the feeds of most of my online connections. Jane is a Horror Person, Joe is a Fantasy Person, Jamila is a Literary Person─for all of those notional people, their online brand is X and so that’s what they tweet, ‘gram, Facebook, or whatever. While I do watch more horror movies than anything else, my reading wanders regularly across the breadth of multiple genres, including some that have basically nothing to do with each other. (This is a normal thing, but social media doesn’t reward it, and so social capital, communities forming around genres, etc.)

Well, those chickens came home to roost with the most recent book. It’s become conventional in recent years time to blend genres, or to serve up genre fiction to literary markets with literary trappings. Some authors blend a dash of this with a dash of that.

In my I-need-to-get-back-to-novels mode, I pulled more or less unconsciously from: fantasy, horror, literary, magical realism, science fiction, and thriller. Last week I went through and coded my chapters, based on what genre they felt like to me. I was not unaware of these borrowings, per se, but feedback on both drafts indicated folks did understand what genre the book was. “Fiction” is a capacious category, but individual chapters strongly signaled their allegiance to different genres.

Having coded chapters, I laid out a couple strategies for Draft Three. Reader, neither strategy did I want to pursue right now. Now, on the one hand “finish things” is solid advice. On the other, I have arguably already finished this book, and it is… a chimera. Nothing wrong with that, but this thing is not a lion/goat/dragon. It’s a lion/goat/dragon/penguin/anteater/octopus. I had, naturally, hoped that this book might wind up publishable, and it may yet, but en route to market it will require an octopectomy, penguinectomy, or something similar. Many authors do that during revision, and I’m willing to do it, but I also am appreciating being on something of a roll, and I see other paths that seem more likely to lead me toward my particular mountain.

There is no real moral to this story. I set out to do what I said I was going to do, and I’m thinking about a few possible “next books,” the two most likely candidates among which are pretty clearly fantasy or horror, and “literary” or “upmarket,” depending on aspects of the writing. I hope your autumn is going well, and I hope to report back about my next finished novel before too much longer.

The Weight of Adaptation: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

spanish language poster for Ghost in the Shell, featuring Motoko bursting through a window with gun in hand

The 2017 live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is best understood more by what it lacks than by what it offers. A pleasure to watch, it is so much in love with its own visuals that it often forgets to have characters, motivation for those characters, or indeed a point. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a pleasing diversion and not much else, the very definition of an unnecessary remake. Seeing it again last night, I was struck by how badly it suffers from adaptationitis, trying to bring the source material to a new medium in overly faithful fashion.

The first half of the film involves people running around, jumping off of buildings, jacking into networks, battling modified yakuza, and other things that add up to an nth-generation loss version of Blade Runner and the like. While influences on the film and its source manga were many and literary, all of it’s by this point been strained through hundreds, if not thousands, of transmedia sieves. The result is a beautiful, shallow melange of forty years of cyberpunk. Ghost in the Shell (1995) did it first, better, and without the weight of a quarter-century of descendants.

The story actually begins shortly after the nightclub shootout, quite a distance into the film. Motoko and Batou have both lost things they wish to recover (or at least notionally recover from the loss of), and they have actual reasons to do things. Scarlett Johansson, who has up to that point ably pretended to be a robot pretending to be a person, seems to breathe anew and actually inhabit the role. Her character has a genuine conflict, not mere annoyances or programming errors.

All the scene-setting and worldbuilding that belabor this film could and should have been wrapped into the story as it developed after the first act. While this film wants you to believe that it begins almost in medias res, barring a brief origin story opening, it does not. The res comes long after, and all of the skyscraper-sized holograms in the world cannot make something out of nothing.

A pleasure to watch, Ghost in the Shell (2017) could have been genuinely good instead of merely profitable, in ways that are trivially easy to identify. Motoko’s quiet interactions with her mother, Aramaki’s final scene with and execution of Cutter, Motoko & Hideo’s multiple charged interactions: all are effective. These are not original comments, but seeing these things on screen, still shining years after the hype, make me wish there had been more of them, incorporated into a coherent work.

A Few of My Favorite (Pandemic) Things: Horror Movie Edition

Here are a few horror movies that really floated my boat over the last 16+ months…

movie poster for ready or not
Ready or Not (2019) missed me when it came out, but it’s a delightful, thrilling, winking part of the “the real horror is the rich” micro-trend, with a supernatural side order.
dvd cover of 2014 the grudge
Had never heard of obscure indie flick The Grudge from 2004, so thought I’d check it out. Not bad!
poster for doctor sleep
I wasn’t eager to see this or read the book it was based on. Living up to the legacy of a classic horror novel, and a classic adaptation that’s a genuinely great film that the book’s author never liked… seemed a difficult proposition at best. Turns out, what do I know? Doctor Sleep is the real deal.
movie poster for angel heart
Angel Heart was a fun, strange watch for me. Many people love it, and it is good, but lacking any sort of nostalgia for it? I thought it was an 80s supernatural thriller, with Robert De Niro mustering big Alec-Guinness-does-Star Wars energy.
I really enjoyed Hold the Dark. Lots to like, and I’m still thinking about it a month later, including the performances and dialogue, but this is one flawed film. Weird editing, lots of things way out of proportion, story-wise. If you like brooding, atmospheric A24 biz, check it out. (Maybe look around online for the opinions about how well Yup’ik language and culture are or aren’t represented here. Apparently the answer is complicated.)
the green knight poster
I’m grouping The Green Knight here because it’s A24 and vibes thoroughly with a lot of other A24 stuff. It has the darkness that underlies many, many fantasies and is a sumptuous watch. We saw it in the theater, and it was a sight to behold.
film poster for rebecca 2020
Apparently every die-hard Rebecca or du Maurier fan hated the 2020 version of Rebecca? Whatever! It’s great, and they’re all wrong. Check it out. (And if you don’t think it’s horror… watch it again.)

Open-Source How To Write Gooders

man on motorcycle
Turn left at Amazon, stop at Goodreads, go three sites north…

Mostly, I try not to dwell on writing process or business in detail anymore. I did it a lot in the ol’ LiveJournal days, back when I was just starting to find community and do the things that newly serious writers do. LJ waned, platforms changed, and so on. After I passed through some invisible but tangible doorway, long conversations about writing became less interesting. I had chewed over most of the big writing questions, at least the ones appropriate for me for the moment.

Things change. I’m currently enmeshed in the transition from one novel draft to the next. I’m working harder than I ever have to improve my scene transitions. It is literally exhausting, working on it at the intensity I currently am, from the analysis to the rewriting. This is new territory for me, which is nice. It’s encouraging to see that I have room to grow, can tell that, and can see a path forward.

Anyway, these days I mostly spend my social media time on Twitter (@smythsewn), which never lacks for writing-related drama. The perennial to-MFA-or-not-to-MFA debate popped up again last week, courtesy of an article about overpriced programs. Many hot takes resulted, but also some cool ones. I particularly liked Faylita Hix’s open-source MFA/professionalization thread, and Lincoln Michel’s post on everything he’s learned about “professional” writing.

A Few of My Favorite (Pandemic) Things: Comics Edition

Here are a few comics that really floated my boat over the last 16+ months…

I picked this up on a whim, and I really enjoyed it. Futures past are their own strange form of fantasy, and Blade Runner 2019 is particularly so. It emerges from the soup of the various different Blade Runners out there, along with the whole architecture of cyberpunk, once cutting edge and now increasingly conservative. Even given all that, this volume managed to weave a clever story around ability and disability, which I hadn’t expected going in.
B.P.R.D.‘s long arcs cover all sorts of highways and byways of the Mignolaverse. Though I really like individual stories in this volume or that, this collection is my favorite thus far, and it brings the long arc of the Frogs to a satisfying end.
After years of reading this or that story, I set out a while back to read all of Hellboy. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m still trying. I like the big arcs, and I like the small stories even more. The quiet and mysterious ones most of all. I like to see a mystery or two remain unexplained. The Crooked Man and Others is full of all of that.
Cover of graphic novel about the Green River killer
Hard reading, but good. These killings were a significant part of my childhood experience, as I grew up in that place around that time, and they were always in the news. I recognized businesses and vistas in here, and this comic’s creators got the feel right, 100%.