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.

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