Peri-Spooky-Seasonal

Here in the ol’ unhallowed laboratory concealed in the basement of the collapsing castle, it’s always spooky season, so it’s typically a slight shock to look up from my labors and notice the rest of the world taking notice. I do, however, love all things Halloween, so here on the cusp of October Country, I’m getting ready for slightly more horroring than usual…

vintage halloween costumes~
Make with the candy dish!

This week marked the return of Fountain Bookstore‘s JABBIES (“Judge a Book by Its Spine”) series, visits to Richmond by publishing professionals to talk about their work, authors, and forthcoming books. I’ve been to a few before and really enjoyed them, but this one was truly up my alley:

The Big 5 Names in Horror

I got a lot out of the event, learning bits and bobs about the industry that I truly hadn’t heard elsewhere. The discussion of comp titles at various stages was welcome, and I particularly appreciated hearing Kelly Lonesome talk about her vision for Nightfire. I’ve seen similar-ish panels before, particularly given the ongoing work I do with the Cabell First Novelist Award wearing my humanities librarian hat, but something about the combination of editors, sales force, and bookseller really gelled for me. And, of course, I bought a couple books…

John Darnielle's DEVIL HOUSE and Cassandra Khaw's NOTHING BUT BLACKENED TEETH, sitting on a table
Unhallowed Reading

I read Nothing but Blackened Teeth a couple months ago, and it’s really stuck with me for its combination of motifs from different horror traditions. Plus it has by far the best ekphrasis I’ve read anywhere in a long time. I got halfway through Devil House in audio this summer and had to return it to the library, and I thought it was really good, so here we are.

As for my own literary efforts, they proceed apace. I didn’t reckon just how much it would strain my patience to shift gears to novels. Right now I’m forging through yet another draft of what I sometimes jokingly call UNTITLED FUTURE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER AND PULITZER PRIZE WINNER. Which would be a Hell of a trick for a short (~70K?) novel that rides the line between literary fantasy and horror, but stranger things have happened.

What’s next? If all goes as planned, querying on UNTITLED FUTURE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER AND PULITZER PRIZE WINNER by year’s end, and switching (back) to UNTITLED NOVEL OF ARCANE AND ELDRITCH HORROR (~150K? ~300K?). I traveled to do some on-site research for it last week, and I plan to take another research trip this spring, as I’ll have a better shot at getting inside some buildings and soaking up the vibe.

Happy Haunting, all you ghouls!

Writers, “Writers,” and Writers(?)

Several years ago, I was doing some archival research on the history of literary groups, associations, and the like in Richmond. At the time I was serving on the Board of Directors of James River Writers, the largest and most prominent literary organization in Central Virginia, and I’d gotten curious about where and how these groups preserve their histories. I didn’t expect to be personally attacked in the process, and yet—!

In the course of reading, I ran across a letter between two members of a bygone organization, talking about the value of different authors’ works. One said to the other that, in essence, people who publish academically are not real writers. An interesting claim, and one that makes more sense, given the letter was from many decades ago, back before creative writing put down… not merely roots, but taproots in the ivory tower.

To be fair, these correspondents weren’t discussing scholarship, much of which is just not created to be read for pleasure, with artistic goals in mind, or both. My publications over the last fifteen years have encompassed all of the above, though the last few years have seen a decrease in my fiction credits as I’ve turned my attention toward novels. For better or worse, that meant more careful allocation of my time, which led to less time reading and writing short fiction. It hasn’t, however, cut so much into my academic writing. Some of that’s professional stuff about my work as a librarian that is probably of no interest to most people reading this, but not entirely.

To wit, yesterday I got my (aforementioned) contributor’s copy of Fantastic Cities: American Urban Spaces in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. It includes my chapter “Olympia, Wilderness, and Consumption in Laird Barron’s Old Leech Cycle.” Viz:

contributor's copy of FANTASTIC CITIES on bookshelf

This essay had a long gestation period, as is not uncommon in the humanities. I’m grateful to the editors that it’s out in the world, and I hope it finds readers! While I don’t have the same artistic ambitions with it that I do have with my fiction, I tried to write it well, and I tried to offer some perspectives that might be interesting to other readers of weird fiction, and Laird Barron’s fiction in particular.

Other than that? With March here, it seems like Omicron might be behind us, even if the world is unquiet. I’m still thinking about next steps on the novel I wrote about a couple posts back. In the meanwhile, I’m 10,000 words into a new novel, one that involved as detailed an outline as I’ve ever created, along with 25,000 words of preparatory character sketches. Sometimes new books need new methods, or so I’ve heard. Happy Spring!

That Ol’ Year-End Summary

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

As dedicated readers of Dark Stories, Hidden Roads may remember, I’ve occasionally shared statistics on publications, submissions, etc. 2021 was a low-stats year, to put it mildly. My only fiction publication was a 50-word story, up recently over at Do Some Damage as part of an RVA City Writers challenge.

While I have a few things out there in the slush piles, my writing attention is currently bent toward novels. both the aforementioned one and the one that’s currently splashed around my office on a bulletin board, in jotted fragments, and in dozens of research documents and PDFs. This is the most research-y thing I’ve written for a while, at least since “There Has Never Been Anyone Here” (2018). I can fudge a lot, I can invent a lot, and I can research as I go, but sometimes a story requires more before it can reasonably get off the ground. This is one of those, and so I’ve been reading about some byways of Virginia’s history, architectural and otherwise.

My academic publications last year technically included “The Masks of E’ch-Pi-El: Interpreting the Life and Work of H.P. Lovecraft,” in Lovecraft in the 21st Century, edited by Tony Alcala and Carl Sederholm and published last month, though I don’t think copies are hitting stores or shelves until this month. This month will see the publication of Fantastic Cities: American Urban Spaces in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, edited by Stefan Rabitsch, Michael Fuchs, and Stefan L. Brandt, containing my “Olympia, Wilderness, and Consumption in Laird Barron’s Old Leech Cycle.”

And with that, Happy New Year! May 2022 bring you peace, joy, respite. and triumphs.

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.

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.