Whenworldscollide: Special Edition

One of the categories on this here blog that consistently gets attention, even after individual posts have fallen off most people’s radars, is “whenworldscollide.” That’s where I stick the stuff that lives in the Venn diagram of creative writing, scholarship, librarianship, and academic stuff. 2021’s been busy with that kind of stuff.

Early next year, my essay “Olympia, Wilderness, and Consumption in Laird Barron’s Old Leech Cycle” will be published in Fantastic Cities: American Urban Spaces in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Likely not the rubric most people use for thinking about Old Leech, but it worked for me because I kept thinking about how very well Laird Barron does both Olympia and Washington, and also how little academics have yet written about either Barron or fiction set in Olympia. I probably wouldn’t have tried to write this piece back when I was first a librarian, trying to wall off different parts of my life and never really thinking about literary scholarship, but here we are.

Last week I moderated a lively discussion about the future of speculative fiction for James River Writers, the Central Virginia writing org on whose Board of Directors I served some years ago. Our conversation roamed over many topics, but I wound up juggling my writing hat and my library hat a bit, in particular on the question of genre labels and taxonomies. A tough issue that continues to get tougher as readers’ tastes solidify and specify. Many U.S. readers have no nearby bookstore they can happily browse, and many factors (not least the pandemic) have continued to drive book buyers to online sellers. In that environment, what a book is classified as can at times matter far more than it used to… to the reader, writer, publisher, OR library.

Finally, back in May I had the distinct (and new for me!) pleasure of serving as a keynote speaker at a symposium hosted by the University of Calgary, “Integrating Library, Archives and Special Collections into Creative Writing Pedagogy: An Experiential Symposium.” It was an honor and super-invigorating to present and help plan with the organizers and my fellow keynoter, David Pavelich. This event was some years in the making and had to be shifted online due to the pandemic, which put a damper on some facets and allowed for new ones, including broader attendance. None of it could have happened without the indefatigable efforts of my Canadian colleagues, Melanie Boyd, Aritha van Herk, and Jason Nisenson. Lots of great “whenworldscollide” moments here, but I have to say that it was a particular delight to talk about the research practices of various folks in horror and weird fiction.

Forgetting to Remember the Best Advice

fig split

The good stuff is apparently in the middle. (photo by Richard North)

The best piece of writing advice I ever gave anyone happened in a community writing group I visited fifteen or so years ago. People went around the table and read their pieces, and critique happened on the spot. I was fresh out of an MFA writing workshop, my bag of tricks was newly acquired, and I was experienced at using them, in a beginner’s sort of way. Some of the writers in the group had some chops, but it welcomed all comers down to the utterly inexperienced. A woman read a poem that seemed to wander, but really strengthened partway through, and I politely suggested that she cut the first X lines. The group had various reactions to this, including some bristling on her behalf. She seemed at first a little taken aback, but later expressed real gratitude, as she felt it tremendously strengthened the poem. I said “shucks, ma’am, twarn’t nothing” and rode off into the sunset.

Fifteen years later, I always keep an eye out for weak openings in my work (it’s on the checklist), but rarely do I encounter an easily hacked-off lame duck. Last week I started into what I hope will be a meditative, genuinely creepy ghost story, in a somewhat John Langan-y mode. It was wandering, I couldn’t figure out the problem, nothing was quite right… and then I remembered the best piece of writing advice I ever gave anyone. I cut off the first three pages, and now the aimless chit-chat has been replaced with what I hope is an unnerving character sketch that seems like a good hook that’s not overly hook-y. I guess we’ll see.

book cover

Starve Better, by Nick Mamatas

Along these lines, currently I’m reading Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better [Amazon|B&N|Powell’s]. It’s a short book about writing, both craft and business. Much (all?) of it is reprinted from his blog or miscellaneous small publications. His style is distinctive and his tone is bracing, so it stands out among writing technique books. There are various good bits that I won’t spill because I think you might find it useful, and it’s also a good read. I got it on my Kindle, and it would be cheap at twice the price for his advice about dialogue alone, which I’ve applied to the above-mentioned story and seems to have been helpful.