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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do you read fantasy, science fiction, horror, or related genres? Do you know where you’ll be on the evening of July 28, 2021? Come check out an online panel discussion put on by James River Writers about The Future of Speculative Fiction. Hear from speakers M.K. England, Stephanie Toliver, and Nghi Vo about what’s in store for fiction that shows us alternate worlds. I’ll be moderating this exploration of what’s new, what’s back, and what’s next.