Hmms, a Series of Hmms

  1. I see people already saying that they’re not going to read the issue of Apex I’m in because of their distaste for one of the other authors. So, that sucks for me.
  2. I have pieced together my first big square in the Grateful Dead afghan to see how it looks, so that I feel motivated to continue to make so many little squares. It’s awesome.
  3. I think you could probably tell something about how my writing is going by how my crocheting is going, but I did have a breakthrough on the Napier piece and I think I have a good draft.
  4. I’d like to have a great draft, but I can’t get the person who could give me access to the Napier papers to call or email me back.
  5. I have a fear, which I hope is unjustified, but I don’t know, that the reason this person isn’t letting me see the Napier papers is because she can’t find them. I’m going to continue to believe that, even if that’s true, they’re still there, just lost and not gone lost.
  6. I guess the thing about 1. that makes me feel most icky is that I think it’s absolutely right that, if you don’t like someone because of their atrocious behavior, you’re not obligated to read their stories or support their art or to support the places that would give them an outlet. I think the readers are doing the right thing. I also think that I don’t want editors making decisions about stories based on authors’ reputations. I want them to publish the stories they like (though, obviously, personal feelings do shape what we like), regardless of who writes them, because I don’t want editors to turn into the police of whether we all have the right kinds of politics. So, I guess that what’s happening is exactly right. But man, you know, I didn’t get to choose what issue my story was going in. I didn’t have any say in who else was going to be in the issue. And I worked really hard on that story. I want it to rise or fall based on whether people like the story, whether I have succeeded or failed. And that’s not going to happen and it bums me out.

What Does Success as a Writer Feel Like?

So, as you know, because you read Tiny Cat Pants, obviously, this weekend, I went and found Shackle Island. “Found” in the sense of “I didn’t know where it was and now I do” not in “this treasure had been lost and Betsy recovered it.” I wrote about my investigation for Pith. The editor of the Scene wrote to tell me that it had 75,000 readers from Facebook alone.

I don’t know how many people look at Pith a day without coming through Facebook, but I do know that a bunch of people also shared it on Twitter.

I don’t really know how to feel about this. I mean, I feel good about it, obviously. But the kind of writer I aspire to be is a fiction writer. I want to make up and write awesome stories that people love. That, for me, is what success looks like–people regard me as someone who makes up stories they love.

But I don’t want to be a dumbass who is looking for success in one corner and doesn’t see it sitting in plain sight in the other. After all, nothing fictional I write is going to ever have 75,000 readers, most likely.

So, realistically, I should feel like this week is some great milestone in my writing career, some pinnacle I may never achieve again. But I don’t. I feel like today is Wednesday. I feel a little proud. I wonder if I should write more history stuff for Pith. But I don’t feel like today is unique in some way.

It’s nice, though, don’t get me wrong. And I don’t want to take it for granted.

But I also am going to laugh a little because, Shackle Island, really? That’s what the world was waiting to hear from me about?

Full Member!

I became a full member of the SFWA yesterday! They accepted my forthcoming stories as proof of professional sales.

That makes it sound more precarious than it was, but I did wonder if the contracts would be enough or if I would have to have stories in hand.

I think it’s good to have something tangible to show yourself–like your SFWA membership–when you’re shopping a story or looking for an agent. The hardest part is that you work so damn hard and then you just have to hear “no” a lot and you wonder, shoot, does my writing suck? I don’t think it sucks. Does my judgment suck? Oh god, if my judgment sucks, then how can I know anything is true? Should I be living on a boat? I never even once considered living on a boat, but what do I know about anything?!

So, it’s good to have something indisputable to look at to say, “Hey, you did well enough to earn this.”

A Free State

I read A Free State by Tom Piazza yesterday. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s about minstrelsy and music and what it means to  be free. The writing is so extraordinary I can’t even believe a person I know can write like that.

And it understands American whiteness so well it’s almost breathtaking.

Narratively named my Isaac Franklin piece an editor’s pick for their best of 2015. That’s pretty amazing.

I spent yesterday reading great writing, being appreciated for my writing, and relistening to podcasts I love while crocheting. If this is what the new year brings, I’m all for it.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

I looked over my copyedits and signed my contract with Apex yesterday for “The Four Gardens of Fate.” It’ll be out soon, then, is my understanding. Unless something goes horribly wrong, look for it in February.

Since I had to approve the copyedits, I had to reread it and, yep, I think it’s a good one.

But, still, a very different timetable from F&SF, and, frankly, from my last go round with Apex. I mention this only to point out that there’s no one publishing process. Everything is its own thing, different every time.

Oh, holy shit! I just realized, now that I have both contracts, I can become a full member of the SFWA.

So, ha ha ha, that’s another thing about publishing. All this (imagine my hand sweeping grandly over all the stories here, all the stories elsewhere, A City of Ghosts, The Wolf’s Bane, two trunked novels, one novel I’ve just started shopping, and so on) and I just have three pro sales.

I can’t tell if that should be depressing or if this is what a trajectory looks like.

This Week

This week, I need to start querying agents about Ashland, maybe reread Ashland, read a couple of books, hang out with friends, submit a short story, and do some laundry.

I’m ahead of schedule in that I submitted the short story and read one of the books (Slade House which I liked, but was not the kind of book I hoped it was and seemed to be all story and no grief, which is a weird thing for a ghost story.)

Also, I was reading through the Goodreads reviews and one reviewer was complaining about the massive infodump in the book. And I realized, I must not fucking understand what an infodump is, in that case, or why it’s the mark of bad writing. Because the one time the bad guys really seemed to come alive for me and to be remotely interesting was when we got their backstory and, in a book set in an alley and a house–where you’re supposed to have that kind of claustrophobia because there’s nowhere else to go–how are you supposed to get the story of the lives of the characters before they got to the house if not for one of the characters telling you?

I’m probably a little sensitive because, if what Mitchell did is infodumping, then 90% of Ashland is infodumping. But I refuse to accept that this is infodumping.

To me, infodumping is when you either dump a lot of useless information on the reader just to prove that you’ve thought through the mechanics of how your world works or when you dump details that ought to unfold naturally in your story. You either don’t trust that the reader trusts you or you don’t trust that the reader can figure things out on her own.

But, if you’re in a situation where a character wants another character to know these things or if you’re in a situation where the character is discovering these things, then you must pass on a lot of information through the telling of it.

It’s just another storytelling strategy.

And now I’ve gotten off track and must get on to the parts of my to-do list that stress me out.

Upswing

I thought, “I’ll get up and walk the dog!” But I got up and put some pants on and am now resting on the couch. I do feel better, though, just not as better as my ambitions would have.

I want to do some laundry, but we’ll have to see if I’m up for it.

I did get word on my Apex story. It appears it will appear in the February issue. I like it. It’s a little gruesome, though, at the end.

I’m excited to see what you guys think of it.

I also wrote a story while hopped up on cold medicine. I’ll have to look at it once my brain clears and decide if it’s something I can do something with or not.

But first, maybe, a nap.

My Accent

One thing about being edited is that you start to really get a feel for not just your writing quirks–there is no sentence I will not stick “and” in front of–but also the ways your language marks where you’re from, the language in which you were raised.

I regularly write “I’ll be over in a half an hour.” I’m pretty sure I say that, too, unless I get self-conscious about it. I’m not sure it’s always audible–that “a” between “in” and “half.” Saying it outloud to myself right now, I kind of feel like you might not hear it, because the “a” could almost be because of the shape of my mouth going from “nnn” to “ha.” But I always mean it to be there, even if you don’t hear it there.

I still go “over to,” though this is a harder usage to explain. But I think “over to” usually connotes “I didn’t really have a task or reason to be there. Like “I went to Walmart” means “I had some things I needed from Walmart and thus went there.” “I was over to the Walmart” or “I went over to the Walmart” usually just means I was farting around at Walmart, burning some time.

I’ve lost it some living down here, but there are a series of places that, in my Midwestern accent, have a “the” in front of them if you mean a specific place.  If someone says “Jewel has hamburger on sale,” you can lay money on the fact that they acquired that information by reading the paper and all Jewels throughout the area are having a hamburger sale.

But, if someone says “The Jewel has hamburger on sale,” they mean “The Jewel I shop at has hamburger on sale.” They probably saw it for sale there.

And backwards and towards. Though I’ve become really self-conscious about it and it makes me mad that I’m self-conscious about it. That’s how I know those words. Why should I be embarrassed?

I’m also lately fascinated by how satisfying “Bugsy Siegel” sounds. I think it’s because of the palindromic satisfaction of the vowel sounds–uh ee ee uh. I don’t think “Bugsy Green” is going to be as well remembered. How many ordinary people remember the name “Meyer Lansky,” Siegel’s running buddy? And I think it’s because the name just isn’t that satisfying to remember.

Charlie Birger fought the Klan and won, and even has a folk song about him, but who remembers him? He should have been Glenn Birger, and had that palindromic satisfaction.

The Workshop

I went to my workshop this morning and it was amazing. I kind of just want to sit here in the quiet and think about it.

Alice Randall, who led the workshop was amazing and the people in the workshop were really thoughtful and lovely. I’m definitely feeling like I have some good ideas what to watch out for on my next (last?) pass over the manuscript.

But one thing that doesn’t have to do with race–the subject of the workshop–that Randall talked a lot about is how she would have some idea about each of her characters, like maybe she’d want one to just give people a bad feeling, like he was creepy like a bug, even though, maybe at that part in the story, he’s not doing anything wrong, and she gives those characters a motif. Like guy who makes you feel like he’s a creepy bug gets a bug motif. All the words she uses to describe him carry through that motif, even if it’s just making sure that, instead of him wearing “blue” he wears some kind of blue that you get from bug shells.

She said that, even if a reader doesn’t consciously know the derivation of a word, if they’re well-read enough, they’ll pick up on it subconsciously.

I love this so much, but I have to tell you, it feels like writing at a skill-level I’m not sure I have yet. Still, I kind of want to try it.

Proofs

My page proofs from Fantasy and Science Fiction arrived today. I wanted to read them before work, but I was so excited and tickled by the drop cap at the beginning of my story that I couldn’t really concentrate on anything else.

But I read through them at lunch and I found no mistakes!

Since I work in publishing (albeit a much different kind) I knew what this meant. So, I walked down the hall to my co-worker editor who is a speculative fiction fan and I told her that I had the page proofs and that I’d found no errors.

“There’s never no errors.”

“That’s my thought.”

“I’ll look it over at lunch.”

I think, too, she may be the first person who is not me or someone I submitted the story to to read it, so I’m grateful/nervous/excited to see what she thinks.

A Sign

Sometimes you write a book about a house hidden behind a red gate with a no trespassing sign on it and one day you go out to walk the dog, the same walk you always go on, and you notice this:

ashland 2

Write

When I was feeling bummed and discombobulated last week, S. took me to lunch and told me to go write.

I have been, very slowly, working on a story since then. It’s so gross! Not in a bad way, just in a yuck way. And I keep thinking, “you cannot submit a story like this!” but then I keep also thinking “Just write it and send it to S. and, if she laughs and shudders, then that’s what you need to know.”

But it’s taking me a little bit to get through it, to understand what’s changing in the characters.

Back to the Boobs

I went in for my second annual mammogram today. I has to go over to Vanderbilt because my insurance is a dumpster fire. This is nothing against Vanderbilt. I really liked how things went today.

But, seeing as how this was the year follow-up after my surgery, I would have preferred to go to the place that did my surgery and thus would have my films and charts and such.

Instead, only half the shit Vanderbilt needed ended up over there, even though I checked at my appointment and called to make sure everything had been sent.

So, instead of finding out today that everything looks good, I have a kind of half-knowledge. The doctor said he didn’t see anything in there he’d be worried about if this were my first mammogram. However, knowing that this is my second, he really wished he had the first one to compare to.

When he gets those, he’ll be able to give me a better all-clear.

Here’s the thing, though. I’d like to think, based on my mom and grandma, that I’m not quite halfway through my life. But I’m close.

I don’t want to be on my death bed wishing I’d really tried to get a novel published.

Adverbial Compression

One of my podcasts is Writing Excuses, which I like and find really thought-provoking, but, in general, haven’t found to be writing changing for me. It’s nice to think about the craft of writing for a few minutes with people who have thought a lot about the craft of writing, though, so I look forward to it.

Until this week’s episode, which has blown my mind. They’ve been talking about revision for a couple of weeks–so you can see why I’ve been paying close attention.

And this week, they were talking about adverbs. Adverbs have a bad reputation among writers and yet, when you’re writing, my god, if she says, “I love you” softly, is it really so bad that she says it softly?

But this week, one of the Writing Excuses people introduced this idea of “adverbial compression.” He looks for adverbs in his work and finds that they are often places where he’d be better off writing more.

So, take my example above.

I might write “‘I love you,’ she said, softly.”

But dude is arguing that your writing is stronger if you cut the softly and add some shit that lets the reader know she’s saying it softly. You can see how that works thusly:

“She pressed her face into the pillow, so that he could not hear what she was saying, if he was even awake, and she said, ‘I love you.'”

or

“She grabbed him by the chest hair, pulled his ear close to her lips, and said, ‘I love you.'”

My mind is blown. Not just because it’s a great way to add more descriptive interactions between your characters, but because, wow, yes, here’s a good explanation for why you might not want to use adverbs and what you might do in those spots instead.

Little Sister Death

I read William Gay’s Little Sister Death. It’s not a book I’d recommend to non-writers. It’s not a complete book. It’s not even a complete manuscript. Weirdly, there’s nothing in the book to let you know that it’s a partial, rough draft, so I’m sure if you buy the book thinking that you’re going to get Gay’s take on the Bell Witch, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.

It’s this incomplete draft and his essay on the Bell Witch which, I think, first appeared in the Oxford American.

If you are a writer, though, I highly, highly recommend this book. Who ever gets to see what a genius is like at this early stage in a book’s life? Here you see him toying with what characters might be important, what conceits he might want to employ–toward the middle of the book, the house itself starts to sleep and awake, but then it stops and I’d be so curious to know if he thought that was working (I did) or if he would have cut that from the final version–what kinds of imagery and symbolism might be important. It’s also fun to watch him clearly toying around with things that horror writers did that he liked. It’s amazing to see how strong and beautiful his prose already is, that early in the process.

It’s a real gift.

I’m bummed we’re never going to get to see his final version.

I’m also bummed because his article on the Bell Witch is good and has a lot of information that would seem to be substantiatable. The Saturday Evening Post wrote a story about the Bell Witch in 1849. Betsy Bell sued them over it. Local papers regularly covered the story as it was happening and shortly after. I got into the archives of the Post. I couldn’t find a story in 1849. I ran a search through the Post through the whole 19th century. Nothing. I ran searches through all of Proquest’s historical newspapers. Nothing.

I could have missed things.

But I have to tell you, I think that story didn’t exist until Ingram’s book in the 1880s.

How Things Go

You all remember that my story “Jesus Has Forgiven Me. Why Can’t You?” got accepted by Fantasy & Science Fiction a while back. Yesterday, I got the edits on the story. I have a dream that, if I had a good editor, I learn a shit-ton about writing. This experience did nothing to dissuade me. The kinds of changes they proposed did a lot to really tighten up my prose.

But, yeah, so the interesting thing is that, even at this point, since it’s a print magazine, there’s a whole other round of checking of page proofs that is going to happen later. And it’s still not clear which issue it’s going to be in.

Now, keeping in mind that I’m speaking from my experience, but this is different than how online magazines work. First, I had a contract and got paid for my story way back when they accepted it. Then many months went by and now I’ve received the copyediting. There will be some point at which I see page proofs. And I’ll eventually learn which issue it’ll appear in. Then it will come out, probably sometime next year.

The online magazines I’ve worked with have accepted me pretty quickly, but not sent me a contract until much closer to publication. So, it’s like contract, payment, copyediting, published, kind of all in a bunch and the waiting time is between when you hear that the story is accepted and the flurry of activity that happens right before publication.

I’m sure there will be other ways other places work, too. But it just goes to show that Publishing is not a thing, but a bunch of related things that kind of all have steps in common, but are also really different. Doing it once doesn’t really teach you much about how it might go again.

In related news, I laughed so hard reading through the story, which made me happy. I think it’s a good one. But, as I was telling the Butcher, it’s the kind of story that pretty much does a bunch of stuff stories aren’t “supposed” to do.

Things I Think about Sucking

I have said the same things to multiple people over the last few weeks, so I’m also going to say them here.

  1. Revision is a lot of writing. Revision sucks.
  2. There’s no way around rejection. You just have to get rejected, a lot, and you just have to find a way to get used to it, though it never stops sucking a little.
  3. In order to be a writer, you have to write. In order to have written something you have to write.
  4. In order to write, you have to suck.

This, I think, is one of the hardest parts. You want to be a writer because you’ve always loved to read and you’re good at writing. Yes, so say we all. Probably, you’ve always been good at writing. If you’re like me, you’ve never sucked at something you liked. If you sucked at it, you didn’t like it. If you didn’t like it, you didn’t do it. So, getting used to sucking, even temporarily, at something you like and know you’re good at is really hard. You may feel the unpleasant suspicion–one I have regularly–that the sucking is not temporary, that it is your writing life.

Take up a hobby that you suck at, that you aren’t so emotionally invested in it. Practice sucking. Get used to it in a forum where the stakes are lower for you. Suck until you see what it is to get better.

Be prepared to always suck as a writer in some ways.

But, also, have faith in your readers, who are coming a great distance to meet you in a mystical place. They really want to overlook all the ways you suck. As long as you make that possible, the ways you suck will remain a private thing the whole world can see but ignore.

A Little More on Spooky Jones

That story went through a number of endings. For a while, Spooky went to live with one of his sons in the city, nothing exciting for Louise happened at the end, but we find out that Uncle Matt is never able to escape the town. Then, for a while, it ended with them standing in front of the house, Spooky being sad, and Louise calls the dog and, for the first time in its life, it comes when someone calls it and Spooky realizes that Louise is special and is happy to see the dog again. Spooky still goes to live with one of his sons in the city, Louise inherits the dog, and mysteriously, when she’s older and telling this story, she still has the dog. Matt is still stuck in that town. Then, for a while, it ended with all that and a long explanation about how the dog was immortal because it had dug its way into Hell and then back out again and the bad guys wanted it because it was immortal and magic.

All of these had their awesome elements. But they weren’t quite right.

And I think the reason they weren’t quite right is that they moved the focus off of Louise. This is was a tricky thing for me to figure out, because, in my mind, this story was about Louise and her grandfather, with the dog and Matt being kind of equally important minor characters. So, Spooky has an arc, a kind of sad arc, where we seem him disappointed and more disappointed and then losing his house. In spite of all his power, he can’t make a life that makes him happy. And Louise has an arc, where she realizes that she’s inherited the family power.

So, the ending to the story seemed like it should be “how it ended up for everyone.”

But, once I realized that Spooky has always been disappointed and miserable, the main character was obviously Louise. Once you realized Louise is the character, a lot of questions spring to mind. What does it mean to have this kind of power in your family? Could you have it? What would it mean for you to have it? Would you have to be as miserable as Spooky?

The story doesn’t really answer these questions, though. To me, the arc of Louise is realizing that something that has been kept from her is going on, as is often the case for children, and that she is a part of that thing. How will she react to that knowledge?

So, the ending of the story, I realized, needed only to be “What does Louise find out and how will she react to that?”

And, though it isn’t 100% clear how she reacts to it on a first read through, I did try to leave a couple of clues in the story as to what happens.

Anyway, long story short: if your ending is not working, sometimes you don’t need more words, you need tighter focus.

The Reading

The other person they had reading was Rita Bulwinkel, who’s an amazing author here in town. She read part of a story and I read the ghost story I read in Memphis. I like that story a lot for reading out loud in that it’s dreamy and scary and funny and the audience gets to heave a huge sigh of relief before being left with a shivery feeling that maybe all was not as well as it seemed.  It’s a really good out-loud story.

So, it went over like gang-busters, I think. And, as I was reading it, I had this realization, “This is a really different story than Rita’s, but I’m not at all embarrassed to have to follow her with it.”

I genuinely can’t tell you how good that makes me feel.

Not Screwing Up

One of my biggest fears about Ashland is that, while I don’t mind if my characters are shitty about race, I don’t want to be. One of the themes of the book is the way that the set-up of the house can seduce a person into believing that the story of the people who own the house is the story of the house. I want white people’s inability to see black people as central individuals in the story to be a cause of the horror of the story.

But I don’t want to fuck up in the same way my characters are. And yet, as we’ve talked about, this society is set up to breed racists. I don’t think there’s any way that I can be a white person born in this country, who lived in all white towns growing up and not be racist. Not in the “Oh, hey, I should join Stormfront” way, but in the “I have assumptions and expectations about how the world works that fuck over people I care about and people I don’t even know who I don’t bear any ill-will toward.” I want my book to be scary and hard, but I don’t want it to be insulting.

And yet, how can I see my own blind spots?  I’v esignd up for a workshoop with Alice Randall. The assigned reading is The Help. I hope my problems aren’t so blatant.

I’m nervous, but it must be done. I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t a bad little story and I might, indeed, find someone who wants it. If that’s the case, then I really want it to be right.

Good Day for Creepy Things

Last night I watched The Haunting, which was every bit as terrifying as I’d been promised. I wish I’d watched it earlier in the evening, as I found it incredibly unsettling. I also thought it handled the arrival of the doctor’s wife better than in the book. Her reason for being there seems to me to make more sense.

It’s also really clear why the remakes have all failed. Hollywood thinks about horror in one way, this movie thinks about it in another. Plus, could you do those kinds of voice-overs these days? I’m not sure. But the core dynamic would be easy enough to replicate. A Dugger-like girl goes to a slightly less-conservative Christian college and a charismatic professor has a Thanksgiving week excursion to Hill House to investigate paranormal claims. So, it’s her, the somewhat closeted, cool lesbian, and a kind of jocky frat kid, plus the charismatic professor. In other words, draw a line between the heavy religious stuff of the daughter to the heavy religious stuff of the students.

I also listened to the first two episodes of Tanis, the new podcast from The Black Tapes people. Or, perhaps, it’s the same podcast coming from a slightly different angle. I can’t tell yet. But I’m enjoying the fuck out of it. It’s got Jack Parsons and a nod to House of Leaves and, most importantly, a strong consideration of Hard Harry. Pump Up the Volume did terribly at the box office. I can’t say that it became a cult hit. It’s never on repeats on cable. For the most part, it was an utter dud.

For a few of us. So few it apparently doesn’t even count as a cult, that movie was something else. Like, you thought your life was going one way and you saw it and your life couldn’t go that way any more.

It’s because of its non-cult status, its importance, but only to a small, inconsequential group of people, that I laughed when it was mentioned on Tanis. If you want to know what Tanis is about, it’s basically about taking those moments that mean everything to almost no one and asking how something so important could remain hidden. (In this case, I suspect because, if you aren’t a 1990s teenager watching Pump Up the Volume in 1990, it might be a terrible movie, which I will never know because I’m not going to let this asshole 41 year old watch it and nitpick it.)

I’m liking it.

Work continues on Ashland. I envisioned its structure all along like a spiral. But it’s a spiral like those funnels you drop a coin into at the mall. The first part takes long loops, circling but slowly. Then we build up tension. And now we’re just about to the part where the coin slips into the mouth of the funnel and is spinning so tightly you can barely see it.