Sour and Worry

Last night, I got a rejection. I feel like I’m at the point where a rejection feels more like touching the sore spot on your face, rather than getting punched, but it’s still unpleasant. It tastes sour.

On Twitter right now, someone is railing against stories that feature rape and I am sitting here in response, fretting about Ashland, which is, at its heart, a story about American slavery, and thus a story about rape. It is also a story about a kind of abuse there’s not a word for but that lays along those same lines.

I worry a lot about Ashland, mostly about whether I have the chops to pull it off and whether, if I do, anyone will want it.

But, to me, an important theme of the story is the ways in which we talk about American slavery as if it was something terrible white people did to black people a long time ago–“we” did to “them”–where we draw this firm line and push all the burden of reckoning with it off on the victims and their descendants while we assume white people pretty much came out of slavery, the perpetration of slavery, scot-free.

I assume this is a lie. An obvious lie we should all be able to recognize. Slavery was something people did to their own children, to their own nieces and nephews. A man who could sell his own child when he knew what men did to slaves, which he did because he was doing it, that man had to, by definition, be capable of doing anything to his children. So why wouldn’t he?

The heart, or a heart, of Ashland is the horror inherent in the assumption that whiteness is any protection from that kind of evil, how assuming that whiteness will protect you actually makes you an easy victim for the villain. And how that kind of destructive abuse echos on down to us, even now.

Draft Done

I have a draft of Ashland. I have all kinds of massive, massive insecurities about it. It’s not a real book, because real books don’t tell history that way. If I had enough confidence in my narrator and her voice, I wouldn’t be worried about how she tells history. My narrator doesn’t do enough. It’s stupid. No one will like it. My beta readers will tell me I’ve wasted my time and my dreams are dumb.

Or the worst: that it needs a little *something* but none of them and none of me know what.

So, ha ha ha, obviously, I’m not sending it to them yet. This weekend, I was talking to a friend and I was acknowledging that there’s just all kinds of writerly nonsense that everyone does. Like “fuck you, you’re wrong, and you just don’t appreciate my genius!” when you have asked someone for a critique. Or, like the nonsense in the first paragraph. There’s some stuff that you just have to feel and say and do, but you don’t inflict them on others.

You stomp around your kitchen or you yell them to the dog or you do like I do here and write them out so you can see whether they’re legitimate things or just undermining things that keep you from doing the work. Because, if you want the work to be better, if you want to be a better writer, you have to acknowledge you have all these feelings and that, even, they suck. And then you have to put them aside and send the thing anyway or take the critique to heart and see if it is what your work needed. And your readers, at least at this stage, can’t help you with the difficult work if you’re being a baby.

Think of it this way. Say you were in a library and a large book with stiff pages fell off the shelf and impaled you in the stomach. You run up to your friends and you say, “Help, I have this book stuck inside me!” It’s going to hurt when they help you yank it out, but it must come out and, if you thrash about and knock them in the face, they’re going to back off and tell you to find someone else to help you get the book out.

Same thing. So, I’m thrashing about now and will ask for help in a bit.

Coyote

I think being a writer is a bit akin to being the coyote in the road runner cartoons. There’s a cliff and you have a catapult, and writing is you getting into that catapult and trying to launch yourself to the top of that cliff. But, since, as a coyote, you don’t know physics, you just have to fling yourself at the cliff face and make adjustments based on where you hit. Splat. Splat. Splat. Splat. Oops, I made it.

Then you walk a little farther forward and there’s another catapult and another cliff. No one can take away from you that you made it this far, but the only way forward is to just do some more time hitting the wall.

I’m almost to the point where the only major revision I have to do to Ashland before sending it to my beta readers is to fix the ending. It was okay that the ending didn’t quite blow me away when it was written. And it was allowed to suck while I was adding stuff that needed to be added, because the additional stuff might suggest something about the shape of the ending. But we’re rapidly coming to the point where the ending can’t just lay there like a tired dog anymore. It’s got to get up, run around, and be terrible and delightful.

I don’t know how to do that. So, I’m preparing, mentally, to throw myself against the rocks again and again.

An Accounting of the Plot Holes in Ashland

  1. I mention the house was built by shipbuilders and how excited the narrator is to get into the bones of the house to see if she can tell. She never looks.
  2. I have multiple minor characters with names who appear in just one or two scenes. One of my main characters does not have a first name.
  3. I changed the Mississippi house’s name midway through the book.
  4. I forgot Thursday. I write about all the things that happen on Wednesday then I say “the next day” and it’s Friday. I like Thursdays!
  5. The ghost hunters record audio. The reader never gets to hear what was on it.
  6. In one place, I say a guy had three dead kids. Later, I appeared to give him nearly a million dead children. Which is remarkable, because his wife died during the third kid’s birth.
  7. The bad guy is so creepy that one of the main characters forbids her kids to go to his house. At the end of the book, without comment, the kid is in the house again.
  8. A guy has some siblings in Bowling Green. Later, the guy has no siblings.
  9. And this is the biggest one–Suddenly, everyone knows that the bad guy has a certain constraint. But I never explain how they come to know that.
  10. The narrator gets an important clue from the hymn “Softly and Tenderly” but both of the people who could have left the clue died before the hymn was written.

Also, much like Isaac Franklin, my bad guy was shipped back home for burial in a barrel of whiskey. In modern times, the main characters spend an evening drinking whiskey. I think I’ve created an accidental Chekov’s gun. I mentioned a barrel of whiskey in the past and now, here’s a shit-ton of whiskey–the bottle in the house and the bottles kept stored in the old stable. There is no other conclusion for the reader to draw than that this is the same whiskey. I didn’t intend it that way. But it’s so hilarious and disgusting that I’m totally leaving that as the obvious conclusion to be drawn. Keep chugging on down “Grandpa’s Preserve” folks. Keep chugging on down.

I have some stuff I need to add and, obviously, some plot holes to fix. I feel like it’s a mess of cliched ridiculousness and I hate it, but that’s this stage. I’ll feel better once I like the ending better. It’s not very long, just over 71,000 words, but I imagine it will end up a little longer. I think that’s okay, though. You start to get too long and questions creep in–like why didn’t your main character just go home?

But it has a shape, and that counts for a lot.

Shapes

The Red-Headed kid accused me of making the tripping jaguar afghan so large that it will require a trailer to deliver it. It’s not that big. It is officially a little over half done.

I’m reading through Ashland and kind of doing a mix of fiddling with displeasing stuff and marking plot holes. Probably, it would just make sense to read through it and mark plot holes first, fix those, and then fiddle with displeasing stuff, but some displeasing stuff can’t wait. I killed off some children, for instance, and I’m about to de-fake-gay someone (a husband claims his wife is a lesbian, so why not have an affair with him? Stupid. Gone.). But some stuff–shouldn’t this be fuller? Why does she immediately jump to this conclusion?–are going to require some more writing and I want to mull it over some more.

I’m never afraid to cut shit. But I try to be conscientious about adding. The lesson I’m trying to take to heart from The Haunting of Hill House and The Red Tree is to trust in the strength of a simple plot. I hate to use the word “simple” here, because it sounds like a backhanded compliment. But I mean it just as a fact.

I was telling C. the other day that I’d come across this author talking about how much world-building you have to do and, basically, how there’s this tension between how close you are to your characters and how much world-building you need. If you’re sitting right alongside your characters, you’re willing to accept a lot in the world as just given. You’re willing to go along confused at the world, because you trust you understand the character (obviously authors play with this, but we’re making sweeping generalizations). The further removed you get from the particularities of your characters, the more world-building you need in order to keep your reader engaged. In other words, the reader needs something to count on–either the strength of the character POV or the authority of the narrator. One or the other. You don’t want to accidentally weaken that and you don’t need to invest too much in one if you have the other under control.

I think there’s a similar kind of tension in horror writing. Here’s a genre in which a lot of strange things happen, in which people behave in ways that make no sense to them, and which can terrify the reader because they make no sense or a perverse kind of sense to the reader herself. To ask people to keep moving forward into a story that is terrible means you have to have a solid something for them to hold onto. I think, to me, it’s that, at its core, the story is simple. That’s the firm thing your reader can grasp and, in holding on to it, move forward.

Which is not to say that either The Red Tree or Hill House are simple books. Right? That’s the genius of good horror writing.

But, for me, the simple story of Ashland is that it’s about a historian who, while learning a complicated family history, meets the remaining family members and gets to know them, which she comes to regret. That’s it. There doesn’t have to be anything fancier.

1st Draft Done?

I dislike the ending. Not the broad strokes, but some of the finer points. But I had to restart it four times, so I’m not distressed by the thought that I’m going to majorly rework the ending here in a few days.

Then my plan is to read the whole thing and make some notes and then work to get it into a shape I feel I’m ready to share with readers. I have 71,500 words, roughly. I imagine this is quite a bit shorter than my show-the-world draft will end up being since, already, I think I might need a few earlier scenes and, like I said, the ending needs some work. But the shape of the thing is there.

Hmm.

Strategy

Here we are at 66,000 words. I have come from one weird, ridiculous things and something happens that leads into a tragic, ridiculous thing. I have been struggling with the “something happens” part.

I woke up in the middle of the night with a pain in my toe. See, some idiot dog stepped on my toe and now my toenail is slowly breaking off. Like, way down to the quick. And I guess, as it’s separating, one part of it is poking into the side of my toe in an unpleasant manner. So, I wake up to this new, annoying pain. And I’m walking myself through the logic of how I came to wake up in the middle of the night.

And, like a lightbulb coming on, I am illuminated. The “something happens” has to not just be a brief stop on the train to someplace else. It needs to escalate the tension and the action and show us something about the characters. Which, duh, I know is obvious.

But there is something really helpful about stepping back, when you can’t figure out how to make something work, and just asking yourself, “What would make this worse?”

Sex with Terrible People

The other day, M. was talking about how many of my stories have difficult families at their core. This is true. And maybe more autobiographical than I care to be.

But working on Ashland has me thinking of just how often I send my characters off to have sex with terrible people. The sex is fine. The people are wicked and immoral and, you know, often The Devil. I feel like my real life sex life is the regular mashings of two (or more) awkward but nice people’s bodies together in ways that make gross noises you don’t really notice at the time. I did once or twice fail to seduce a hot libertarian, which is almost like bedding a wicked person (KIDDING, COBLE, KIDDING!), and I don’t normally have fantasies of, like, reanimating Stalin or anything.

But I guess that I think very evil people make room for the people in their sphere of influence to be just a little more evil than they normally would be and sex creates opportunities for people to let their guards down and for them to let want overwhelm good sense. It provides opportunity for otherwise good characters to do terrible shit and make really gross mistakes.

Minor Freakout

Today is the day when I write something that I think “Yep, no. This is too much.” But I’m trying to be brave and leave it in, at least during this draft.

Days off, Glorious Days off

On this manuscript, I’ve been writing about 1,500 words at a sitting, which I was having about three days a week. Yesterday, I got 4,000 words down and today I got another 2,000.

Are they any good? Who knows?

Did anyone fuck a ghost? No.

Do I have mixed feelings about that? Yes.

The Yarn Has Arrived!

I can return to the tripping jaguar afghan. I really love it. It might be a little muted for the room it’s going in, but it’s wool, so it’s a winter afghan. I think people are allowed to curl up under something warm and dark during the winter.

I finished a very rough outline of the end of Ashland, which was helpful in that I realized I had in my head the wrong person doing the incredibly stupid thing. I also realized I kind of have a vestigial husband and I either need to bring him into the action or cut him loose. Also, I definitely have a kid who needs to go. Not be murdered or anything. Just, his parents need to be childless. And I have a couple of other kids who probably need to be a little younger. Plus, probably some neighbors need to be nosier.

But all that can be fixed.

The dog and I had a really nice walk this morning. The orange cat joined us coming and going, though he was smart enough to stay out of the road. Every time the cat walks with us, I think, isn’t it weird that cats, so vicious, so ruthless, were never used as animals of war? And then the cat, for no reason, decides to walk between my legs and almost trips me and I see why they were excluded from the armed forces.

First-draft-itis

The thing about writing a first draft is that, even if you think you know what you’re writing and where it’s going, you can still be startled by how the story surprises you. And you can know those surprises may mean reworking things earlier.

I have an ending envisioned for Ashland. It is deliciously terrible. But I need my narrator to do something so vile and stupid that I about can’t believe that anyone would do it.

So, I’m curious if I can narratively make the argument that of course she would. You just have to try, you know? If it doesn’t work, I’ll work something else out. That’s what first drafts are for.

Not Walking

I’m going to regret not going for a walk this morning, but I was trying to sleep in a little. It didn’t really work. I’m at the point in my draft when I think it sucks and isn’t working, which is a normal point in a first draft, but I was up late trying to write to a place where I felt like I had firm ground again.

I’ve been kind of bummed lately. It’s hot. Things are stressful at work. I just can’t find my groove. And it was really nice this morning, which makes it even stupider not to have walked. Mostly, it’s just an existential kind of bummed. I’ve been fixating on how many novels writer say they have that weren’t good enough to get published. Five, seven, ten, just sitting on computers, not good enough.

I don’t know if I have it in me to write five or ten shit novels.

That’s the toughest thing about it. There’s no one path. Everyone flounders. Could I flounder that long? I don’t know.

Lunch

I love going over to Two Boots for lunch and just observing people. I’m not sure why it’s the kind of place that makes people relax and be worth observing, but it’s really excellent.

I could really use time off, even if I can’t (yet) afford to go on a real vacation and I’m kind of thinking of taking a week and forcing myself to do a historical home and lunch people-observing every day. I think that would be good for the book. And, I think, if I committed to it and didn’t just say “Ugh, I’m going to sit at home on the couch because I’m lazy” I would enjoy it.

Oh, This is Why I Do This

Yesterday, I had a lovely lunch with friends, then I wrote a chapter for Ashland that just went exactly how I wanted it to. No doubting, no stopping to check Twitter, no getting up to clean the bathroom. Just me, that screen, and all the words I wanted to get out.

I also finished all the Return to Hill House squares. Now on to the end-tucking. I’m listening to the audio book of A Head Full of Ghosts as I work on the afghan and it’s terrific. The voice actor they have reading it is just amazing. And I’m definitely picking up on things that I didn’t give enough weight to when reading. I’m especially starting to wonder about the younger daughter’s stomach problems and her sleeping in her clothes.

I just really want Ashland to be good enough to get published. Or eye-catching enough, or something. And I really want to figure out how to make that happen. So, I’m studying.

Writing

It’s tough going on Ashland at the moment. Or maybe has been all along. I’m surprised to find myself second-guessing everything and having to remind myself that this is just a rough first draft of a form I have never tried before. But I’m worried my POV character is not very interesting. But then I also kind of feel like, let’s get the blocks of the plot in place and make sure that works, before we worry about fixing things that can be fixed on edit.

I am closer to the end of the Return to Hill House afghan. I have,  by my reckoning, thirteen squares left. Because who’s not looking forward to getting an afghan in July?

Also, it’s official, official. F&SF bought my story and announced it.

Look What Came in the Mail!

What’s this? Oh, just some paperwork I have to fill out today.

fs&fw9

I’m acting cool, but believe me, I am freaking out. I am so elated. In my mind, this is one of The Big Boys. I assumed you had to have an agent or a million publishing credits or… I just never really thought this was a possibility and now I’m filling out at W-9. I mean, you guys, they’re a print magazine. And they’re going to run my story.

Based On

The event at Belmont was really lovely and fun. I liked sitting in the green room getting to meet all of the artists and, man, musicians can tell some stories–quickly and with humor. I also liked seeing people’s pre-show rituals. A lot of folks got quiet and needed time to gather themselves. Some folks seemed cool going straight from watching in the audience to playing on stage.

When I got back to the green room, I had a million texts of pictures of myself from all my friends in the audience. Which made me smile.

But man, we have so much talent in town. I was glad I went early on, because I think I would have lost my nerve. The whole thing was just one spectacular reader followed by an awesome artist after another.

Anyway, I may have more coherent things to say after I wake up a little, but basically, it was lovely.

And, also, I’ll just say, because the Butcher brought it up, too, Craig Havighurst is some kind of minor god. He just kept things moving and lively and shifted the crowd from one artist to another in a really smooth and lovely manner. It’s one of those things that is a real and complicated skills that, when you see someone who’s got it mastered, you kind of wonder how they even knew they’d be good at it, if they just worked at it. Like, obviously, it’s a needed thing, but when done well, it’s kind of mostly invisible how much work it is.

InfoDump

There’s an informal term in writing for when an author just hits you with a wall of background information–infodump.

The Butcher is back, which means my week of writing is over. I didn’t get nearly as much accomplished as I’d hoped. I’m just having a hard time figuring out the shape of this, even though I took notes extensively and have done my research. I get into the text and I’m just like “My main character is too passive” or, more important to this post, “All I’m doing is just dumping information onto the reader.”

I keep telling myself that this is just a first draft and that I’m going to have to see what shape it takes before I know what I can prune. But, man, I’m second-guessing myself hard.

I also keep thinking “This is unoriginal.” Of course, if it’s unoriginal, why can’t I find other books like it to study? So, you know, fun in brainland this week.

Just a Truth About Me

Some things have happened that make it clear that “Maybe I suck as a writer” is just some bullshit my brain tells me to make me unhappy. But I had to laugh today when I realized that recent events mean that even my stupid brain can’t make that script fly anymore. Now I’ll have to content myself with making myself miserable with worry that I’ll never write anything as good as x again.

Where Has This Week Gone?

I have far fewer squares done than I expected and much less progress on Chapter 2. And it’s already Thursday!

I’ll admit, through, that I’m restarting Chapter 2. I didn’t delete all the work I’ve done on Chapter 2 and I’ve not quite gone to the lengths I did with Chapter 1, where I moved all that material to another file, in case I thought I might need it, but needed it out of the manuscript. But so far I am finding myself almost writing two books in tandem. There’s the book I want to write and the book I need to write in order to throw up my hands and say “This isn’t working!” and get back to the book I want to write.

I think the thing is that, in my long fiction, I tend to dwell on characters and to let the story grow out of stuff going on in those characters’ lives. But a haunted house doesn’t grow out of stuff going on in your life. It’s an outside force bearing down on my characters. So, I think, we always need to feel the house leaning against them.

But instead, I’m writing about divorces and cute outfits and old football injuries. I don’t think that writing is a waste or anything. I think I need to know this stuff about my characters. But I don’t think it goes in the book. So, I’m having a little difficulty switching gears between how I write and how I want this book to go.

Writing

The Butcher has work that will keep him from home in the evenings this week, so I have stocked up on my favorite things to eat–brussel sprouts, that sausage vegetable crap I love, peanut butter M&Ms–and an intense desire to knock out chapter 2 of “Ashland.” I’ve been listening to a lot of writing podcasts lately (I’m getting a lot out of Brian Keene’s podcast–though you should have a high tolerance for guys like the guys I went to college with getting drunk, though, I suppose, if you are those guys, this is less of an issue. I like it. It brings back fond memories and makes me feel fondly toward these guys.–and Mur Lafferty and Matt Wallace’s.) I’ve also been reading a lot.

They’re full of good advice and hard truths.

I have to say, I used to think that getting rejected was the hardest part. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not fun and, especially at first, lord, it’s really, really, really not fun. But I think this experience with The Wolf’s Bame has taught me that rejection is not the worst, it’s the waiting. I mean, it sucks if someone comes up to you and is like “I’m going to pinch you hard” and then does. But it’s worse for someone to be like “I might pinch you hard, later, sometime” and then you have the anticipation and then the pinch.

I don’t know how “Ashland” will be. I am planning on a substantial revision process, to make sure that I like the pacing. One thing I’ve been thinking about with both The Haunting of Hill House and The Red Tree is, as I’ve said, there’s an economy to them. They trust the reader’s imagination a great deal. And I want to have respect for that with my readers, should I have some for this story.

I also hope to get some work done on the Return to Hill House afghan.

But mostly, I’m excited about brussel sprouts, the Butcher’s most unfavorite thing, which I never, therefore, get to have when he’s around.