Thought experiment

Recently while doing a rather repetitive task, my mind began to wander and I thought of how uninteresting the story of the hour spent doing this activity would be. My imagination began running away with itself, and I began to wonder the following.

What if you spent an entire year specifically eschewing anything boring? In fact, what if you took that a step further and were determined to only doing things that–when told later–would make for truly the most exciting stories? When you then look back on your life in that one year, how different from your present life would it be twelve months later?

I feel on one hand like this would be a very dangerous experiment, of course, but it would make for a truly fascinating short-term memoir. It also perhaps smacks of the “I want it now” mentality of the times we live in. We expect excitement or at least an alleviation from boredom every minute of every day, and that’s neither realistic nor practical. Still, I have to admit liking a culture where waiting in line is no longer interminable, so long as you have a fully-charged cell phone, and where many of the most time- and labor-consuming clerical tasks are automated or simpler.

More broadly, I’m usually quite fascinated with books about people taking on challenges like this, whether it be committing to optimism or walking across a continent or making all of Julia Child’s recipes or what have you. The common ground with all such writing and doing is twofold. First, it’s the actual act of wanting to do something strange and different, to shake up your life and use it as some sort of example for others of how you, too, can be crazy in a confined, usually safe, way. And two, it’s the further act of then memorializing the experience as a memoir. Not of your life, not an organic work looking back on a specific time, but a constructed one, wherein you seek to document that which you also create. As a memoir subgenre, it’s kind of fascinating, and if also used as an act of activism (as with something like Super Size Me, for example) it can also say larger and broader things about society and culture and be an agent of change.

Am I brave enough to ever take something like this on? I don’t know. Perhaps with a safe experiment like that pursued for a shorter amount of time, I could embark on my constructed memoir idea with essays covering weeks instead of months. A journey of a thousand miles, as they say, begins with a single step.

Big Publishing Milestone

The House on Concordia DriveMy urban fantasy novel The Red Eye and its prequel novelette The House on Concordia Drive (both 2014, Alliteration Ink) mark the publication of my 49th and 50th pieces of writing.

I didn’t actually realize I hit the big five-oh until I started working on some bio/promo things for querying something else. Suddenly I saw that my list had grown, and I decided to add number bullets.

The Red EyeThere it was. 49. 50. FIFTY.

For someone who used to write nonsensical (yet somehow endless) Dickensian soap operas every summer growing up, for someone who’s never quite felt “good enough” as any sort of artist (see my failed attempts as musician and painter), this is kind of huge. So even though I demur a bit and really don’t always feel like the most confident writer, I have to kind of say, “Good for me” for once.

I’ve had help. Every English teacher, from high school, college, and my M.A. program, and my colleagues in several arenas of my life certainly inspired this love of words and forcing them together into sentences and stories. I’ve had more specific help from the members of my writing group, my M.F.A. program classmates and mentors, spouse, and various helpful editors and publishers, some of whom even helped in their rejections.

Every day, I encounter something that makes me a better writer, whether it’s formal notes and edits on a story or something I read in which the author makes a particularly deft turn of phrase (or a not-so-deft one, one I then take pains not to emulate). I’ve learned from others’ success and failures, learned from others’ reactions and support and very occasionally the lack thereof, truth be told. But it’s both the acceptances and the rejections that make a piece of writing better, and I think sometimes in life it’s acceptances and rejections on a larger scale that make us better people, stronger people, more resilient people.

I was excited to figure out that I’d hit 50. A few years ago, I had a goal of trying to get 35 before I turned 36 (which I did do, but just barely). Once I stopped counting, something interesting happened. With this arbitrary goal gone, I just kept going, without real target in mind other than to keep writing and then sending things out. Once I stopped counting, I racked up more credits than when I was counting. Kind of funny how that works, huh?

The love of the craft is the goal, of course. That’s the real lesson. If I were only in this game for any reason other than the need to write stories, no matter the outcome, I would have either never started in the first place or kind of petered out after meeting that magic number. Instead, I just kept chugging away. The placement of a piece now is secondary to the thrill of really, finally getting a story into tip-top shape. Getting a full-length novel into truly tip-top shape is also paramount, which explains why The Red Eye was first due last fall but delayed a bit—I wanted it to be as perfect as I could make it more than I wanted to actually hold the thing in my hands.

When you do something for the love of it, some of the other stuff will come, too. Maybe not the way you think, the amount you think, the timing you think, but something will, and it’ll often be all the lovelier because you didn’t crave it quite so desperately but instead cherished it enough to wait until it was really meant to be.

Not gonna lie, though. Now I’m wondering if I can’t hit 60 in the not-too-distant future.

Women in Horror Month

February is Women in Horror Month. Even though I don’t only write horror, it is one of the genres I read widely and write frequently. I always consider myself a “speculative fiction generalist,” but to many folks that primarily means science fiction. Horror was the first genre I was widely published in, however, and horror novels were the first pieces of adult contemporary fiction I read without a school assignment involved.

As part of WIHM, Mocha Memoirs Press has released a collection of women in horror, entitled The Grotesquerie, edited by Eden Royce. My short story “Dharma” appears in this anthology, alongside pieces by Michele Garber, Chantal Boudreau, M. Von Schussler, Kris Freestone, Marianne Halbert, Nicole DeGennaro, Rie Sheridan Rose, Lisamarie Lamb, M.J. Pack, Marcia Colette, Nicky Peabody, Caryn Studham Sartorus, Violet Tempest, Jessica Housand-Weaver, Selah Janel, Evelyn Deshane, Kierce Sevren, Carrie Martin, Lilliana Rose, Ekaterina Tikhoniouk, and Vivian Caethe. I’m honored to be a part of this collection, which is available in both paperback and ebook.

There are more women writing horror than you think, but in this post-Anne Rice/Stephenie Meyer world we think more of paranormal romance or quasi-literary horror, or they’ve been mostly writing for the YA market. But I think there’s a need for more women writing adult horror, and doing so in particular ways that perhaps speak to either a feminist mindset or at least a mindset that acknowledges that gender itself can be fodder for some reason interesting discussions of identity and terror. Some of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever read are by women.

My own horror mostly involves themes of transmogrification. Not shape-shifting usually, not often a voluntary or magical transformation, but the sheer body horror of physical nature altered in terrifying, painful, and often permanent ways. While certainly male horror authors deal with similar subjects, I see this theme less frequently in their work, and when I do there isn’t quite as much focus on the sensations associated with such changes. Is this because women are uniquely suited to writing about this concept, due to a deeper connection to the body? Obviously everyone’s body goes through transformations over time due to normal things like puberty and aging, but only women’s bodies also go through monthly changes and the potential change of pregnancy. Women’s bodies, too, are judged more harshly in the broader cultural landscape for undergoing changes, as our bodies are co-opted as being more an object than an identity or functional container/conveyer owned by individual women. Do we own ourselves, or do governments and photographs and media outlets own us? Are we the sum of how we choose to present ourselves to the world or are we merely things? The idea of no longer being in control of our physicality is terrifying, and it’s something that I think is a uniquely female experience.

As the month goes on, I’ll be discussing a few female horror authors’ work and talking more about The Grotesquerie collection.

Minor Short-Term Illness and Working from Home

While I do have a day job, writing is still part of my professional endeavors. A recent battle with a nasty flu had me thinking about whether or not I should be trying to write while sick, which led me to ponder those who are about to write full-time or work from a home office in any other field.

For independent contractors who don’t get a non-hourly salary, working when you’re sick may be a necessity. But I can tell you that in the midst of the worst of my fever dreams, congested head, and muddled brain, I would absolutely not have been able to write a single coherent word. Novelists and those who teach long-form fiction writing will all agree that a first draft is garbage anyway and the real writing comes in revision, but do you really want to have to slog through a medicine-fogged first draft? Why make this even more of an uphill battle if you don’t want to?

Certain kinds of illness can still be fought through, of course, and if writing actually helps you take your mind off the pain, go for it. What I’m advocating here is simply not beating yourself up over not working while sick. I didn’t get to do a lot of the things I love while I had the flu, including totally non-writing-related activities, but I knew I’d be able to resume them once I felt better.

The write-every-day advice (which I think is still vital to a healthy output of work and maintenance of your skills) is only good if you allow for the same kinds of things you would if you worked a 9-to-5 gig, such as sick leave and vacation days. Give yourself a break. The blank page will be there when you feel better.

Literary vs. Popular Fiction

A good friend of mine asked me this week to clarify the difference between literary and popular fiction. Ah, the eternal question! I decided to take a very informal Twitter poll and crowdsource the answer. Got some great replies from authors, editors, friends, and followers.

Some other choice responses included “popular fiction is Twitter, literary fiction is Livejournal,” “Literary is what they make you read in school. Popular is what you read instead and then have to fake the book report,” “Literary focuses on the internal and pop on the external,” “Pop fiction is rock music, and literary fiction is the opera.” I love all of these replies, partly because they seem to skew “yay popular fiction!” but also because it all goes to show that there is no consistent response (other than that I know a lot of really funny people).

Personally, I don’t make a ton of distinction other than that “realistic” or “non-genre” fiction is probably meant to be considered “literary,” or perhaps that popular fiction is the movies that win technical Academy Awards, whereas literary fiction is the movies that win for acting and directing. Literary is important, fancy, thinky, whatever any of that means. Popular or genre fiction is popcorn, fluff, unimportant, bubblegum, unintellectual and whatnot.

Except we can all think of examples of bad literary fiction and we can all think of examples of popular novels that are just as experimental and thought-chewy as literary fiction. Is the distinction the academy? Libraries? Things that are classics rather than just flashes in the pan? Is it akin to musicians with 50-year careers of selling out arenas versus one-hit wonders? Is it the distinction between PBS and Lifetime? Vincent Van Gogh versus Andy Warhol?

Even if I polled literature scholars, I would get different answers. Most people who are avid consumers of fiction would still be able to take ten books and sort them into the two piles, even if they hadn’t read them. As the saying goes, “you know it when you see it.” But is seeing it a matter of snobbery? Bestseller lists? Contemporary versus classic status?

What about The Catcher in the Rye? Literary, I suppose, but if we had this discussion in 1951, it would probably be considered popular, as it was controversial, profane, and a runaway bestseller. What about China Miéville? Popular, we might say, but he eschews genre pigeonholing and has a doctorate in International Relations and thus is hardly the generator of your average pulp sci fi.

I’ve heard people joke that to write literary fiction you should write a popular novel and cut the first and last chapter. I’ve also heard that literary fiction is about big themes, big truths, and everything inside is just used as hollow symbolism. Yet truly great speculative fiction is all about positing possibilities, proposing ideas and themes and truths. Is speculative fiction automatically non-literary?

Perhaps it’s the author’s intention of “art versus craft” or “write to tell a story versus write to produce art.” I would argue that you can do both. Is Downton Abbey high art or a soap opera? Should we ignore Joyce Carol Oates’ forays into gothic horror because she also writes things with “themes”?

I guess my point here is that the distinction often boils down to the tastes of the reader or scholar. Telling a story with a good plot or telling a story with a compelling theme, purpose, or character study is still all about telling a story, and ultimately I want to be the sort of author who can grow, stretch, change, and experiment.

Write the story you want to read. Read the story that draws you in. Labels? In 2014? That’s so last century.