My Muse has taken charge of my summer and is refusing to relinquish it. Writing a couple of stories for the Esquire fiction contest was supposed to be a warm-up, something to limber up the ol’ wrists and get the synapses firing. I wrote the first story and the second one occurred to me and a third…and all of them featured a recurring character, this Conrad Dahl fella, at various ages, from 13-19. I’ve pondered and batted around the idea of writing (at some point) a linked series of stories but had made no specific plans, didn’t even have an outline committed to paper. Now here I am with three stories–“Twenty-Ten”, “An Insurrection” and “Never, Ever Say That To Me Again”–written for that fucking contest. One (“Twenty-Ten”) is complete and was submitted with about four hours to spare before the deadline and the other two need at least a week of polishing and I’m bouncing around the notion for a fourth Conrad Dahl story that would (he hopes) complete the cycle. Which means at least another 2 or three weeks and pretty much the rest of my summer devoted to short fiction.
What about that novel I was supposed to be revising? What about the filming and recording I had planned, to sample and explore some of the features of this amazing, stunning, paradigm-shifting new iMac (I’m still enamored, can you tell)?
And do you think I can seize back the initiative, demand that my Muse shitcan this story cycle, at least for now, and get back to the novel? Not bloody likely. It doesn’t work that way, my dears. I can’t program my inspiration, channel it with any degree of success. Not this lad. And I’m very single-minded, I can only focus on one project at a time; I’m not one of those agile bastards who can juggle any number of novels, article ideas, short stories, what have you. After I finish this blog entry it will take me the rest of the morning to regain a fiction-writing mindset. I’ll play lots of music, pace around my office, let every last vestige of this post evaporate away before I’ll be able to return to my regular work. Get my game face on again.
I have no idea why my Muse has determined that these short stories should be given precedence. I’m frustrated by this change of plan; I thought I had my summer all figured out. Matter of fact, this entire year to this point has been taken up with works that weren’t exactly at the top of my list of priorities. My “Innocent Moon” radio play took me wayyy too long to research and complete, eating up the early part of 2009. And then I worked on finishing the long version of “First Room” and a short story that will shortly appear on this blog called “Death Threats”. And now these linked tales.
So what happens if my Muse decides to try to try her hand at writing a ballet or a libretto to a fucking opera? There’s no way of getting around it: I’d have to give it a shot. I throw up my hands in frustration, I curse and shake my fist at the sky but in the end I must accede to the wishes of the one who defines me as an artist and person. I’m a control freak and the act of writing is the only time I let that go. That can be terrifying, enlivening, thrilling, daunting; like walking a high wire naked, with no safety net and only half the world watching, hoping you’ll fall. Addictive and sick-making. Adrenaline-charged and gut-churning. I often quote Robert Penn Warren, the act and process of writing the pain I can’t live without.
I’m guessing some of you out there know what I’m talking about.
We’ve sacrificed our backs, fingers, even our peace of mind. All for the sake of following our Muse wherever she takes us: never without complaint but, in the end, always obedient, wary of offending her fickle, unpredictable sensibilities.
The horrific, unspeakable risk such an attitude might entail…
Recently, Milan Kundera raised a few hackles in the Czech Republic by refusing to return to his home and native land to attend a conference devoted to his work. Mr. Kundera stated that he did not wish to contribute to a “necrophile party” made up of academics and scholars, discussing and debating his work.
He also said, even more provocatively, that he considers himself a French writer and writes exclusively in that language.
Take that ye cultural nationalists!
It has long been my belief that a writer is a stateless citizen, an individual who inhabits no country and is beholden to no particular culture, gender, creed or race. To identify oneself as an “American author”, “Czech author” or what have you, is to fly in the face of the kind of universality true authors seek to achieve through the power and originality of their work.
When I make my rare public appearances I often have to provide a short bio so I can be introduced to an audience or gathering and I struggle mightily to compose something that isn’t embarrassing or misleading. Earlier this year my wife adapted a couple of my short stories into theater pieces that were performed at a function here in the small city where we live. I think the M.C. at one point called me a “local author” and I shrank down in my seat. Is that all I am? A local author? A Saskatchewan author? Even a Canadian author?
Christ, I hope not. After twenty-five years of beating my brains out and destroying my fingers and shoulders and lower back, I’d like to think I have higher aspirations for myself than that.
Nossir, I want to be read not only locally, not only nationally but around the entire fucking world. I want my books and stories and essays to be devoured and enjoyed by future inhabitants of the Martian colony. I want my collected works taken on the first flight to Alpha Centauri. I want my prose to survive long after places like “Saskatchewan” and “Canada” cease to exist.
Isn’t that what all artists of worth strive for? Immortality, an appeal that persists centuries after their bones have turned to dust. And that is also why I struggle so hard to preserve the integrity of my work, not allowing some bowdlerized or aesthetically gutted version to supersede and supplant the real thing.
I honestly wouldn’t change places with the likes of James Patterson or Stephanie Meyer for all the filthy lucre in the vaults of Fort Knox. Their work won’t survive the next twenty years, let alone the uncounted eons that lie ahead. No, let them choke on their money and watch as their books go out of print in their own lifetime.
It’s funny: this past week I commented on the on-line site for CBC (our national broadcaster), responding to a short feature devoted to Robert Charles Wilson. Mr. Wilson has managed to secure something of a reputation for himself as a SF writer, even snagged a Hugo Award for one of his novels. Frankly, I find his prose merely workmanlike; he is yet another SF scribbler (like Jack McDevitt and Robert Sawyer) who has cashed in on a modest talent for stretching neat ideas into over-long novels and, in the process, made a tidy living for himself. It’s a situation that’s pretty much endemic in SF but those guys are more guilty of that particular sin than most.
The folks who responded to my initial post comported themselves like typical, moronic SF fans. They made all sorts of assumptions about me and indulged in numerous pointed, personal, ad hominem attacks, opining that I was merely jealous of Mr. Wilson’s commercial success.
I made the mistake of trying to debate with these “minions of fan-dumb” and earned more vitriolic attacks for those efforts. Fuck it, I thought, and signed off without posting the really nasty parting shot I had composed. It would have been a waste of time. These are the same vacuous shitheads who are lining up in droves to see “Star Trek XXIV: The Quest For Profit” and the latest comic book adaptation, wearing out their thumbs on their game consoles. The only heads they have on their shoulders are blackheads from all the junk food they cram into their maws so they can stay up all night watching the “Lord of the Rings” movies back to back and wrapping “Fallout 3”. Fuck them. No way I’ll lie down with those pigs.
No, I’m bound for the stars. I write for posterity and to preserve a literary legacy that I hope will last as long as there’s a single, discerning reader out there who longs for something off the beaten track, a work that reminds them what it means to be human, the attendant hopes and accompanying foibles. A man or woman lonely, isolated, seeking the companionship of a long-dead author whose devotion to the printed word transcends time and vast distances and alien, hostile farscapes.
Keep your trophies, baubles and bullion.
I serve a higher calling…and make no allowances for those whose lack of courage and faith causes them to choose low roads and demean the gifts they have been so generously granted.
These are interesting times.
Book store sales are dropping, Borders on the verge of collapse, while places like Amazon report an impressive rise in their stats. Fewer people are reading books but there’s been a modest increase (3%) of those reading “literary” offerings. Newspapers are in decline, advertising revenues dwindling; to a great extent, folks now get their news, sports and entertainment info from on-line sources.
Despite their daunting price tags, more and more people are using devices like the Kindle and the Sony e-Reader or related palm-sized gadgets. And employing said gadgets to avail themselves of books presented in electronic formats, downloading and reading them in growing numbers.
I’m an old fashioned lad, a real throwback when it comes to all this technology–miles behind digital sages like Mike Cane, who have seen the future and are showing the rest of us dummies what lies ahead.
But I’m learning. I’ve posted two of my novels and numerous short stories on this site and, frankly, I’ve been astonished by the amount of people who have downloaded them–some of them are reading my fiction and essays on their computer screens, even printing them up to peruse at their leisure. But I’m also noticing a growing number who are coming over from various e-book sites and forums, places like this and this…
Frankly, I couldn’t care less how you read something I’ve written, what format you choose.
Coming up in March, some folks are celebrating the new reality in publishing by sponsoring “Read an E-Book Week” and I’m only too happy to throw my weight behind this event.
Thanks to this blog and the ability it gives me to electronically publish my work, I’ve been able to bypass the gate-keepers of publishing, editors and agents with one eye on the fickle marketplace and the other on their bank accounts. They’re no longer interested in identifying the “best” writers, merely the ones that hold out the most hope of selling the most books and earning them (agents, editors) more money. And that, of course, means producing empty-headed commercial fiction, copycat books and the latest “poor me” memoir.
But, re: the sales figures above, their record of late hasn’t been too impressive. The reading public has largely ignored the authors they herald, the derivative works they champion.
It’s time for a new paradigm and e-books are part of the solution. They put power and control back into the hands of writers, allowing them to publish their work without editorial interference or an unhealthy obsession with what’s perceived to be popular.
Authors can now create their own “buzz” and attract readers from around the world to their work. Others have debated the merits of offering material free, but I have found it has worked wonders for me, raising my profile to hitherto unheard of heights. Tens of thousands of folks from around the world have visited this blog and many, many of them have taken the opportunity to read and enjoy the material I offer.
Hats off to the folks behind “Read an E-Book Week”. I congratulate them for their foresight and the vision they have of a future where authors are granted paramount importance and corporate publishing is, increasingly, marginalized, rendered superfluous, perhaps even obsolete.
That day isn’t far off. And when it finally arrives, it won’t be cause for mourning or despair. On the contrary–and I’ll be one of the liberated, independent artists dancing a victory jig on their graves…
For the last few weeks I have been grinding away on final edits of So Dark the Night and it has not been fun. Rewarding, yes; mentally stimulating, undoubtedly. Fun? Not a chance.
I responded to a post on another blog this morning by opining that maybe the computer wasn’t the best invention for obsessive compulsive perfectionists like yours truly. In the bad old days of typewriters, if you made a mistake or needed to slice out a paragraph, you had to type the entire fucking page all over again. Which either made you do it right the first time or decide that it was “good enough”.
Alas, those two words are not in my vocabulary. There is no such thing as “good enough” and now, thanks to the cut and paste functions, the ease of editing with computers, my work may never be “good enough”. That’s a terrifying thought.
I’ve been banging away on So Dark the Night for over three years now. I’ve gone through the “final” editing process before and always seem to get drawn back for one last run-through. Imposing a deadline for myself this time around has really helped. This book will be loaded onto my blog the end of March, even if it kills me. It’s like the last rounds of Ali-Frazier’s “Thrilla in Manila”: both fighters battered, Frazier nearly sightless but neither giving up or backing down. Telling their corners not to stop the fight, no matter what.
This book has nearly destroyed me…and redeemed and strengthened me in the process. When virtually every single editor and agent either refused to look at it or turned it down after a cursory glance (or, like Jessica Wade at Ace Books, simply refused to respond to my queries after telling me how much she liked the first excerpt I sent her), I was traumatized. Doubted my talent, my courage, my Creator…but now, a la “Fast Eddie” Felson at the conclusion of “Color of Money”, I’m back. Oh, baby, am I ever.
Working with confidence and vision, seeing the novel in more dimensions and depth than I ever have before. I’ve finished edits on the first half of the book and today I begin Part II. I’ve divided So Dark into 20 page chunks and I pound away on each one like a heavy bag until I’m satisfied I’ve knocked the fucking stuffing out of it…and then I move on to the next segment.
The intensive editing has led to some, ah, interesting, side effects. Most notably, dreams; incredibly vivid ones. To the extent that when I stop work around 9:00 each night I have to deprogram myself, ease out of my fictional world, watch an old “Fawlty Towers” or original “Star Trek” episode with Sherron and have a giggle. My two sons are good sources of distraction too–funny, smart, interesting buggers. Their thought processes never cease to fascinate me. Their February break is coming up and during the time off I’m hoping a couple of old films I’ve ordered off the internet (“Conquest of Space” and “Tarantula”) will arrive and we can sit down, as a family, for a midnight-double-bill-creature- feature. I love sharing old flicks with them, chortling at the hokeyness and marveling at the absence of CGI, the wires showing and none of us giving a shit.
Sorry, have to make this post short. If I don’t make my daily page count, I can’t sleep at night. Insistent, nagging voices keeping me awake, telling me what a lazy, shiftless bastard I am.
Make sure you come back the end of March and see the end result of all this crazy-making work. So Dark the Night will be the leanest, tightest 470-page novel you’re likely to come across. That’s a promise–and as anyone who knows me will tell you, I always keep my promises.