Suddenly

Yesterday I finished revisions on four stories, took a deep breath, and submitted them. Now, we wait. I’m not entirely certain the stories were right for the markets I sent them to, but you know what? Letting them just sit in my computer wasn’t getting them out there. Better to try and fail than not to ever try at all.

As I said yesterday, my confidence in my writing, which, despite all appearances to the contrary has never been strong, was dramatically shaken in the last year; I am only now starting to come out of it, and I am coming back out of it by working. I’ve written well over a hundred thousand words thus far in 2018; most of it short stories, some of it work on a new Scotty novel, still other the manuscript I intend to try to lure the ever elusive agent into my web with; and since sitting down and actually taking stock, I am realizing what I’ve accomplished, and am very proud of myself. The stories I worked on again this week, revising and editing and reading aloud, were quite strong; the two I am struggling with perhaps not as strong–although I do like their titles. Forcing myself to continue working on them is futile at this moment; much as I am loath to put them to the side, I am going to; there is nothing more self-defeating and depressing than trying to force yourself to write something that just isn’t coming. The stories are there, of course; I just haven’t yet worked out how to get them down onto paper yet. I think very often we, as writers, get so bogged down in our stubborn determination to finish something we are working on that we just keep fighting, pounding our head determinedly against an immovable wall–when the smart thing is to take a break from it and work on something else; then come back to the wall with fresh eyes and a rested forehead.

A vanity project that I have always had in the back of my mind was to put together a short story collection of my crime stories. I first had the idea several years ago, but didn’t have enough stories and was going to combine my horror and crime together: the folder and table of contents I created at the time was for Annunciation Shotgun and Other Stories. I’ve never forgotten this vanity project; and even now, when I should be preparing the manuscripts of Bourbon Street Blues and Jackson Square Jazz for their long overdue ebook editions, I go back to the vanity project again and again: well, I’ve published THESE stories since then, maybe I can just go ahead and remove these others that don’t fit as well–take these horror stories out, since my horror is clearly not as strong as my crime fiction. I made another table of contents, just the other day; only now I am calling it Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. Whenever I’ve been stuck this past week or so, for want of anything else to do, I’ve started pulling the stories together into a single document to get a word count. The realization the other day of how many stories I’ve done so far this year already, and adding them casually to the table of contents–today it hit me: the manuscript is already publishable length, is over eighty thousand words, without an introduction  and without all of the stories I’ve done so far. I removed all the horror–goodbye, “Crazy in the Night” and “Rougarou” and “The Snow Queen” and “The Troll in the Basement”–and added some more of the newer material. It was astonishing to realize how much there actually was; that I cannot add much more because there simply isn’t room, and that I might have enough for a second volume in a couple of years.

Mind-blowing, really.

Short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, of course; short stories are the bastard stepchildren of publishing, and crime stories even more shunned at the family holiday dinner table. I don’t know if my publisher will want this collection, and I may end up having to self-publish it. Whereas I would have shrank in horror from that possibility a few years ago, it doesn’t matter as much to me now as it did then to have a traditional publisher pull the book together; although I would like another pair of eyes on it, some copy editing, a cover design and packaging done for me. But I am very proud of all of these stories; each one of them means something to me in some way. And if my fears about crime stories with gay characters in them not being acceptable to mainstream short story publications, well, I can always get them seen this way. And I am proud of the new crime stories I’ve written with gay characters in them.

I didn’t write crime stories for the longest time because of that fear; the fear that no matter how high the quality of the story, gay characters would make them unpublishable. The two stories I published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, “Acts of Contrition” and “The Email Always Pings Twice,” were mainstream–not a gay character in either story. I did publish two stories in Novelists Inc. anthologies with gay characters, “A Streetcar Named Death” and “An Arrow for Sebastian.” My stories in New Orleans Noir and Sunshine Noir (“Annunciation Shotgun” and “Housecleaning”, respectively) were about gay characters. My story in Blood on the Bayou, nominated for the Macavity Award last year, “Survivor’s Guilt,” wasn’t gay in any way, nor was my story “Keeper of the Flame,” published in Mystery Week. Some of the new stories are gay, some are not. Two that went out today were about gay characters, two of them were not. I was originally not intending to write any crime stories with gay characters this year; it just sort of happened. I think the Chanse story I’ve written–which needs a new title–is pretty decent; but am I limiting my chances of getting the stories into print by writing about gay characters? It’s already a difficult haul finding markets that still take short stories, and the competition is obviously fierce.

And again, as I said yesterday, you never can be certain your story was rejected because you wrote honestly about gay characters. It’s all part and parcel of the insanity of being a gay writer, or a writer who is gay, or whatever the hell label fits on my sash as I walk across the stage at the beauty pageant of publishing.

But I’ve got more than enough stories for a collection now, and I am going to keep playing with the manuscript; what is the proper mix of previously published stories versus new material? Should it all be new material, or should it all be previously published material?

Decisions, decisions.

Therein, indeed, lies the path to madness.

I also read some short stories. First was “Still Life with Teapots and Students”, by Shirley Jackson, from the  Let Me Tell You collection.

Come off it, kids, come off it, Louise Harlowe told herself just under her breath. SHe smiled graciously at her husband, Lionel’s, two best students, noticing with an edge of viciousness that they both held their teacups exactly right, and said lightly, “You’re going to have a pleasant summer, then?”

Joan shrugged perfectly, and Debbi smiled back, as graciously as Louise had smiled, but with more conviction. “It will be about the same as the others, I guess, ” Debbi said. “Sort of dull.”

They’re both too well bred to tell me what they’ll be doing, Louise thought, and asked deliberately, “You’ll be together, of course?”

Jackson is one of my favorites, and while she is mostly known for “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House and macabre, Gothic work, she wrote a lot more than people think and not everything she wrote was macabre. This nasty little tale, in which a professor’s wife has two of his students over for tea–during the course of which she lets the rich little bitches she knows about their affair with her husband, and what’s more, doesn’t care because they are nothing more than something of the moment, is quite rich and layered and textured. From a modern day perspective the wonder is why she doesn’t leave him, as it becomes clear this happens regularly; they politely discuss another faculty wife who wasn’t quite as calm in confronting the student her husband was messing around with, and it’s all very polite and reserved…yet, in this modern era of #metoo and power differentials, the agency both Jackson and the wife in the story give the students–and the contempt and hatred for them the wife feels, but never reveals–makes me wonder. I’m still unpacking this story, several days after reading it; which is how amazing it–and Jackson–are.

And then it was time for “The Doll” by Daphne du Maurier, The Doll: The Lost Short Stories.

I want to know if men realize when they are insane. Sometimes I think my brain cannot hold together, it is filled with too much horror–too great a despair. And there is no one; I  have never been so unutterably alone. Why should it help me to write this?…Vomit forth the poison in my brain.

For I am poisoned, I cannot sleep, I cannot close my eyes without seeing his damned face..

If only it had been a dream, something to laugh over, a festered imagination

It’s easy enough to laugh, who wouldn’t crack their sides and split their tongues with laughing. Let’s laugh till the blood runs from our eyes–there’s fun, if you like. No, it’s the emptiness that hurts, the breaking up of everything inside me.

DuMaurier’s story often have a polite, observational distance and formality to them; much like her novels, even in the first person. This story, of obsession and lust and desire, all of which are thwarted, is not only reminiscent of My Cousin Rachel, but also, as I was reading, made me wonder. We never learn the name of the first person narrator, but the object of his obsession is a woman named Rebecca–you see where my mind was going with that, don’t you? And in some ways, it works as an almost prequel for the novel; the deep obsession and need; the mysterious woman who plays out her cards slowly. What of course doesn’t fit is the doll itself; the woman owns a male doll she has a strange attachment to, a doll our narrator despises, hates, is jealous of; it’s a terrific story of darkness and deep passion and obsession and perhaps, madness….a great example of why I love du Maurier so much.

And now, back to the spice mines.

IMG_2256

 

Fading Fast

Good morning, Saturday! I have Wacky Russian this morning, and we are meeting friends for dinner later on, so I’ll probably spend the day reading, cleaning and doing laundry before that. I’m probably going to try to finish the revision of “For All Tomorrow’s Lies”, and maybe make some progress on the line edit as well. I am putting off making a grocery run until tomorrow; not sure if that’s wise or if I should just get it over with today, so I don’t have to leave the house tomorrow at all…decisions, decisions.

It seems a bit gray out there this morning; Paul is leaving shortly to go play tennis, which might (and most likely will be) rained out at some point. I don’t think it rained yesterday, which might be the first day since May it hasn’t rained here. I just hope it doesn’t rain on me on the way to the gym; that always sucks.

I could also spend some time organizing computer files, which always seems to get out of hand very quickly. I hate that. It comes from being lazy and stashing things quickly, always thinking I’ll straighten this up later. So, in the meantime, it drives me crazy and it builds up and builds up until it takes hours for me to reorganize everything.

Then again, it also helps me procrastinate and not write, so there’s that explained.

And as I glance around the kitchen this morning, it’s such  a mess. Heavy heaving sigh. Stacks of paper, stacks of books, the floor needs cleaning…ad my knives need sharpening, too. It never ends.

As I said yesterday, one of the things I find myself most interested in exploring in my writing now is damage, how people became damaged and how they cope with it, while contrasting their damage with mundanities of life. We all have our own damage; carry the signs of it with us internally all the time. My story “Housecleaning” was inspired by the smell of bleach, which reminded me one day of my mother–and that became the opening line: The scent of bleach always reminded him of his mother. Part of the genius of shows like Weeds and Ozark was the impact of their parents’ criminal behavior on their children; how do kids have a normal life when their parents are criminals and have thus lost their moral compass, as well as the morality of being a parent? “Housecleaning” was about such a kid, who grew up under the thumb of a con artist mother, who as he got older was required to assist in the cons. And when you’re assisting your mother in conning marks as a child, what kind of adult do you become?

I am also very far behind on my schedule for the summer. I’d hoped to have the noir novel’s first draft finished by the first of September, so I could spend the fall writing the next Scotty book while the noir rested. I’ve not even started the noir yet, still am not sure what the true plot is–it’s amorphous and keeps shifting in my head–but if I can get this line edit finished, and start sending that manuscript out to agents, I can buckle down and get the noir written, and still maybe get the Scotty finished by the end of the year.  Depending on how the scheduling works, I may end up having to put the noir aside until the Scotty is finished. And I am fairly certain of what I want to write after the Scotty and the noir are done. I just need to get them done.

Heavy heaving sigh.

All right, I am going to clean the kitchen before the gym.

Here’s a Saturday stud for you, Constant Reader.

20294016_10212559668603284_1726899913693936580_n

You Make Loving Fun

Another good night’s sleep. There must be something to this stay-at-home vacation thing, don’t you think?

I didn’t get as much writing/editing done yesterday as I wanted to, but I also had to run errands and bouncing back into a creative mode after dealing with the General Public is never easy; I find that always to be all too frequently true. But as I waited for Paul to come home last night, I watched the season finale of Versailles (which I am going to miss) and the Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy, which made me smolder with rage, and made me realize my rape culture novel, sitting collecting dust now for over a year, really needs to get out there for people to read.

Will it make a difference? I doubt it, but change is water wearing away at a rock, and maybe at some point our culture and society will finally recognize that men do not have a right to women’s bodies.

I also read a few more chapters of Falling Angel last night. It’s the Edgar Award nominated novel the film Angel Heart was based on, and while I haven’t seen the film in decades, I remember liking it a lot (it was another one of those films that heightened the connection I felt with New Orleans before I moved here); once I read the book I am going to watch the movie again, see how it holds up. The book is quite good; as I read it I remember the film more and more; the book’s quality lies in that hardboiled noir voice I mentioned the other day having trouble capturing in my own work. I think part of the problem I have with that, frankly, is the straight male machismo aspect of it. One of the reasons I stopped reading crime fiction in the late 1970s (having exhausted Christie, Queen, and Gardner) was because the current stuff was pretty much the straight male gaze and that macho bullshit. (Not everything, of course, and that was, I realize now, an over-generalization; but that was how it seemed to me.) I eventually returned to crime fiction, primarily thanks to Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky; their work led me to a greater appreciation of the genre and enabled me to read and appreciate John D. Macdonald and eventually get back into the genre over-all, and is partly why, in my own work, I tried to develop my own version and style; the gay male gaze. Whether I succeeded or not is for future generations to decide–whether I am remembered at all or not.

Probably not, is the most likely.

And I’m fine with that, really.

Yesterday I did manage to get the kitchen cleaned (not quite organized as I would have liked, but small victories), and today around editing and writing I intend to do the same with the living room and start working on the kitchen cabinets and drawers. It is truly sad how these things give me pleasure, but on the other hand, I like cleaning up my house and feel truly satisfied when it is cleaned and organized and sparkling. (If it remains sunny but chilly, I am going to do the windows in the kitchen as well.)

And that is, really, the genesis of my story “Housecleaning”, in the wonderful anthology Sunshine Noir.

The smell of bleach always reminded him of his mother.

It was, he thought as he filled the blue plastic bucket with hot water from the kitchen tap, probably one of the reasons he rarely used it. His mother had used it for practically everything. Everywhere she’d lived had always smelled slightly like bleach. She was always cleaning. He had so many memories of his mother cleaning something; steam rising from hot water pouring from the sink spigot, the sound of brush bristles as she scrubbed the floor (‘mops only move the dirt around, good in a pinch but not for real cleaning’), folding laundry scented by Downy, washing the dishes by hand before running them through the dishwasher (‘it doesn’t wash the dishes clean enough, it’s only good for sterilization’), running the vacuum cleaner over carpets and underneath the cushions on the couch. In her world, dirt and germs were everywhere and constant vigilance was the only solution. She judged other people for how slovenly they looked or how messy their yards were or how filthy their houses were. He remembered one time—when they were living in the apartment in Wichita—watching her struggle at a neighbor’s to not say anything as they sat in a living room that hadn’t been cleaned or straightened in a while, the way her fingers absently wiped away dust on the side table as she smiled and made conversation, the nerve in her cheek jumping, the veins and chords in her neck trying to burst through her olive skin, her voice strained but still polite.

When the tea was finished and the cookies just crumbs on a dirty plate with what looked like egg yolk dried onto its side, she couldn’t get the two of them out of there fast enough. Once back in the sterile safety of their own apartment, she’d taken a long, hot shower—and made him do the same. They’d never gone back there, the neighbor woman’s future friendliness rebuffed politely yet firmly, until they’d finally moved away again.

“People who keep slovenly homes are lazy and cannot be trusted,” she’d told him after refusing the woman’s invitation a second time, “a sloppy house means a sloppy soul.”

Crazy as she seemed to him at times, he had to admit she’d been right about that. In school after school, kids who didn’t keep their desks or lockers neat had never proven trustworthy or likable. It had been hard to keep his revulsion hidden behind the polite mask as he walked to his next class and someone inevitably opened a locker to a cascade of their belongings. He’d just walked faster to get away from the laughter of other kids and the comic fumbling of the sloppy student as he tried to gather the crumpled papers and broken pencils and textbooks scattered on the shiny linoleum floor.

As I said, I like to clean, and I often joke that my own mother makes Joan Crawford look like a slob. One morning, when I was filling up my blue bucket with water and bleach, the smell of bleach reminded me of my mother and voila! A story was born. I actually stopped cleaning to sit down and write the entire first draft.

Sigh. I love when that happens.

And now back to the spice mines.