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.

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You Belong to the City

Saturday morning and I have sooooo much to do it’s terrifying. Tonight we have tickets to the ballet; Les Ballet de Monte-Carlo, to be precise. They are performing Romeo and Juliette. I have, as I have said before countless times, never seen ballet performed live. I am very excited, obviously. I have an idea for a ballet noir–I have so many ideas, really–and I love that I merely mentioned this one night while watching the superb ballet documentary Bolshoi Babylon, and that he remembered, with the end result we have the tickets for tonight.

He really is quite a dear.

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I am writing so many things right now, and working on so much, that it can overwhelm me a bit when I stop to think about it; therefore it’s best not to think about it. The Scotty novel is going to be the most complex plot I’ve written since Mardi Gras Mambo, which means I have to really be careful and pay attention in order to prevent enormous mistakes and errors as I go along. The short stories I am writing…it’s interesting, but in some cases it’s so much easier to just have an idea and then write to figure it out; sometimes when I finish the first draft and get to the end I know what has to be fixed, added, and changed; in other cases, I literally have no idea. My writing process is so bizarre and different than anyone else’s, and I cannot say I honestly recommend the way I do things to any beginning writer.

Take, for example, a story I wrote and submitted to the MWA Anthology Ice Cold numerous years ago. The anthology was for stories set during the Cold War, and I decided to risk writing a story with a gay theme, even if that theme was buried deep inside the story until about the middle. I also started with an image; a man in the depths of winter, standing on a stone bridge over Rock Creek in Rock Creek Park in Washington DC, dropping a gun into the cold, gray water. Stubbornly,  I held onto that image as the opening of the story through numerous revisions and rewrites. The story was rejected; and I’ve tried revising it again and again. It was recently rejected by another market, with a lovely note: You’re too good of a writer to get a standard rejection letter. This story moved too slow, but do send us more of your work. (And it is a sad indication of this ego-destroying business that said email made my day: they like me! They like my work!) And yet the best part of that rejection email was this minor, five word piece of feedback: this story moved too slow. As soon as I read that I realized that the structure of the story was its ultimate failing: the dropping of the gun into the creek wasn’t where the story began, so I am going to revise the story another time, reordering the events of the story. Maybe it doesn’t even begin where I’m thinking it does now; but I won’t know until I start working on it again.

Likewise, another story I am in the midst of writing right now opens with the sentence The ID’s were fake but no one seemed to care. It’s a great opening line, and it was the first thing to come to mind when I started writing the story, and it just evolved from that opening line; I wasn’t really sure what the story was, but I wanted to use that as an opening line, and so I started writing there. Am I tied to that as the opening line? I tend to be a bit stubborn about these things…which is definitely a fault of my own. I was so determined, for example, that the WIP must begin at a certain place that I was trying to make it work–but soon realized that its Chapter One was really Chapter Three, and a lot of the things I was doing were trite and cliche; so I moved the timing of the story back a few weeks. Sometimes, being stubborn is not a plus for a writer.

I am also going to, in today’s edition of the Short Story Project, talk about two Daphne du Maurier short stories that I read for the first time this week, from the New York Review of Books collection Don’t Look Now and Other Stories. As I have said before, I’ve not read all of du Maurier’s work; I hold back because I don’t ever want to run out of things of hers to read. I have several of her short story collections on hand (my favorite, of course, being Echoes from the Macabre, which I read first when I was a teenager, shortly after I read Rebecca for the first time–which also reminds me, I am terribly overdue for a reread of Rebecca), but unfortunately the problem with du Maurier collections is they often overlap; stories tend to appear in more than one collection: “Don’t Look Now,” for example, not only is in Echoes from the Macabre but headlines this particular volume; “The Birds”, which I talked about the other day, also appears in both.

Today’s stories, though, are of a type: “Indiscretion” and “Ls Sainte-Vierge” are both relatively short, and, like several of her other stories, wait until the very end to twist and shove the knife into your throat. This is not easy to do, and I’ve tried it with stories with little to no success; I think my best successes with these style have been “Keeper of the Flame” and “Annunciation Shotgun.”

“La Sainte-Vierge” doesn’t even seem all that dark, through most of it:

It was hot and sultry, that oppressive kind of heat where there is no air, no life. The trees were motionless and dull, their drooping leaves colorless with summer dust. The ditches smelt of dead ferns and long-dried mud, and the grasses of the fields were blistered and brown. The village seemed asleep. No one stirred among the few scattered cottages on the hill-side; strange, uneven cottages, huddled together for fear of loneliness, with white walls and no windows, and small gardens massed with orange flowers.

A greater silence still filled the fields, where the pale corn lay heaped in awkward stacks, left behind by some neglectful laborer. Not even a breeze stirred the heather on the hills, lonely treeless hills, whose only dwellers were a host of bees and a few lizards. Below them the wide sea stretched like a sheet of ice into eternity, a chart of silver crinkled by the sun.

It’s set in a small fishing village on the coast of Brittany; the point-of-view character is Marie, a fisherman’s wife who is very young and desperately in love with her husband. He is about to go out on another fishing voyage, and she has these terrible premonitions that something terrible is going to happen. He brushes aside her concerns repeatedly, telling her she’s completely foolish and superstitious (never a good sign in any story, let alone a duMaurier), so after he leaves in the evening to get the boat ready, she creeps out of the house to a local church to pray to a statue of the Virgin. Du Maurier’s description of the poor village’s cheap and tattered statue and the church is which it resides is morbid, sad and a bit tragic; yet as Marie prays the moonlight comes into the church and transforms the statue before her believing eyes, and she is shown a vision in her religious ecstasy. Happy and content, she returns to her home…but that something terrible the story has foreshadowed all along does occur, just not what she, or the reader, could have possibly seen coming.

The other story, “Indiscretion,” is equally marvelous in the same way but different; this story, in structure and ending, reminded me a lot of de Maupassant’s “The Necklace.”

I wonder how many people’s lives are ruined by a momentary indiscretion? The wrong word at the wrong time–and then finish to all their dreams. They have to go on living with their tongues bitten a second too late. No use calling back the spoken word. What’s said is said.

I know of three people who have been made to suffer because of a chance sentence flung into the air. One of them was myself; I lost my job through it. The other fellow lost his illusions. And the woman…well, I guess she did not have much left to lose, anyway. Maybe she lost her one chance of security. I have not seen either of them since. The curt, typewritten letter came from him a week later. I packed up then and came away from London, leaving the shreds of my career in the waste-paper basket. In less than three months I read in a weekly rag he was claiming a divorce. The whole thing was so needless, too. A word from me–a word from her. And all through the sordid little street that runs between Shaftesbury Avenue and Leicester Square.

This story basically is about fate and coincidence conspiring to wreck the lives of three people who, again, never saw it coming; and how happiness can be destroyed in just a matter of seconds. It’s bitter and sad and melancholy, like most of du Maurier’s work; but it also works beautifully, and her gorgeous writing style contributes to its terrible beauty.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Stray Cat Strut

Friday!!!!

I have almost made it through this short week–I am working tomorrow before we head up to Baton Rouge for the LSU-UT Chattanooga game–and am pretty happy about it. It seemed off this week; I’m not sure what that’s about. We’ve had a chilly week here–for September, it’s been in the 70’s without humidity, which is November weather, really. I’ve slept fairly well, despite waking up a couple of times per night, and each morning have not wanted to get up. I may get up tomorrow morning so I can get the groceries and run errands prior to going to the office–get that out of the way so I can sleep late Sunday, since we’ll probably not get back from Baton Rouge until around midnight.

This week my short story “Keeper of the Flame” came out in Mystery Weekly magazine, and I am inordinately proud of this. Short stories are so hard for me to write, so each sale of one makes me feel like I’ve truly accomplished something.  I struggle so much with short stories…I have so many right now that aren’t finished, but I am trying to get the edits input and the first draft of the new Scotty written and … and…and…

I also got pretty deep into Margaret Millar’s sublime Do Evil in Return, and can’t wait to finish reading it so I can post about it. It’s so extraordinary!

Anyway, if you want to read “Keeper of the Flame”, you do have to pay for it, alas. This is the link to the preview of the story, to give you an idea of whether you want to read it or not:

http://mysteryweekly.com/issues/keeper.asp

You can buy the magazine in either print or e-form here:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1549639919/

And you can also buy or subscribe here:

http://www.mysteryweekly.com/subscribe.asp

Do support markets that pay–even in a small amount–for short crime fiction!

Here’s a hunk to get your weekend rolling, former Tarzan actor Gordon Scott:

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Could I Have This Dance

Happy 4th of July, everyone! I’m going to listen to Hamilton today, maybe relax with some American history later this afternoon, and try to avoid social media as much as I possibly can.

Yesterday was kind of the pits, writing wise; at least it seemed to be that way. As you know, Constant Reader, the revisions have been going swimmingly, I needed to add some things here and there, correct some language that was egregious, delete repetitive stuff, but overall, when I made myself open up the document and start working through it, it was all easy and simple and I was starting to feel really good about myself: this is a really good draft already, isn’t it?

Yes, well.

Yesterday I reached the chapters where the serious revision was needed. I opened up Chapter 16 (of nineteen, see how close to being done I am?), humming happily along to Taylor Swift on the iHome (don’t judge me) and crashed up against the realization that the very first paragraph of Chapter 16 was, in fact, an entire scene rather than a paragraph where I summed up what happened in that scene. Then I realized that the next paragraph was, again, a summary of action that needed to be turned into a scene–none of which I wanted to do yesterday. I’ve been binge-watching the MTV series Scream (which Paul and I had abandoned about five episodes into season one) and have been enjoying it tremendously (it’s apparently better as a binge rather than watching from week to week); I’m reading both Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red and a couple of chapters of The Secret of Terror Castle as I drift off to sleep every night; and I started writing another short story yesterday morning (currently titled “For All Tomorrow’s Lies”). I also cleaned the bedroom, reorganized and filed in the kitchen–it’s absolutely amazing the lengths I will go to not work on these revisions. I even scrubbed out the bathtub and cleaned the upstairs bathroom. But I did eventually force myself to sit down and work on Chapter Sixteen–constantly going back to check Facebook and Twitter (I sometimes wonder how much social media has affected people’s writing habits), and seriously, expanding these paragraphs into scenes was like pulling teeth…until I realized at one point I’d written 1500 new words in between half an hour and forty-five minutes; in addition to the 700 or so I’d written on the new story. I wrote another 500 words, and thought, you know, two thousand new words is a lot in slightly more than an hour, maybe tomorrow it’ll flow easier so I, despite that nagging voice in the back of my head (“What if you don’t want to do this tomorrow, either?”), I saved the document and decided to go back to cleaning for a while before watching Scream. I checked my email…

..and discovered that a story I’d submitted to Mystery Week magazine a few weeks ago, “Keeper of the Flame,” had been accepted for publication, and the contract was already there!

There really is nothing like having one of those bad writing days where every word is like passing a kidney stone, where you begin to wonder whether or not the well has finally run dry and you’re finished as a writer, only to get this lovely kind of affirmation. It’s really just timing, more than anything else, and I try not to be superstitious and see things as ‘signs’, but you can see, can’t you, how easy it is to fall into that mentality?

“Keeper of the Flame” is a story I am very proud of, and it’s really dark. I originally wrote it to submit to a conference anthology–many conferences do these every year, and I thought I should maybe start writing stories to send in for more of them; this was my first or second attempt. After it wasn’t accepted (I found out when the anthology was released, which is incredibly poor form–you should always let people know whether their stories are being used or not; I decided not to submit to that particular conference anthology ever again. There was another one where I was asked, two years in a row, to submit; ironically the first time my story wasn’t used and I wasn’t told. They wrote me again the next year and wanted to use that story THAT year–I’d already sold the story elsewhere, as one does, so I wrote another and yes, once again, wasn’t notified they weren’t using it. The third time they asked me, I was rather curt with them. But I digress.), I revised it a little bit and submitted it to a magazine, which ultimately rejected the story–they did send me a lovely note, telling me it was a great story but not right for them–and I’ve been sitting on it ever since. About a month ago, Mystery Week came to my attention–I don’t remember how; someone I know either sold a story to them, or it was mentioned in a newsletter from one of the writing organizations I belong to, or something like that; my mind is frankly a sieve these days–and I thought, hey, nothing to lose, might as well try here.

And hey, I sold it to them. Huzzah!

I’ve been getting lots of lovely news lately, lovely affirmations that have been coming along at just about the right time, to be honest. I’ve gotten some lovely emails and Facebook messages and tweets from readers over the last few weeks as well.

Today, I feel like I can not only stare down those damned revisions but get them, if not finished, pretty damned close to being finished. And that’s a good thing.

I’m going to also share with you the first paragraph of the new story, which I figured out what the rest of the story was last night before falling asleep:

Lori first noticed the man watching her in the fresh section of the Rouse’s on Tchoupitoulas Street. She was busy thumping melons and feeling foolish, like she always did when thumping melons with her index finger. She’d never really learned how to tell the difference in sound denoting ripe versus non-ripe, but she was too self-conscious to simply pick up a melon and put in her cart without going through the time-honored ritual. It was a cantaloupe she was holding when she noticed the man, over by the bins for varieties of onions and potatoes, looking at her.

And revisions? Kiss my American ass. I will DEFEAT you today.

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