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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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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