Part of the prologue to a series of books I haven’t written yet. Gathering shape. Fluttering around the outside of the edges of images.
“Let us leave good sense behind like a hideous husk and let us hurl ourselves, like fruit spiced with pride, into the immense mouth and breast of the world! Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd!”
–Marinetti, from his Italian Futurist Manifesto
About fifteen years ago, the super agent Nat Sobel saw my first published story in Black Warrior Review and contacted me. The novel I had to show him at the time (because most agents aren’t interested in short story collections) was my first attempt, and not very good. He told me it was too slow and too artsy. I figured that was just my lot as a writer of fiction. I took my writing far too seriously.
Cut to fifteen years later. I queried Mr. Sobel again. I finally figured out how to write something I think a lot of people might be interested in reading–my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. It is neither slow nor artsy. It is solid, exciting, page turning, commercial fiction. He agreed to look at the first fifty pages. It turns out that his very nice and capable assistant Aida Wright was the one who read the pages. After nearly thirty days, she got back to me. It seems that for their purposes, I’d swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Far from being too artsy or slow, I moved things along too quickly (I disagree, of course) and too much happens (wrong again…just the right amount happens). Slow down, seemed to be her recommendation. Agents can drive you crazy.
I worked very hard to make this story “right” on the page. It is not too slow. You get to know the characters as they move through the story. I’m not giving up on the traditional path from agent to publisher–not quite yet–but I have begun thinking of other ways to get my work into the hands of people who like good adventure stories, people who like their stories with a good dose of undead. I may decide to offer the story on Amazon as a Kindle download. Maybe for free. Maybe for .99 cents. Andy Weir’s excellent realistic sci-fi novel The Martian went that route. He sold so many copies (35,000 at .99 cents each, in three months) that the publisher same calling. Now it’s a more traditional best-seller.
I’m not suggesting the same thing would happen to my novel, but it’s worth a shot. Anyone up for a good, exciting, scary read?
These two quotes come from Stephen Burt’s Ted Talk: Why People Need Poetry. I highly recommend watching it.
You can’t know, you never know, you can’t be sure. And that’s okay. All we can do is listen to poems and look at poems and guess and see if they can bring us what they need, and if you’re wrong about some part of a poem, nothing bad will happen.
—Stephen Burt, on knowing exactly what a poem might mean
Poems and the patterns in poems show us not just what somebody thought or somebody did or what happened but what it was like to be a person like that, to be so anxious, so lonely, so inquisitive, so goofy, so preposterous, so brave. That’s why poems can seem at once so durable, so personal, and ephemeral, like something inside and outside of you at once.
—Stephen Burt, on what poems like Wallace Stevens’ That Brave Man, can offer us
Why so many drafts? Why so much work?
It’s because you have to get everything into the piece. You can’t pick or choose, not in the beginning. Everything has to go in. All the characters, the landscapes, the details, the dialogue, the mysterious stuff that bubbles up from inside that you can’t control, the mystery, the entire story arc—you can’t leave any out.
Early on, it seemed like it was imperative to only write what I thought needed to be there. I attempted too much cutting and paring from the start. It took me maybe ten years to learn that I had to include it all. And it took another five years to discover that I have to take most of it back out. I have to put it all in at the beginning but then I have to take most of it out by the end. That’s why it takes so long. How many times did I get stuck somewhere in a story and decide that the only way forward was by “figuring something out?” How many times did I let that stalled motion kill the story, while I slogged through the muck of “figuring”? There’s no figuring involved. I simply had to learn to put it all in and then be patient. The stuff that needs to be cut loose will rise up all by itself.
It’s like moving into a house. You have all this stuff that you bring in. You might have thrown away a few things before you moved, but still there’s boxes and bags everywhere. You brought everything that you thought was important. All the boxes sit around and you maybe set up the bed and hook up the cable that first night, but you’re exhausted from loading and hefting your stuff. And then you probably have to go to work the next day so you let the boxes sit for a while, pick through them after you get home, or on the weekends. After a few weeks, you’ve been living with all the stuff out and about and you can see things a little more clearly. You have the spices in the cabinet and the DVD’s in the rack and the sheets and towels in the closet. You’re really starting to see the place—really starting to make it feel like yours. Some pictures go up on the wall and then you decide you need a new lamp and maybe some new curtains. The pile of stuff is no longer that big. You get the place decorated the way you want it, adjust the angle of the television, bring in some plants to brighten up the study. Finally, you decide that you really love the place and you’re about to settle in and relax for a while. It’s then that you notice all the leftover boxes. A lot of that stuff that you brought with you is now superfluous. So you begin to throw stuff away. Some of the stuff you store in the attic, just in case, but mostly you can clear out everything you don’t need. Only once all that stuff is gone can the place be really finished.
It’s the same way with drafts. Everything goes in the first draft, even the stuff you don’t think you’ll need in your new place. Everyone works differently, of course, and you may start throwing stuff out early, but I’ve found that I can’t go throwing stuff away until I find out what I need. That’s what’s happened with my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. I thought I was done drafting. It felt “finished.” But I was still at that stage of home decorating where I was blind to all the boxes in the corners, filled with unnecessary belongings. With a little editing help from a fantastic new friend, I found that I had a lot of things I could cut, throw away, reshape, or store in the attic. Now Apocalypse Nation is bright. It is a literary thriller—as much about people and sacrifice as it is about things that go bump in the night. I have hope that it might find a home. You are going to want to read it. Stay tuned for further developments.