About Writers, Literary Agents, publishing, Stories, writing technique

Juvenilia

mansfield

I’ve recently read a few short stories by Katherine Mansfield: Germans at Meat, The Baron, The Luft Bad and other equally unknown titles which don’t figure in any ‘best of’ collection of her work. This is because they come from her very first collection, In a German Pension, published in 1911, when she was just 22. They were written during her stay in the Pension Müller, Bavaria, where her mother, suspecting she may have had a lesbian relationship, took her for ‘a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise.’

In a German Pension went through three editions, but then the publisher went bankrupt. Mansfield wasn’t disappointed by this; on the contrary, she no longer liked the stories, and when, after being recognised as one of the leading authors of her day, she was begged by another publisher to let him reprint them, she wrote, ‘I cannot have it reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough.’ This was despite the fact that she was sorely in need of the money it would have brought her.

Was she right? Yes, I dare say, by the high standards she set herself. The stories lack the depth and intensity of her later work – although, rereading that, I sometimes find it a little febrile, a little too intense. But it would have been a great shame if John Middleton Murry, her second husband, hadn’t included In a German Pension in the complete collection of her stories he edited after her death. They are superbly written, with a deliciously mischievous, biting wit that renders in writing what comes across in the best cartoon caricatures.

Reading it, I thought, ‘Wow! To be writing that so young!’ Writers often repudiate juvenilia, and with good reason, but I would have given my eye teeth to be able to write like that at 21. I thought back to my own beginning: I finished my first novel at 26, about a group of friends in the mid-1970s, driving round France and Spain in a restless search for meaningfulness and adventure. I’d repudiate it now, I guess, but it wasn’t entirely cringeworthy. It earned me an appointment with an agent, who said if she’d read it ten years earlier, she’d have snapped it up. But by then, there were lots of similar explorations of the prevailing counterculture, and it didn’t break new ground. She had her finger firmly on the zeitgeist, and advised me to write a family saga instead, but I never did. Perhaps I should have.

Is there an age at which writers peak? Must good writing be apparent already when young? Mansfield is far from the only one whose talent was obvious so early. This New Yorker article sets the question in perspective, while for those who fear they may be past it already, there’s also ample evidence that it’s never too late to write a book.

Any thoughts on the matter? When you recall your first attempts, do you cringe, puff with pride, or sit somewhere in between?

 

 

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About Writers, inspiration, writing technique

Need To Know Basis

James Tiptree, Jr. — aka Alice Sheldon — wrote a story back in 1974 called “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.” It’s a tale about memory. Scenes from a life play out one after another: a boy on his first duck hunt, failing miserably; a young man in his first, eager sexual encounter, failing miserably; a man back from war proposing, finally, to the woman he loves, failing miserably…you get the idea. Framing this jumbled litany of humiliation and disappointment is the gradual realization that all of these memories are playing out in a sort of repeating loop, observed by — perhaps even instigated by — some unknown presence: alien researchers perhaps? Or even just alien sightseers, feeding on the memories of the long gone inhabitants of a dead world? Because the earth is dead, a burnt out cinder. All that remains are memories. 

But — and here’s the gut punch — the only memories left are unpleasant ones. Only the horrible stuff, incidents our protagonist would rather forget. Instead, he gets to live them out again and again.

A hellacious vision. Thanks, Alli.

But still, a fascinating premise. Sad memories, painful memories, seem to have a disproportional staying power. Enjoyable memories can linger as well, but they are less vivid, less intrusive. It seems like we have to go looking for those, we have to coax them to the surface. But deeply unpleasant memories find us. We have no idea when they might swim into sudden focus. It’s like they’re always lurking in the shadows, just around the next corner.

There’s a good reason, of course, why we would be predisposed, genetically, to have a better memory for the unpleasant things. After all, unpleasant things are often dangerous things, and it’s an adaptive advantage to avoid danger. If a situation feels unpleasantly familiar, you’ll tend to shy away from it and not repeat it. As for joyous memories of good times, well, it’s nice to remember them, but it’s not usually a matter of life or death. Lack of joy might kill you in the long run, but it’s only a gradual death and it won’t necessarily interfere with your ability to pass on your genetic code. 

But danger? That can kill you right now, the immediate termination of your particular configuration of base pairs. So we avoid unpleasantness. It’s baked in, a survival skill.

And to avoid it, we have to recognize it. We have to remember. If I were an alien, researching the former dominant species of an extinct planet, I might focus on exactly that: what drove their worst memories? What were they so afraid of?

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So how does this concept relate to stories? Does this predisposition explain why we have such an appetite for tragedy, for conflict-driven narratives? Such a fascination with crime and horror and dystopian futures? Could be. I’d admit that there are other factors. Catharsis plays into it — and the guilty thrill we might feel at experiencing someone else’s misery while knowing it isn’t our own. But it isn’t hard to see how these pleasures might have their roots in the original preoccupation. Suffering fascinates us because it’s important to our survival. We rubberneck the freeway accident because, at some level, we know that could be us. 

And if it might kill us, we need to know about it. 

***

Footnote:  It feels worth mentioning that some of our most persistent personal memories are of rejection and humiliation, which might not correlate directly with situations of danger or physical threat. We don’t, as a rule, die of embarrassment. But being rejected or humiliated, at least publicly, can be correlated with social ostracism, which could be almost as bad as death. In terms of passing your genetic material on to the next generation, it could be exactly as bad as death. The process of natural selection really doesn’t put a priority on our happiness. It’s only concerned with us surviving long enough to procreate. 

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Another Footnote: I would accept that being joyless might be a hindrance to finding companionship and a partner for procreation. But this seems to me a very modern view of our mating relationships. While romance isn’t very new, it’s pretty new compared to our time as a species, and there’s good reason to believe that marriage probably developed more as a practical arrangement and didn’t necessarily require having a winning personality or a great outlook on life. Fortunately, we’ve progressed beyond that point, mostly — but that’s a subject for another time.

 

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publishing, Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology

A weird problem

genres

Not long ago, I did a Freebooksy promotion for Mystery Manor, fourth in the Magali Rousseau series. To do it, I enrolled the book in KDP Select, then ran a five-day promotion during which it was free. For the second day, I booked a slot with Freebooksy, who promoted the promotion to their email list.

Now, the question of whether a book should ever be offered free arouses a lot of debate, and it’s not my intention to go into that here (I will in a forthcoming post). Suffice to say that although I didn’t recoup what it cost for a slot on Freebooksy, the result in terms of purchases of the other books in the series was encouraging enough for me to think that it might be a good idea to do the same with The Rabbit Hole (RH).

There’s one problem. Freebooksy doesn’t have a ‘weird’ genre, nor even one for anthologies. They stick to highly mainstream genres like ‘mystery’, ‘fantasy’ or ‘romance.’ Similarly, there’s no ‘weird’ category on Amazon, where RH1 is in Fiction: anthologies and Fiction: fantasy: collections and anthologies, and RH2 is in Fiction: anthologies and Fiction: short stories.

Nor is there any BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) for ‘weird’. Draft2Digital, which incidentally does a great job if you’re going ‘wide’ (i.e. not giving Amazon exclusivity), uses the BISAC categories; RH there is in Fiction, anthologies (multiple authors) and I recently added it to Fiction: Absurdist. Whether that’s accurate is debatable, but authors as diverse as Sartre, Vonnegut, Murakami and Kafka have been classified as absurdist, so it could be said that it’s a very broad church. Besides, it doesn’t hurt to be in company like that. I could also add dark fantasy, humorous or alien contact, as each of those pertains to at least a couple of stories in the two volumes so far published. But with multiple authors, there are multiple themes and topics, and no single category covers them all.

For RH2 we defined different themes: weather, science and entertainment. But although these produced some excellent contributions, they don’t fit into a genre. Of course, it’s not because you do fit into one that you make your life any easier, because it’s then that the competition gets fierce. But for RH3, I’m thinking it’s worth a try.

So here’s the idea. When the call for submissions for RH3 goes out in January, it will be for a specific genre, one of three I’ve selected from the Freebooksy list: thriller, romance or horror. Many thanks, then, if you could fill in the poll below. To test this isea out, which of those genres would you like to see adopted in RH3?

Note that whatever genre is chosen, ‘weird’ remains the defining feature of The Rabbit Hole. So if, say, horror is the genre, a story about a psycho hacking people to pieces won’t make it. Because weird as that may be by the standards of normal behaviour, it doesn’t include the surreal, wondrous or out-of-this-world element that makes a story qualify as weird. Similarly, there are many ways for romance to be weird, but a kinky sex story might not be the best way to set about it. Not that we’re averse to sex, kinky or otherwise, but if that’s the only weirdness in the story, it’s not enough. Weird romance, of course, wouldn’t be the same as mainstream romance, so that would need to be made clear in the blurb, but at least it would fit somewhere into the genre. As for thriller, plenty of scope there, though I must admit that handling a thriller, weird or not, in a short story is quite a challenge. But hey, all writing is.

Over to you, then. And feel free to chip in with your own thoughts.

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blogging, book promotion, book sales, reading, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op Anthology

Will Hard Copies Outlast eBooks?

Duh. Of course. And now that The Rabbit Hole, Volume Two, is out in hard-copy, it’s time to add a real book to your library.

And, how else would you expect to add an Ian Bristow cover to your art collection? Someday, his work will show up on Antique Roadshow and your grand-kids will wonder, wow, why didn’t I inherit one of those?

Buy it here:
Amazon.com link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1691225355

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reading, Stories, Writers Co-op

The Rabbit Hole Volume 2

Rabbit Hole Vol Two cover

The second volume of The Rabbit Hole is every bit as flumbiferous as the first. Which is just as Alice likes, because weirdness abounds and the warren never ends. Are you out for revenge? You’ll need the right app. Or perhaps you’ve done something foolish? Never mind – it can be undone. Would you like to be in a video game? That too can be arranged – at a cost.

All this and more in 29 stories to leave you pondering realms beyond our perception. Unless, perhaps, they’ve been there all along but we just weren’t looking the right way.

29 writers, 29 ways into weird.

Available for pre-order at for just 99¢ at:

Amazon                    Other major retailers

Contributing authors: Edward Ahern, Marie Anderson, Édgar Avilés, Curtis Bausse, E.F.S. Byrne, Steph Bianchini, Jon Black, Glenn Bruce, GD Deckard, Rhonda Eikamp, Brad Fiore, J.G. Follansbee, Steven Gepp, Boris Glikman, Geoff Habiger, Jill Hand, T.A. Henry, Jessica Joy, Simone Martel, Dennis Myers, David Rae, Alistair Rey, David Rogers, Barry Rosen, Kim Ross, JJ Steinfeld, Mack Stone, Stanley Webb, Tom Wolosz

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Literary critique, Stories, writing technique

Briefly Sentimental

crying-while-reading-compressed

A couple of years back, giving an author feedback on a story I had rejected for the Book a Break anthology, one of the reasons I gave was that ‘it veered into sentimentality at the end.’ I wasn’t alone in this appraisal: Sherry Morris, the competition judge, said, ‘it all goes sentimental syrupy at the end. Indigestible.’ The author, whilst accepting my other remarks, wrote back to say that she actually quite liked sentimental stories.

This got me thinking. Were we talking about the same thing? We couldn’t be, I decided, but since I didn’t pursue the exchange, I can’t be totally sure. What I did instead was a little research, and found this excellent article, which gives a thorough analysis of sentimentality, and how the meaning of the word has changed over the years. It’s a long one, so if you’re in a hurry, I’ll summarise it as: it’s a lot more complex than we think.

My own conclusion is that (as with everything else) it all depends how it’s done. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with sentimentality. Decades ago I read Love Story, which was widely panned by critics as formulaic and manipulative, pulling just the right strings to get the hankies out. William Styron called it ‘a banal book which simply doesn’t qualify as literature.’ A snootiness which did nothing, I’m sure, to dent Erich Segal’s spirits – Love Story was in the New York Times bestseller list for 41 weeks. Though I know a mass readership doesn’t equate to quality, I always feel that anyone who sells that number has to be doing something right.

So why did Sherry and I react negatively to what we perceived as sentimentality? The difference between Love Story and the story I rejected was that Segal took the time to put all the pieces in place, get us cheering for the two main characters, before demolishing our hopes with Jenny’s  death. In the face of a disapproving father, the love of a young couple ends in tragedy. Not a bad pitch, is it? Shakespeare’s log-lines haven’t survived but it’s widely thought he used it for Romeo and Juliet.

To get sentimentality right in a short story is hard. Crucial to its success is getting the reader’s emotions in the right place as early as possible. And I realise now that the keyword in my feedback to the author was not sentimentality but veered. In a story which up till then was mysterious, even scary, there was a sudden switch to two people trying to cope with the loss of a loved one. Edgar Allen Poe would have been appalled – it goes against the ‘unity of effect’ he insisted a short story must achieve: decide on what emotional response you want to elicit, stick to just one, and make sure that everything contributes to that end.

Poe’s strictures are seen these days as rigid. There are many successful short stories that don’t follow them. All the same, as a rule of thumb, the unity of effect isn’t a bad one. Where a novel can play with many different emotions, a short story is best dealing with just one. And there’s nothing at all wrong if that one is sentimental – just make sure you nail it right from the start.

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Uncategorized

Children, aging and the joy of videogames

Note: I saw this post on a videogame forum last week.

– by Andreslamantis

Let me tell you a little story:

I found a couple of kids (no more than 12 years old) near my camp the other day. Even when the Hobo is my favourite character, my main is an old retired Brotherhood commando, kinda like paladin Brandis in Fallout 4. White hair, glasses, scars. Rarely one of my characters reaches a high level (this one is 77) because I start new characters all the time. I get the fun from that, and roleplaying it. This one is, certainly, a survivor.

It was late at night (in game, not the real world) and I was resting (sleeping, because my character is old and needs to sleep) and they were outside, checking the wares on my vending machines. Suddenly, one of them entered the house and asked on the mic if I could give them something for 40-50 caps. Even their characters looked super young. They were carrying a machete and a short hunting rifle, one of therm was wearing the vault suit and a ranger hat, the other was wearing pastor’s vestments. And it hit me:

It looked like Halloween.

I got up and dropped a bag of missiles, half-empty cores and mini nukes to make space, some protective undies nobody was buying plus ten US supply requisitions, and they gave me loving emotes for 5 minutes. I went back to sleep.

“Thanks, mister, we’ll remember this. Call us if you need us.”

I imagine them talking about it at school the next day.

I am 36 and I remember being 10 and rocking my Genesis. In fact, I remember being 5 and rocking my Commodore 64. I remember being 3/4 and my dad holding me up so I could play “Crossbow” at the arcades (my earliest videogame memory). I cannot help thinking that one day I will be old (I hope) and remember being 36, and playing this game, bugs and all.

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It strikes me that there must be many true stories  in cyberspace. (Not talking fan fiction here.) A Google search turned up only scary stories about bad things happening to people on the Internet. But over two billion people play videogames.
https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/newzoo-2017-report-insights-into-the-108-9-billion-global-games-market/

Who’s writing their stories? Two billion real people are interacting with strangers in make-believe worlds! Are we missing a market, a huge, incredible, untapped market?  In what genre would you even put this -or, would it make more sense to create a new genre to appeal to videogamers? What do you think?

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