As I’ve been steadily working on BBH (writing new material while reworking a few older parts), I couldn’t help but think about all of my other novel projects. In the last two and a half years, there have been about two dozen projects, one of which was published (Hooks and Slaughterhouse – get your copy at Amazon) and the rest which I have looked at, sent out, forgotten about, on and on and on.
The thing is, with the other stories, they weren’t bad. Not really. But the stories were a little confused. There was a single draft and that was it. I wasn’t in an editing frame of mind just yet when I wrote them and so as soon as the story was done, I put the project aside. And most of the time, the projects were literal translations of the theme. I wanted to write about the Salem Witch Trials? I did just that. I wanted to write about some flies. Oh, there were fly stories and plenty of them. The problem was that with my writing now, I don’t just want an obvious interpretation. I want the work to stand for something larger, to be a series of themes weaved into a singular narrative.
It was like when I first started my MFA and handed in my version of a fairy tale. The story had a queen and a princess and a castle and it was a good story. But my mentor looked at the story and said, “Well? What makes this different from every other fairy tale out there?” And at first, I was pissed off, because I felt like he was saying I couldn’t write. But then, I understood what he meant. And now, it makes even more sense. If you’re going to write a new version of Alice in Wonderland, then write a new version, not the same story of Alice tumbling down a hole while wearing her blue dress. Do something different. And if you don’t want to do something different, then think of another story. Or just read the book again.
With that in mind, I started going through my old writing files. Well, that’s not entirely true. I went through the culled writing. There was no need to go through everything when I had already done so weeks and months before. But I went through the things I had salvaged and made a different file of just what I liked. I always have a USB drive with all the material I can’t stand to be without and that’s what I looked for. What couldn’t I be without? It had to be writing that spoke to me personally, writing that was about me without being about me. Writing that wasn’t just a series of strange images stacked up and meaning nothing when really read over. Yes, there were some creative lines but if that was the only thing I had going for me in my writing, what was the point?
It’s like art. An artist throws paint at a canvas and takes a picture and maybe the brush strokes are weird but that doesn’t matter. What matters was what the artist was trying to say and what the reader ends up making from it. I’ve had plenty of work accepted and rejected (I always prefer to say it was “declined” because it seems so much more positive) and the one thing that even the rejections would say was, “your imagery was awesome sauce crazy but we’re not really sure what the story is.”
So when I went through my files yesterday and started cutting a few things for a different master file, I looked at my writing with a critical eye. There were only a few stories that I wanted to keep. Obviously, my final draft of Hooks, which had been edited over and over again until it was as close to perfect as my editor and I could get it. Another story called The Cells, which was one of the first novels I wrote and has themes of science, religion, and fairy tales (and thus, the interwoven themes that I wanted), and a few pieces from various other novels. Because I realized that the strongest parts in my other novels were the letters I put in them. They were more concerned with the characters’ psyches than with the action itself and I thought that was more important.
I guess you can say that I lean towards the psychological. My favorite movies? All psychological. I like to have a vague idea of what reality and fantasy are in a movie/book/blah blah blah so I can guess at what’s really happening. Hence, why I adore David Lynch films, since I sit there the entire time trying to understand and I never really get that understanding but it’s okay, because I had fun trying. Also, why I like modern art, because when you look at it, it’s like a Rorschach test. Everyone’s interpretation is completely different.
Another issue I have with my older stories is that where there’s usually some giant issue in the middle of it, there’s no motivation for it. Why is this one girl being stalked by a strange creature? Why is this house haunted? What happened that this person has a split personality? There’s no reasoning for it. There’s no underlying story. It’s like I’m playing god and I wave my hand and say, “Hey! You’re a nut job now, just because I said so.” And while writing a novel is like playing god, it can’t work like you’re waving your hand and making something happen. It doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t make sense. It goes against the rules.
If I think about some (most?) of the longer stories I’ve written, I’d have to describe them as those movies where the first act really sets everything up and then in the second act, nothing happens like the viewer thought it would and everyone leaves the theater confused and trying to understand what they just watched because once that halfway mark hit, nothing made anymore sense. At first, I thought that that was okay. It was like a trick, a flash of light, something different. But then I realized that no, it just wasn’t right. It wasn’t what I wanted. So in order to think clearly, I had to distance myself from them. In essence, I White-Fanged my earlier novels, shouting, “Go away! I don’t want you anymore! I don’t love you!” when deep inside, my heart is weeping because it hurts so badly to let it all go.
Yesterday, I had to ask myself honestly: can I see this particular work getting published? And the more I thought about it, the more I had to answer, no. Which isn’t to say that the initial stories were bad. The ideas were good, the execution was off. Obviously, if I had done some serious editing in the midst of them, it would be a different story. I’d have some good stories. And I noticed a recurring theme: most of them have the same sort of plot, like I kept trying to figure out how to approach a story but couldn’t figure it out so I wrote a ton of drafts that were vastly different from one another, but at the core, said the same thing. It’s kind of like when I was in high school and my teacher would ask for second drafts and so I would just write a new story and say that for my second draft, I wanted to completely change the story. It was a lie. I just didn’t want to do a second draft because I felt like I didn’t need to.
BBH is the first story I’ve spent months upon months focusing on. It’s all I’ve cared about and granted, it has been tedious as hell. It has been the worst thing ever. I’ve been going slightly mad from it, because the story keeps evolving. But that’s part of the process. The story has to change in order to get to the point where it makes sense. I want it to be that way. Yes, it’s hideously tedious because by this point, I’m a little tired of the story. But at the same time, I want it to be perfect. I want it to be a great novel. I want everything I write to be great. I don’t want to be so concerned with flowery language at the expense of forgetting the story. If the language helps the story along, then great. But I don’t want to be one of those writers who decide to disguise a sub-par story with linguistic tricks.
And I don’t want to forget about my old stories either. I did love them when I wrote them. Every writer has a drawer of shit manuscripts. I have my fair share. When thinking about why a particular novel just wasn’t going to work, I also had to think about what I liked. I made notes about the parts I liked and decided how they would match a certain theme. And I have ideas, friends. So many ideas.