June 5, 2014 § 4 Comments
Hey all! My pal, my hero, my once-and-future dungeon master Andrew Blissenbach of Mandrew’s Blissenblog invited me to take part in this #mywritingprocess chain that has been sweeping the blogosphere. I met Andy when we were both getting our MFAs from Hamline University, and I’ve admired his slightly intimidating writing since before we became friends. I say intimidating not just because Andy takes masculinity in all its permutations and perversions as his subject, but because he does it with such skill, bravery, intelligence, and passion that it always felt hard to live up to his energy if you had to read a piece after him. Since graduating, he’s started an awesome blog featuring his CNF explorations of masculinity, which you can check out here (or you can jump right to his #MyWritingProcess post here.)
So here are the questions he challenged me to answer:
1) What am I working on?
A metafictional erotic thriller / comedic murder mystery / romantic slasher called Slash.
Here’s a little synopsis: Alexis Bledsoe would die if anyone found out about her secret crush. As star of TV’s #1 family drama, she’s certain coming out of the closet would end her career. Worse still, her one true love is America’s hottest actress, Lissa Blaine, who just happens to play her older and prettier sister each week on Koop’s Kitchen. So Alex hates Lissa, too: wishes her dead every time she stumbles onto a tabloid cover with a cocktail in hand and some new B-list beefcake on her arm. Desperate for an outlet each night after filming wraps, Alex closes the shades on her trailer and reads slash fiction on internet fan forums: trashy little tales written by viewers about an imagined romance between her and Lissa’s characters. All unbelievable moans and trite whispers, Alex believes them a secret best taken to her grave–until an anonymous author begins to post violent slash stories that seem to foretell the death of the cast of Koop’s Kitchen. When real life actors start dying in scenes suspiciously similar to those Alex has been reading, she is forced to search the stories for suspects and clues instead of steamy caresses. And with everyone she knows a potential perverted murderer or future victim, keeping her true self a secret is more a matter or life and death than ever before.
I’m self-publishing it serially but already have a near-final draft of the whole thing done. I’m just going through and tweaking/polishing each episode as I put them out now–not the most exciting part of the process to me–so I’m also working on a few short stories to keep my muscles up.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
As you can probably tell from the description above, Slash is all over as far as genre is concerned. Really conservative genre stuff usually bores me, but I find working with genre very fruitful for my creative process. The blank page can be really scary, but with genre I feel like you get a free outline to start with; I just usually find my creativity excited by tearing certain parts of the conventions down instead of building them up and filling them in.
For example, there are some sections of the novel that I hoped would read like an erotic thriller, but I never wanted to let the reader get too into it for too long, so I often found myself using either some comedy or vertiginous metafictional effect to pull back—not out of the story, but out of the flow of pure expectation and satisfaction that the most formulaic genre stuff works on. With the metafiction in the story, I found it most fun to ally the readers with the protagonist as things get interesting, only to make a little critical fun of them both for liking it (and the author for liking writing it) after the climax.
If I have a beef with genre (especially with the way books are sold on the internet), it is that it is often a way for readers to get only what they want, to only read about the sort of characters they like, in the sort of scenes that are interesting to them, thinking thoughts that echo the readers’ own opinions; I feel like a book should challenge a reader’s expectations, and the way I’m trying to do that with Slash is by layering all these expectations that can’t possibly all be satisfied.
3) Why do I write what I write?
After rereading the above, I realize I must sound like a pretentious literary snob. But trying to better myself, to challenge myself, is one of the reasons I write. I find writing to be the kind of labor, like learning something complicated or going on a really exhausting bike ride, that can be the sort of challenge that turns easy, making time melt away as consciousness sinks into something deeper. I write because I feel bad about myself when I’m not challenging myself in that way; I write because I feel like I owe it to everyone who wrote the books that have changed me; I write because I turn into a weepy brat with bad self-esteem when I stay away from the page for too long.
Shoot… that sounds even more pretentious. But I write WHAT I write because I want to be unpretentious. In addition to putting all that sex and violence and humor in Slash to play with genre, I also did so because I thought that people would like to read about all that sex and violence and humor.
My favorite novels are those sorts of novels, like Jennifer Egan’s The Keep or Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, that are both fun and challenging to read, because they get you in with genre elements but then make you look deeper into them and think of them in new ways. I’d like to think it stems more from some deep, democratic love of humanity than just a thirst for royalty checks, but I do want to reach a wider readership than really hardcore literary fiction like Finnegan’s Wake usually touches. I want my writing to be inviting, and putting familiar genre elements in a story is a great way to keep the front door open for a lot of readers. What I do with you once you’re in the house is another matter…
4) How does your writing process work?
I always start loose, with pencil and paper. With the first novel I wrote, for my MFA thesis, this meant doing what Pat Francisco, master of the Creative Process, calls a “shitty first draft.” Basically this entails just letting loose a stream of, “Okay: this happened and then this happened and then that happened—but wait, I forgot to say that this other thing happened between the first and the second things, which makes this next thing make perfect sense…” over however many pages and days it took until I had a beginning, middle, and end, even if they didn’t show up in that order.
Given the episodic nature and genre elements of Slash, I started by loosely outlining the general arc of the whole thing and broke it up into sections, then made increasingly articulate outlines for each episode. (There was even a stage in the early planning when I thought of developing it as a comic book, making it easy to think of Episodes as trade paperbacks collecting the individual issues, which eventually became chapters.)
Even once I got writing, though, I stayed by-hand for the first full draft in order to stay loose creatively and keep myself from getting worried about and continually re-editing what came before (because there’s good no reason to change the start, anyway, until you know the end). Plus, it kept me flexible in the next draft; I find I’m much more willing to make changes as I’m typing it all up than if I’m just rereading what I have in MS Word.
Once I had the full typed draft, I let my wife read it, and then started revising it, episode by episode. For these penultimate revisions, I’m really focusing on giving each episode its own arc; they obviously aren’t going to be able to be read on their own, since the over-arching mystery is the focus, but I want them each to offer some small conflict and resolution so that there’s some satisfaction feeding readers in the wait between episodes. I’ve been sending these episodes out to writers I trust (MANDREW himself, along with Josh Wodarz and Benjamin J. Kowalsky) for one final round of comments before I tweak a few last scenes and sentences based on their comments. Then it is off to my proofreader, the astute and infallible Eve Proofreads, after which I format for ebooks and the zine version. (I am thinking of sharing my book-making tips in a future post, so I will leave them out of this writing process discussion.)
These final steps of revision, publication, and promotion are the most boring part to me, though; I much prefer the planning and dreaming stages to the fine-tuning and word-worrying of the last steps. As a result, I’ve found it helpful for my enthusiasm and sanity to keep some small projects going to break up the monotony of copy-editing and promoting that has taken up a lot of my time since starting to publish Slash.
Here’s a sneak peak at a short story I worked on between episodes and am currently sending around to lit-journals. As you can see, it is hand-written on scratch paper, but it is really the fifth or sixth draft I did. If I’ve learned one concrete thing about my process over the years, it is to stay off the computer for as long as possible. I think I finally typed up the next draft, which became the final draft after a little copy editing. In addition to the reasons I listed above in favor of pen and paper, I feel like the computer has several strikes against it. In addition to the distraction of the internet, since becoming a self-publisher, the keyboard has increasingly become a space of commerce and competition to me, which is detrimental to my creativity.
Anyhow, hopefully that was of some interest to someone—at the very least, I think I learned a few things about myself typing it up. In addition to all those nuts and bolts, emotion plays a big part in the creative process; one of the most prevalent, in my case, at least, being doubt.
That’s why I chose Mark Rapacz for one of the next links in this blog-chain. Since I first reached out to him about his awesome Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles project I wanted to include in my fan fiction recommendations posts at Slash, he’s been a great source of encouragement, enthusiasm, and FB links to all sorts of news about fan-fiction that have kept me going every time I’ve wondered if all the work would amount to anything. Plus, he’s also a visionary publisher and an incredible writer: if you like stories that challenge your expectations, try his beautiful and elegiac western, Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines. His post will appear next week at www.blastgun.com.
BIO: Mark Rapacz is the founding editor of Blastgun Books and an editor and partner with the neo-pulp press Burnt Bridge. His short stories have appeared in a number of publications, including Water~Stone Review, Revolver, Martian Lit, The Booked. Anthology, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He has short works coming soon from Plots With Guns and The East Bay Review. His novella, Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines, was recently re-issued as a historically accurate dime novel and is available through IndyPlanet and Amazon. Whenever he gets the chance, he forces people to read his work of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan fiction, Tongue-Cut Ninja. He and his wife currently live in the Bay Area, where he works at Stanford University and continues to write stories.
When a little encouragement isn’t enough to outweigh the doubt, I usually enter the stage in my creative process called despair. When I feel like what I’m doing will never be good enough or that, regardless of how good it is, no one will ever read it, it is my lovely wife, the poet and scholar Jenny McDougal who talks some sense into me. She’s incredibly supportive and encouraging—not to mention a great poet, professor, and founding editor at Versus Literary Journal, a home to all pop culture obsessed literature. After you check out her post, be sure to submit that series of Super Mario haikus you’ve been working on for years.
Bio: Jenny McDougal lives and writes in St Paul, Minnesota where she teaches English Literature at St. Catherine University. She is a semi-finalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize in Poetry, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Water~Stone Review, Nimrod International Journal of Poetry and Prose, Paper Darts, Red Bird, Dinosaur Bees, sleet magazine, and elsewhere. She loves roller-skating, discussing feminist narratives in literature, and most things that are neat.
The other side of doubt and despair is the dreaming part of my creative process, where anything seems possible and the ideas seem to stack beautifully, one fitting perfectly
into the next, until I’m sure academics will be studying my body of work centuries from now. When I first started my MFA at Hamline University, I looked up to David Oppegaard, who had recently graduated from the program and had already published a book—with a blurb from Stan Lee! I dreamed of being David. Many years later, I’m still looking up to him, as he just put his fourth book out, the gritty western horror story And the Hills Opened Up. His post will appear next week at www.blogagaard.blogspot.com.
Bio: David Oppegaard is the author of the Bram Stoker-nominated The Suicide Collectors (St. Martin’s Press), Wormwood, Nevada (St. Martin’s Press) and And the Hills Opened Up (Burnt Bridge). David’s work is a blend of science fiction, literary fiction, horror, and dark fantasy. He holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Hamline University and a B.A. in English from St. Olaf College. He lives in St. Paul, MN. You can visit his website at davidoppegaard.com.