I was thinking this week about the the time I quit writing for four years, and when I started back up, and all of those little things that make me the writer I am. During that four year break I completely quit writing, barely read anything, I was just going about those years doing other things. That happened about 15 years ago, and obviously it didn’t stick. I was mostly programming, working a lot, all that stuff. At the time I felt like something was missing. Like the ghost of the writer I had been before the break was haunting me. Staring at me from behind mirrors.
When my daughter was born, something changed inside of me.
I rediscovered writing again, and reading again, and I set out with one goal in mind: to get something published once again. I started with short stories, since I’d always been a fan of them and wanted to test and try my skill at them once more.
Before that four year break I’d had some short stories published, won an award for a short story when I was at Kent State University, so I figured this would be a good way to ease back in. It’s amazing how much you forget in four years. How much you rust and change.
I was also a different person at that point, and wanted to try different things. The writer I was before my four year break was one who embraced experimental writing to an extreme that was completely upside down and inside out. I pushed and I pushed, mostly writing literary magical realist stories, as well as a few plays and some poems, all experimental.
One of the places I got published as an experimental writer
So when I started up again after that four year break I wanted to go further back, to my starting interests with writing, back before I discovered experimental writing. I wanted to return to Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. So I sat down and with that goal in mind, I planned out what I would write. Something simple. Like two guys in a garage building an AI. A sort of startup story, with a downfall, etc. I had a list of markets I could submit to, so I could leap back into being published right away. Or so I had thought.
And then I started writing. It wasn’t simple, or joyous, as I remembered writing before. It was low and slow and painful, I was way rusted shut. My writing muscles were screaming in pain. Little did I know that all my trouble stemmed from one thing and one thing only. I was bored of this story. I just hadn’t realized it yet. So I kept on writing, page after page, hour after painful hour.
Writing felt like this for some reason.
And as I wrote it, one of the characters walks by a door made of night. I stopped writing right then and just stared at the page. Now, I don’t believe in mystic visions, or some random muse giving the gift of magical magic writing or whatever. But this was something different, this was my own mind playing with me. Some corner of my mind that existed on the substance of dreams and surrealism. Maybe it was the bones of that experimental writer howling to be brought back to life.
Whatever it was, I realized the story about the AI was boring. But the night door was interesting.
Did I follow it? No. I started writing another story, about clones and genetic engineering and then there it was, there again. A night door. Hungry, waiting for me. I stopped that story. Started another story. And again, again, each and every time. There it was, waiting for me.
doors made of night, at night, leading to shadowlands…
I wish I could say I opened that door and wrote some stories and they were excellent and everyone loved me. But that isn’t quite the truth now, is it? I did follow that night door and wrote some stories, following it along. But they weren’t good either. They were messy, sloppy, falling apart. I tried going the other route again, writing a story about a hollow earth cult in the 1890’s. I had a plan in mind, it was going to have all these complex things happening, it was going to have multiple timelines. It was…interesting? But something was wrong. It was boring. I had a great start, very poetic first paragraph, but then it just kind of meandered along, all predictable and terribly uninteresting.
I rewrote it. I kept the start that I liked, and I kept the bones of it all, but instead of planning ahead, I just rolled with it. A rabbit appeared with human teeth and eyes and I just went with it. I was able to go where the weirdness took me, but I was able to have control over it. I didn’t let it fly off into madness, I had a basic concept that I stuck to, letting the two elements flesh each other out. That was my first big sale, to PostScripts magazine.
Using the same format, I sold a lot of other stories. I would have a single, powerful first sentence. Something that sparked my imagination, poetic, mostly weird. And then I would roll with the strangeness, all the while keeping an eye on the complete shape of it all. Instead of doing what I did as an experimental writer and just kind of went batshit crazy, I forced it into a solid funnel. But I knew that I had to follow the weirdness too. I had to have both, the strange dream like surrealism and the overall shape.
By shape I don’t mean plot per se, or story per se, or anything quite like that. It’s an abstract concept. More like letting my mind go strange and wild, but if it starts taking on a shape that feels untrue to the original concept, I step back and change things, moving them back into shape. You could say it’s theme, or maybe something like an emotional groundwork? Or something like that, but I prefer the term shape because it all feels very visual to me. I can picture the shapes of my stories, they look like abstract blurs and blobs of colors and light and shadow.
Not exactly a map per se, but it exists a sort of map to story. To me it also resembles how I envision music, or even when poetry is spoken out loud. I see it, existing in this abstract painting sort of way. I can’t explain it, no more than when Disney had those strange abstract shapes and colors set to music. And yes, I think this explains it best. Because the shapes aren’t static, they move with the story. As I write it, I can see the shape changing, morphing, growing and shrinking. When I revisit the page in edits, I can still see the shape as it existed in that point in time. And I can be true to that shape, when I make the changes. I can keep the story anchored and grounded.
Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, the story keeps bending out of shape. This is a sure sign that I’m bored of this story. So it’s best to just trunk it and work on something else, something that my mind finds compelling. My mind needs something to play with, and if it can’t find it, it makes something strange up and just kind of drops it into the story. A series of night doors, if you will. A lot of times this is awesome, and all that oddness adds to the core of the story. But just as often, it breaks the shape and all I feel is discord. It’s hard to hammer on a broken shape, it doesn’t tend to fix itself.
I found a long time ago that books feed this strange imagination. Visual books, books with interesting images and bizarre nonfiction, these are the best. I have a very visual imagination, and it requires to be fed quite regularly, or else it will go stale, or try and rebel mid-story into nonsense and gibberish. I have this bizarre feeling that my thoughts are wild beasts that roam inside my mind, hungry and not easy to tame. They have drives of their own, and sometimes go rabid and mad when I don’t give them what they need.
So I grab lots of books to feed these beasts in my mind. My favorite was one given to me by my grandpa, and inspired a lot of the stories I sold to a lot of different magazines, and inspired a lot of the stories in my collection Glass Coffin Girls. It was a visual book of Victorian spiritualism. It was an older book, probably from the early 60’s, and the pictures had these grainy, unweildly look to them. Like we were seeing something that we shouldn’t be seeing, like these were hidden, horrible photographs they wanted to keep buried under dirt and away from prying eyes.
Like this, but even dingier and somewhat moldy.
You’ve probably seen all of these pictures before, but the way they looked in this book? So raw. So broken and rusted. Pictures of mediums spewing ectoplasmic hands, all of that. The book had mold splotches on it that effected the art. It had that old film look that picture books had before the advent of digital typesetting. Grainy, unwelcome. It was unsettling. My imagination ate on that for years.
I have more now, strange art books, folklore/fairy tale books. A lot of stuff by Taschen (mostly on Alchemy and Mysticism, old miracles, Medieval bestiaries, the Dictionary of Symbols, etc). I also for the past few years fed my mind on literary books, books that are kissing cousins to realism. Some mad experimental works. My brain wanted to write poetry for awhile, so I read and devoured modern and old and new and all sorts of poems. I revisited ones I loved as a teen and found new and dangerous ones.
And so on and so on. Sometimes my mind still gets away from me and ruins a story. Usually its because I’m trying too hard to write in a mode, to write like someone else, and it falls apart. Because my mind is bored, and it drops in night doors and bizarre endings and strange worlds. And then I have to trunk it, or maybe go back and edit it and find the good parts and save it. Sometimes there is no saving it. Othertimes I’d cobble two books or short stories together, making something new from it all.
I still don’t have this all under control. I’m getting better at it, day in day out. I feed my mind beasts a strange diet, changing it up, finding new things to obsess over. I collect pictures and pictures and paintings, and I look for the unworldly and unreal outside my own door. I don’t want to tame these strange mental creatures, though. I like my imagination the way it is, to be honest. It might be easier to write some other way, to just sit down and plop plop plop out some plot and characters and that’s it, where it’s all good and fine and everything’s cool. But I can’t do it.
those creatures in my mind….
I have too many doors left unopened, and my brain hates to be bored. It sends snakes to hunt me when I get bored. So I trust in that mind, trust that it can make this story work. As long as I keep the shapes in my eyes, I can see them, right now. All those story shapes calling to me. Making sure it stays within those loose chaotic figures, the wild, unruly formations.
Then those beasts can play, and my stories become more interesting. More solid and more grounded in its strangeness.
This is how I lean into the weird. Take this hand with me, fellow writers, lets walk through that night door. Let’s step off the path, and follow these weird random shapes in the sky. These constellations of story that guide us in the dark.