Announcing a brand spanking new Weird and Surreal Space Opera for 2018

Apex books acquired my novella sequel to Open Your Eyes (called Close Your Mouth). The plan is to combine it with Open Your Eyes and a short story prequel, and publish it all together as a novel (since they do work well together as a novel, the way the timelines work and etc). Basically, it’s an old school style fix-up. Which makes my pulp brain twitter with delight.

Should be out mid-to-late 2018. Here’s the official post at Apex-
https://www.apexbookcompany.com/blogs/frontpage/apex-book-company-acquires-close-your-mouth-by-paul-jessup

And here’s an excerpt from Close Your Mouth, to sort of wet your appetite-

Itsasu’s Room:

Not large at all, barely wide enough for a few things here and there. Scattered about, small and claustrophobic. A bed that breathed at night with wet noises. Splish. Splish. Splish. A wall that was more shelves than space. Covered in tiny vials and tubes and random pages cut out of books. Yellow, those pages. Haunted, those pages. She read them a few times over the years. But the words never stuck in her mind. Always left a whisper and nothing else.

A bejeweled skull on the corner of her breathing bed. You could smell the AI dust roaming about it. The smell of yeast. Growing, growing, and devouring the air. That kind of yeast that suffocates you and brings you close to death. That was the smell of her memories. Populating that skull. Giving it crude life. Almost her husband. Not quite. Something broken in the way he spoke. Something hollow and peppered with randomness.

Another wall, another map. This one crude hand drawn. She’d tried to map out the egia so many times. But her hands. So rough, so broken. Hands that were not the right kind of hands. Grown from bird beaks and crow’s feet. Stitched and attached and she was more doll than person now. How much left of her was real? How much left of her was torn out and taken away?

Topsy Turvy Upside Down

I haven’t blogged in quite a while. My life was inside out, all over the place. Everything was moving fast. Job changes, moving moving between states and back again. But hey, I think I’m going to start back up again. Maybe not the long essay-ish blog posts that I was testing the waters out with for awhile there. Those had some good ones, some bad ones, but it felt hard to keep up the steam, if you know what I mean.

But I feel like I need to at least ramble on at some points. And talk about things that are happening. Soon, I’m going to have a review in a Tiny Letter called Unsung Books. I’m very excited about this. Soon, I’m going to have short stories in a few magazines and podcasts, but I can’t talk about those quiet yet.

And soon, like this week, I’m going to start writing a short story a week and put it up on Patreon. Is it madness? Is he insane? Can he do it?

Well, yeah. That was my tactic the first three years I was writing- it was kind of a personal bootcamp. And I really enjoyed doing it, and feel like I should get back into doing it yet again.

I also need to update my bio and other things like crazy crazy. It’s far behind on my recent publications. Oh, and here’s a link to that mad Patreon:

https://www.patreon.com/pauljessup

These Savage Echoes

So some part of me has been meaning to talk about the time from around 2011 until now when I seemed to disappear from genre writing, though not really. It was a strange time then, I was trying different things. Some people thought I stopped writing all together.

The answer is sort of true, yet not. I was trying lots of different styles and modes of writing. I think that’s how we improve, in a way. I spent a few years focused only on poetry and nothing else. Poetry, after all, is where I got my start. My first professional publication in the 90’s were poems to various magazines and newspapers. I also wrote some plays (a one act that got locally produced, etc, and one that won some local awards but wasn’t put on), which was also where I had originally gotten my start. Plays and poems.

I also acted for awhile, also local theater stuff. I enjoyed it. It was nice to return to those strange formative years where my writing was smaller, personal, more incandescent. I also read a lot. A lot of genre theory. Some classics. I read a lot of literary fiction as well, and yes, some random bits of genre here and there. It may have seemed like I disappeared, but really I was just elsewhere doing other things.

I also worked on some novels, and had one or two short stories published. One or two new ones, that was. I had a lot of reprints through the years, most of them coming from my print collection Glass Coffin Girls (published by the amazing PS Publishing). But I did write new shortstories, just not as much as I used to. They were startlingly strange now. Moving in a different direction. Some noir, some crime fiction, some magical realism. It was a nice break. Writing poetry and plays helped in other ways, too. It helped me with sentence structure, with dialogue.

I also wrote probably the best poem I have to write. I’d spent five years writing it, maybe even longer. It said a lot of things I’ve been meaning to say in poetry. It got published in Interfictions– this was All the Houses on Sesame Street Are Haunted Houses. I realized afterwards that I had nothing else to say in poetry. That I had done it, and done it perfectly, and could not top that.

Really, I think this was an important period for me as a form of exploration. Of finding out what I liked and what I didn’t like, and how different narrative forms worked. I meddled around with podcasting again, and near the end of 2015 or so I got back into genre fiction (SF/F/H) once more.  I restarted Grendelsong magazine, and flew through the center core of it all. I got a shortstory published again in a genre market. I’m  just not the fireball of short fiction now, as I had used to be. Which, I’m okay with. Sort of. I miss being everywhere, all the time.

I move slower now, larger with my words and worlds. I tend to reach towards longer things, creating a complete immersion in the writing. Novels and novels and more novels. Hitting towards some secondary world I see just out of my sight. Novel writing is completely different in form than short stories and poems and plays. It’s length and size are gargantuan, leviathan, you could be swallowed alive inside of it.

So I’m not seen as much because of that. This focus on novels keeps me from writing a short story every week, as I had before. It keeps me from appearing all over the place, as I had before.

I can see why a lot of shortstory authors who make the jump from the lesser, intricate form of shortstories to the larger, messier, hungrier form of novels seem to evaporate and fade away. The words themselves become complex. The worlds overshadowing everything. There is a complexity, a performance and anxiety, and a fear of getting lost in the woods and devoured by the chapters. You can’t just string together stories, you can’t just try and make the shorts longer and longer, bloating them into being.

You also can’t approach plot the same way. Purpose the same way. Even characters the same way. One could propose that scenes and chapters play out as short stories, and then it’s all connected together. One could also say that a necklace is made of stardust and vinegar. It becomes a messy, incoherent shadow text. One that does not survive the fires of edits.

It is a complex thing. Moving from one station to the next. Drifting between the forms like a wraith. You experiment, you prod, you try and gather purchase. All the way, you are attempting the truth of the medium, of all fictive mediums: that voice inside of you. What are your strengths? What are you shadows? How do you pursue the best you?

Writing is an act of self-discovery. It’s one thing you don’t hear about much. You hear about gauging the market, chasing fads. How to promote yourself, create a brand of your own style. But that’s not really it, is it? It’s not the truth of it. An undertaking like constructing a novel is like building a cathedral of selfhood. It may never be completed. It may never be found all the way. It’s gigantic, it’s huge. It smothers you in your sleep.

The only way to survive is to plunge further into yourself. You need to dredge from the depths of identity the truth of the matter. It is a constant process. It shouldn’t be what plot plan am I going to follow? What structure suits this best? But rather, where am I going, and where have I been? That’s not to say you don’t need a map. Just know that all maps are unfinished things. Maybe architecture is the wrong allegory. Maybe it’s spelunking. Maybe it’s cave diving.

Maybe it’s you in the dark with a light made of words, fishing around in unexplored places. Everywhere you see bits of a mirror scattered into the shadowlands. It is yourself. Finding tiny bits of who you are in everything. That’s what makes a novel unique, important, worth reading. It is not the things you take from everywhere else, it is what you bring to it. How you build a new you out of words and phrases and paragraphs. How to construct a new you out of plots and structures and tombs. You may turn the cliche up and down. You may scavenge the works of others, and hold them up as shiny bits showing the parts of you that are savage echoes of identity.

That is what will take this work and make it spit and flicker and shine. Though the path is a rough path, I discovered. It does boil down to one thing, is it a true path? I guess so. Maybe. I’m not sure, there are still caverns down below I need to explore.

But that’s not to say there isn’t a fear here. With each construction and demolition, you wonder if this is it. The trajectory you had been on grows cool and distant. You think of all the possibilities you had let slide. Will you just become another shadow to be burned out in the dark? You look over a million Best Of books from decades ago, and realize you only recognize one or two names if any. All of these Best Of’s, all of these Amazing Writers are now gone. Footsteps in time. Metronomes lost and forgotten.

A heartbeat whispered in the dark. Do you want to be like that, lost and forgotten in the pages of some old book? Some book that will cry out and cough once and then disappear? What will be left of this all, after the dying and the dead make their way? How can I leave a mark in the dark if the lamps have been shattered?

There, a whisper again. Another new idea. Keep forging onward, keep forging inward. You need to keep going, I think that’s the truth of it. Stopping is the sickness. Stopping will never accomplish anything. Find excitement in the everyday. Avoid the annoying buzzes of the whispering flies of anxiety. Instead sacrifice all thought, push out all theory. Keep rushing forward to what only could be something…something…something.

Maybe a jigsaw of who I was in the moment of making. Piece it all back together. Keep the fire floating, the flames burning brightly. Don’t give into the panic fear of the Tent Pole books and movies and television shows. Don’t sit down and try to chase something else, something other, something they say you should chase. Stand tall with bleeding limbs and demand for something else. Something that no one knew was necessary, but there it was. Broken heart shaped puzzle pieces. Memories mapped and discarded.

Don’t let the world eat us empty and forgotten. That is for the dust and nothing else.

Nothing is more frustrating than words

Words words words damnit words. I’m in one of those moods, one of those foul moods where the words just won’t do as they’re told and instead of working together into nice sentences and paragraphs they are rebelling against me. They make messes on my page, and when I’m done with them I want to scream and throw my home laptop across the room and then maybe jump up and down on its glittering electronic insides.

Nothing will put me in a sour mood faster than when my writing isn’t taking off and singing beneath my fingers. When it’s klunky and stumbling, and everything just feels wrong. I hate that. I can’t stand it. I rewrite and rewrite and it’s still wrong. And I swear and howl and scream again and again.

I can’t seem to get those words to figure together just right. Bad jigsaw words. Terrible horrible sentences structures. After awhile sentences stop making any damned sense. How do commas work again? What is this word doing here? Why did I splice this and not split into two sentences? How many ands ands ands ands ands does this all have, does all of this have right now?

Words shouldn’t do this to me, but they do, right there, look at that. I find some perfect idea, that complete and pristine idea, and when I sit down and just start trying to type towards it shadows fall against the words. And then the words flicker, burn out, and become shadows themselves.

I tell myself to stop overthinking it, to stop rewriting it, to just let go and let it all form together. You can edit it later, just take out parts. And then I go and do that, and then that whole piece feels wooden. The writing is like cardboard characters cut out and waltzing around. It doesn’t make sense, none of this works.

I want to set the dictionary on fire and devour the ashes. Maybe then I can burn up those words in my throat and spit them out and they will be perfect words. Those words I’m looking for so much, digging down below the ground and pulling up. Maybe I need to just stop this and work on something else for a little while. Maybe. Maybe a million things.

But there are such good parts here, and when the writing works! Oh! When it works it sings! And you can see it singing! A lark, a nightingale, over in the corner of our world, singing so wonderfully. And I think to myself, yes, this is it. This is perfect.

There is no greater feeling then the writing works and everything feels right. It’s amazing. It doesn’t happen often, or even last when it does happen. Some of that shine rubs off, for certain. Buy the sheer joy of it all when it’s not a struggle? Oh, that is an amazing feeling. It’s like dancing with words on a page. You feel whole again.

Until that next time you find the struggles of the words again. And it becomes painful. Words like teeth pulled from your raw and bleeding gums. Bringing rage and pain and misery. The only way to stop it is to step away and read maybe, or work on something else.

But you know it’s waiting for you, right there, watching you as you sleep. It wants to pounce and devour you. Pushing you into the rage of all hours.

 

Candle, Heart, Key (what it means to be enchanted)

1. Doorways
When I was a kid growing up our house was at the top of a hill, our backyard was this grassy mound going up and up until it reached our house. In the side of the hill was a door, and that door led into the basement. I could still smell it now, that damp dark hollow world of a basement. The floor was mostly dirt, and it smelled of moldy old things, like books and mildew and the scent of the earth. I would play in that basement sometimes, thinking that this was a hole beneath the world that led into the world beneath the ground. A doorway into some primordial underworld right under my house.

I wasn’t scared, even though there was only one bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling. What I was scared of was the back of the basement, where there was another door leading to who knows where, a door I was never allowed to enter. Sometimes I swore I heard knockings and rumblings behind the door. Sometimes I would dream of the door opening and wake up in a cold sweat, and I never told my parents about these nightmares. When you are a child you always leave out the things that would frighten your parents. You know better.

I remember very clearly one time when I was really young, and maybe I think my brother was still young enough to be in a crib or my mom was still pregnant with him (so maybe I was two or three? I have a lot of memories from this point, from before my brother came into being…but those are for another time). I was in my room by myself and the closet door opened, and standing there was a shimmering blue woman. She was probably my mother’s age and she just walked up to me and told me not to be scared. I don’t remember what happened after that. Maybe it was a dream. It couldn’t possibly be real.

Yet, there it was, clear as day, real as a memory is real. Bright daylight, about noonish, maybe summer. My childhood closet door opening and she was just standing there, telling me not to be scared. And maybe I was. Maybe I wasn’t. I can’t remember.

2. The Deep Dark Woods
Living in a rural area, even one by a great lake, means to be surrounded by woods. Deep dark feral woods. The kind of woods that give rise to stories of witches and ragged homeless men sacrificing children, and maybe wolves as well as bears too. The number of stories about the woods were many, and we passed them back and forth like trading cards.

And yet, that never kept me out. I didn’t believe a word of them. The stories lacked truth, felt grim for the sake of being grim and didn’t feel really real at all. So I explored these woods on my own, without my friends or anyone else. I would wander off the path (that is, after all, where adventure happens), and would wander until I found ruins of houses covered in ivy and lost long ago to time. Sometimes it would just be just an outline of a basement in stone and nothing more. Parts of it would be a rank pond, filled with toads and greenish scum on the edges. But you would still see it, that outline of where a house would be. Other times I found the rust of what had once been a big oil rig of some sort, just metal tanks covered in vines. The once proud fences that surrounded it now torn apart and turned to rotted posts that could keep no one back.

I would climb those rust towers. Sometimes stairs would crumble as I’m walking up them and I wondered if I would fall and die alone and no one would find me. I would leap past the rotted parts then, and just hope the rest of it would still support me.

In some summers I would hear cicadas and I feared the noise, thinking of things chasing me. Giant insects with terrible wings making horrible sounds. I didn’t know what they were, or why it seemed it only happened every few years. But I would find traces of them, amber exoskeltons stuck to trees. I heeded these shells like a warning of things to come.

At other points in the woods I found a waterfall. And another time I found a horse farm nestled in the middle of nowhere and watched as the most beautiful girl fed the horses apples, and then rode away on horseback and I thought, was it real? Was this whole situation a real thing? Or had I witnessed something holy and ancient, forgotten gods from some lost world?

3. The Pines
Another place I loved to explore was out by my grandparents place, further out into the country. They had woods that rambled about and seemed to go on forever. I saw a few foxes out there once hunting a deer and I scared them off. A large portion of these woods were all pines, and my mom called it Narnia. She had loved going there as a kid, and Narnia was her favorite book.

I remember looking for Narnia in those pines. But I never felt the connection to Narnia that she had felt, so I wandered and wandered amongst the needles, always looking but never finding it. I saw magic there, yes, but the deep kind of magic. The kind of magic that turned the woods dark green through the needles on the trees. I guess Narnia was never a place I wanted to go to, so instead I found the magic in those trees that I was looking for instead. A personal kind of magic, that cuts to the bone.

In the summers we would go out at night, since their house was far away from any city lights, and watch the perseids shimmer and shatter down to earth. Millions of stars crumbling into the stratosphere. I remember my grandpa telling me that shooting stars used to be thought of as dragons. And I thought the sky was full of dragons. Millions of dragons plummeting to earth. In my childhood mind these were the dragon hearts that shined so brightly, and I wanted to go and find them. I dreamt that night of the pines, and how beneath the needles shined a million dragon hearts, all scattered along the ground, fallen to earth the night before. They flickered like fireflies.

 

4.Hidden Spells
I remember also writing a spell book in a tiny red notebook I got from Waldenbooks at the mall. Earlier that year I read Machen’s story The White People. And even though I found parts boring (I was like 8 or so) I got inspiration from that little girl’s diary  beyond the frame narrative of the story. And I wrote my own spellbook, based on the words I found there, like Troy Town and the Green Rituals, and all of that sort of stuff. At that age I didn’t realize the statue at the end was the Great God Pan, but I didn’t need to. What I saw in my mind’s eye was something else, something far stranger.

What I saw in my was a twisted, insane form made of broken marble and unreal geometry. When I was done writing my little spellbook I wandered through the woods by my house and buried it under a gnarled tree. The tree looked like a door to me, the way those roots reached and grabbed at the soil, the way the branches bent, and the way the trunk parted just so, almost just like a veil that you could pull apart.

Of course some part of me knew it wasn’t a door and that book of spells was just a book of crude handwritten gibberish of an eight year old. But I wanted it to be real. I wanted to visit those mysterious lands, the lands I dreamt about in tossing, aching sleep. I wanted the blue lady to open the door and tell me not to be scared and take me to other places, places I knew existed elsewhere. I used to sleepwalk at night until I was about six or seven. I would never know what I was doing or where I was going, but a few times I made it all the way out the front door, walking lost and teary eyed on the front lawn.

I’d like to think I was being led by that blue lady in my sleep, and she was taking me to somewhere else. But I can’t remember those dreams, not at all. But I knew those hidden places were real, I’d seen them, so many times.

They weren’ faraway, otherworlds, no. I knew these places existed alongside of us, hidden from our eyes but there, there. Unmapped even then, except by brave children who wandered those woods in fear of killer wolves but still writing down their own jangled map. A place here, right in front of us, just a little out of sight, just a little to the right of what we see, moving out of the corner of our eyes.

5. The Return
Years later, of course, decades upon decades later, and I go back and hope to walk those same paths. But they’re overgrown now. I tried getting through, but I would need a machete. Other parts are the same, almost, the woods claiming those rusted weary parts completely devouring them. That old house is now shattered and not even a basement anymore. Just trees and dirt and a pond and nothing more. Other places in the world seem to be fighting the natural world, but not here.

The natural world seems to be devouring all of those paths we had cut through it. Even the places we would wander, restless and without a compass except our own bones, even those were impassible now. They were covered in completely by vines and bushes and ragged angry weeds. Water sunk in some of paths and it is now more marsh than ground anyway. You would have to swim and swim, and maybe hold your breath for awhile. I saw bands of wild dogs wandering through there, probably discarded by careless owners, and thought it best not to try and retrace my steps.

So those places so strange and dear to me, that contained the veins of magic and mystery are now verboten to me. Yet, they still exist in the same way, deep inside. And I remember the times I would walk on the rails and see firefly flashes in the trees and it looked like lightning in a cloud.

 

6.Nostalgia
And this has me thinking about nostalgia for our youth, and how that word nostalgia is rooted in the Greek word for homesickness, and that sometimes we treat our childhood like a place. And other times, we make it manifest in some other place, some fantasy world we call into our own, and link it up with that same essence of childhood. The two become inseparable, connected together, entwined together in  a double helix dance.

I can see it in others, in their approach to Narnia, or Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. This feeling of childhood forever wrapped up into some other world, drawing them in and then they want, oh they want forever to be some chosen one called up into that blissful otherworld. That place that was more real than the real they lived through, and it becomes all combined and turned up and tortured together.

This feeling, I think, is different from the want to re-experience the things of our childhood and try in some way to re-experience childhood itself. I think it is especially so with things that connect to our own imaginations, and draw upon them in those childhood hours. For example, in books we don’t have the visual supplied for us, so we must supply it ourselves. And in doing so, we create aspects of it, making it ours in a way a movie or television show could not.

Another example is with toys, and the way as kids we build upon the worlds we visit in other mediums, and our own dimensions to it, maybe even almost supplying that same co-creation that exists within the written works. Another part of it, and I think perhaps the most potent in some forms, is a sense of community. This is fostered with others enjoying and sharing within this same world, so it becomes less private and personal and more of a shared experience (and therefor, being more real). This can be with toys on a playground, in a bookstore at a midnight launch party, or standing for hours in line trying to get tickets for a movie. The more obvious is conventions, but not everyone is so lucky to hit these meccas of fantastical frontier.

All of these aspects create some shared experience that can create a longing for that fictitious world. A real emotion with real consequences. This emotion goes from nostalgia for childhood itself to nostalgia as a homesickness for a place we’ve never been to before. A pining away for an unreal world, one that is tied into all of our experiences, that somehow define us for who we are. Yet, creates in us a rootless, wandering, empty hearted emotion.

7. That Labyrinth is not a Labyrinth
It’s like being cast out from Atlantis, torn from Faerie and left to wander nomad in the wastes of the modern world. We always look back, look back, into this place we’ve never been to. A place we wanted to be real more than anything else. A place we created, co-created, built from the empty forms of our still forming selves, in that primordial state of childhood.

I don’t quite grasp this feeling myself, yet I have it in my own way. I don’t long for some idyllic other world, wanting to be chosen from the slack masses and be set out to learn magic or maybe save a kingdom from winter or witchcraft. Some part of me wishes I could feel that, I look outside of that feeling with my own sense of longing, to understand, to be that much a part of something else that it defines and creates you, builds you up and makes you into who you are. It seems like a magical feeling that others have, and it creates a distinct connection with their childhood.

And yet, and yet. I guess I have my own wilds of the mind, my own wilderness of the imagination. Sometimes at night I still dream of those woods, that basement, the doors and doors and doors leading to dark hollows. I dream of that blue lady, at various points, and wonder if somehow that tree grew around my spellbook, and drank in its words into the roots. And maybe, the veils of the trunk parted, slowly, softly, and let me into the mossy darkness beyond. That was my hidden world, the world of my youth, just slightly off to the side of this world.

Maybe all these worlds are connected somehow. That this longing is a longing to a shared otherplace. Maybe we just create a space for childhood, a real existence with roots in the mind and roots in the soil.  Or maybe we’re all remembering the place before we were born, or will return to after we’re all dead and dust in the dirt. Maybe it’s really Faerie we’re looking for, maybe. If that’s the case we should turn around and not look back. Those stories never end well for forlorn travelers from distant lands, no, not at all.

Lean into the Weird (haunted by night doors)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Maybe something like this. Though not quite.

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.

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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.

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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.